Calgary (Virtual) Wine Life: Vina Chocalan Tasting with Fernando Espina

6 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Perhaps the only good thing about the state of our current COVID world is that you can still attend a wine tasting even if you miss it. Scheduling conflicts prevented our attendance at the recent portfolio tasting that winemaker Fernando Espina of Chile’s Vina Chocalan ran for key Canadian markets, but like everything else these days, the tasting was virtual, and thankfully for us it was recorded for posterity. A couple of days and a bottle delivery later, we were in business, and we were extremely thankful not to miss out on an introduction to a tremendously compelling winery honouring its maritime climate to the fullest extent.

Vina Chocalan is a multi-generational family winery that came into the wine business from a unique parallel industry. You hear a lot of stories about long-time grape farmers who finally take the next step with the fruits of their labour and try their hand at winemaking; you hear far fewer about people who instead come to wine from the glass in. Vina Chocalan’s Toro family owns the second biggest glass bottle factory in Chile and has supplied bottles to wineries around the world for six decades. In the late 1990s, they decided that they should put something in their own bottles themselves, and a grand project was born, focusing initially on the coastal western side of Chile’s Maipo Valley. While the Maipo is the heart of Chilean viticulture, in particular anchoring the nation’s red wine production, no one had planted a vineyard along the Valley’s Coastal Mountain Range until Vina Chocalan did so in 1998, planting 114 hectares out of a 350-hectare plot located a scant 35 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean ahead of their first commercial production in 2001. The next year, they took a step even further into the unknown, establishing a second estate and 25 hectares of white-focused plantings by the village of Malvilla in the San Antonio Valley, located almost due west from the Maipo and only FOUR kilometres from the Pacific. This extremely cool-climate site is a completely different expression of Chilean wine, and a reminder that the best wines nowadays are often made right at the edge of the line.

Hegemonic producer Concha y Toro, one of the 10 largest wineries in the world, might have had something to say about it if the Toro family had opted to name their nascent winery after themselves. They instead opted for their less-litigious moniker Vina Chocalan, which means “yellow blossoms”, after a prevalent local thorn bush flower in the vineyards. Our introduction to the winery came in the form of a half-dozen bottles ranging across both the Maipo and San Antonio estates, whites and reds that emphatically confirm this is a producer to know. Three bottles each, a new universe to explore. Buckle up.

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Wine Review: Winter Warmers, Part 1

23 02 2018

By Dan Steeves

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

The end of February is slowly approaching and we are less than a month away from the first day of spring. That means warmer weather is in our sights and we soon won’t have to deal with any more snow, right? That might be wishful thinking, but we can certainly hope it is the case! Until that warmer weather shows up and takes permanent residency in the prairies, we will need to keep staying warm and spending our evenings huddled around the fireplace with a nice glass of full-bodied red wine. Although I personally drink all types of wines all throughout the year (nobody should deprive themselves of rosé for months on end), there is no doubt that I enjoy more red wines over the cooler winter months, not only for the warming effects of a 15% ABV Cabernet Sauvignon, but also because we tend to eat more hearty full-flavoured comfort foods during this time and less light and refreshing fare.

To get you through the next month until you start seeing green on the ground, we have reviewed a few robust red wines that will be great at keeping you warm and satisfied until the spring flowers start blooming. We kick off this two-part series with reviews of great value reds from two regions known for their big red wines:  Bordeaux, France and the Colchagua Valley, Chile.

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International Sauvignon Blanc Day: 2016 Adobe Reserva Sauvignon Blanc

5 05 2017

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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International SB Day 2017!

