Friday, February 11, 2011

Chilly In The Valley, Chile On The Beach

Here's some hopefully helpful advice for wine-loving snowbirds about to break from this year's brutal winter in the United States for a little sunshine and warmth on the beaches of Los Cabos at the southern reaches of the Baja peninsula:

- As far as I know, you won't have to be surprised and disappointed by this bright barricade, which appeared over the weekend across the usually wide-open wine department of the San Jose del Cabo supermarket Mega, hugely popular among visitors nesting at nearby time-shares, resorts and condos. This barricade, and others like it at other markets in the area, announced that an election was under way and that no alcoholic beverages were to be sold through the weekend. By Monday, business was back to normal.

- Get ready to enjoy wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain. That's easy to do on three counts: They dominate the Los Cabos market, they are the most reasonably priced, and almost without exception they are well made, offering varietal character without a whole lot of heavy baggage, such as oak, tannin and alcohol.

- Yes, you also can find Australian, Italian, German, French and even Californian wine hereabouts, but the selection is thin, the quality uneven, and some of the vintages curiously outdated. Broadly speaking, they also tend to be markedly more expensive than South American and Spanish imports.

- As to Mexican wine, most of which originates from the Ensenada area at the northern reaches of the Baja peninsula, it's readily available and worthy of exploring if you are an adventurous wine enthusiast. Because of Mexico's counter-productive taxation policies, coupled with shipping costs, Mexican wines tend to be more pricey than the quality generally justifies. Nevertheless, reliable everyday brands in the $15 to $20 range are L.A. Cetto and Monte Xanic. But if you are on vacation, and willing to spend $30 to $60 or more for a bottle of wine, look for a grenache, petite sirah, tempranillo or other warm-climate varietal by such producers as Casa de Piedra, Adobe Guadalupe, Vinedos Malagon, Vinisterra or Roganto.

- Stock up as soon as you get here; the peso is rising that fast in value as the U.S. dollar continues to shrivel and crack like a tortilla left in the afternoon sun.

- After a month in San Jose del Cabo, during which our wine purchases rarely exceeded $12 a bottle, here's the most interesting releases we've found; several also are likely available in California, though prices will vary a bit in one direction or the other:

- Secreto de Viu Manent 2010 Valle de Casablanca Chile Sauvignon Blanc (143 pesos, or about $12 in U.S. currency, at the Costco in Cabo San Lucas): The sort of zesty white wine you want to accompany that dorado you just hauled out of the Gulf of California. As lean, fresh and assertive as sauvignon blancs out of New Zealand, with a similar flavor profile - grapefruit, grass, lime, spice.

- Finca El Origen 2009 Valle de Cafayate Salta Province Argentina Reserva Torrontes (lost my receipt, but the wine commonly sells for around $11 in the U.S.): A varietal rising fast in popularity in the United States, though still largely undiscovered, torrontes at its best is a wine highly aromatic and intensely flavorful. The first sip of this one evoked associations to gewurztraminer in its floral smell, fruity flavor, spicy highlights and viscous texture. It's unusually rich for a white wine, and isn't without a touch of bitterness in the finish. Definitely an acquired taste. And best served with food, like the Thai chicken dish with which we paired it; it's got the body and sweet fruit to stand up to coconut milk, jalapeno peppers, ginger, basil and garlic.

- Del Pedregal 2008 Valle de Loncomilla Chile Reserva Privada Chardonnay (136 pesos, or around $11 in U.S. currency, at the supermarket Tiendas Chedraui in Cabo San Lucas): Not my favorite style of chardonnay in its denseness and oak, but the timber nevertheless doesn't entirely overwhelm the wine's refreshing citric fruit. It's also dry and a touch spicy, with a luscious texture not often encountered in chardonnays at this price.

- Miguel Torres 2008 Santa Digna Valle Central Chile Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (125 pesos, or around $10.50 in U.S. currency, at the supermarket Tiendas Chedraui in Cabo San Lucas): Don't be intimidated by the color. Yes, it's dense, but on the palate the wine is readily drinkable, not at all brash or raggedly tannic. It's lively with Bing-cherry fruit, a few herbal notes, a kiss of spice, and a whiff of smoke. This is one of those rare cabernets where the price doesn't at all suggest the complexity that awaits the buyer.

- Bodegas Ateca 2008 Calatayud Garnacha de Fuego (74 pesos, or about $6 U.S., at Costco): By far, the best buy so far during this sojurn. The wine is leanly structured but layered with focused red-fruit flavors, prickly spice and a faint suggestion of chalk dust. The grapes were from vines 80 to 100 years old. Commonly sells for $7 or $8 in the U.S., though it's been listed as high as $16 in southern California. Robert Parker annointed this wine and this vintage with 89 points, which is high praise for such a modestly priced release.

- Circus 2007 Mendoza Argentina Malbec (169 pesos, or about $14, at Tiendas Chedraui): In its elegance, suppleness, balance and most of all the depth, clarity and refreshing tanginess of its blackberry fruit, this wine shows clearly why malbec is the varietal most responsible for Argentina's rise as a fine-wine region. I actually bought this wine about a year ago, but on my next trek to Cabo San Lucas I'll be stopping by Tiendas Chedraui to see if a more recent vintage is in stock; almost certainly the 2007 is long gone.

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