I swear that not every future entry on this blog will begin with “Happy [Varietal-Specific Holiday] Day!”, but…Happy International Sauvignon Blanc Day!  Yes, there is an entire calendar of world wine days now, each concocted by various marketing geniuses, and as it turns out, a couple weeks after World Malbec Day and a scant four days before World Moscato Day comes a designated day to celebrate the safest grape to pick out of a strange new liquor store and the varietal that first introduced the vinous world to New Zealand, the consistent and omnipresent Sauvignon Blanc.  Unlike today’s grape of honour, I am not omnipresent, and as this piece posts I am actually going to be hanging out in Walla Walla drinking world-class Syrah; International SB Day falls on my birthday this year, and I am spending this spin-around-the-sun in my personal wine Mecca.  So the blog and I will celebrate simultaneously this year, albeit in different places and for different occasions. Read the rest of this entry »





Sub-$16 Red Throwdown: Old vs. New World

11 01 2017

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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Have you EVER seen a red wine bottle shaped like the one on the left?

The $15 bottle of wine is a vanishing category nowadays, and what you can actually get for that price may often make you wish you couldn’t.  A combination of the struggling Canadian dollar, increased liquor taxes and the inexorable power of inflation is slowly pushing up that minimum purchase threshold where you can expect to find decent quality…if you look hard enough amongst the oceans of double entendre-named or critter-adorned labels at that price point.  However, there are still a select few value crusaders scattered here and there in this cost category, from under-appreciated regions where production costs remain low and climatic abundance makes ripening easy.  I happened to have two such examples lying around, one from the Old World and one from the New, so what better way to make use of them than to have them battle to the death for my weeknight enjoyment?  Since the estimated retail price on each creeps barely over $15.00, we’ll play it safe and call to order the first ever Pop & Pour Sub-$16 Wine Challenge.

In this corner, from the Old World, comes a representative from arguably the most overlooked source of good, solid, inexpensive table wine:  Portugal. Read the rest of this entry »





2013 Emiliana Novas Gran Reserva Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon

13 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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Chile: home of Carmenere and inexpensive quality.

If you were starting up a wine venture today and were looking to maintain high quality but stretch your viticultural buck as far as possible, you would almost certainly go to Chile.  While braver souls are now starting to venture to the more extreme climatic and geographical parts of the country in search of cutting-edge lands and the flavour potency and complexity that can come with them, those who stick to Chile’s warm central valley find themselves in something close to a grape-grower’s paradise:  warm, mild, consistent growing seasons, refreshing cooling breezes at night off the surrounding mountains and a relative lack of vineyard pests.  Since the Southern Hemispheric nation is fairly segregated from the rest of the world’s vineyard (with its closest main viticultural neighbour, Argentina, walled off by the Andes), it has managed to keep itself free from the devastating vineyard louse phylloxera, which has ravaged vines almost everywhere else and has required the bulk of the world’s wineries to graft their vines onto resistant North American rootstocks to allow their crops to survive.

What does all that mean from a commercial perspective?  It means that you can have a vineyard with a lot of beneficial, normally highly costly or dangerous features — organic viticulture, no pesticides or herbicides, own-rooted vines — without the associated price tag or risk of crop loss.  That allows you to make bottles like this one, a single-vineyard wine from 25 year-old vines planted on their own rootstocks, farmed organically and then hand-harvested, and then sell it to export markets at a shade over $15 a bottle.  That combination of price and input quality is basically impossible in the majority of the wine world. Read the rest of this entry »





Return of The Mules: Torres Summer Values

12 06 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

It’s been so long since I sat down and wrote a straightforward normal wine review that I’m having trouble remembering how to start one.  Thankfully, I’m aided by an old PnP standby:  if they’re not there already, the Torres family of wines has to be close to the record for largest number of individual write-ups on this site, aided in part by their broad-based dual-continent operation and vast lineup but mostly by their consistent ability to deliver quality and identity for less than you’d expect.  I made the mistake last year of prejudging their “Las Mulas” line of entry-level Chilean wines by its lighthearted name and beast of burden on the label, only to be reminded by the emphatically delicious Las Mulas Rose that Torres takes all its wines seriously.  This year, with the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Las Mulas brand, I will not make the same error twice.

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The wines for Las Mulas come from Chile’s warm, flat and fertile Central Valley, where the benign climate and the absence of most common vine diseases make it the country’s most productive and most popular grape-growing region.  This can be both a good thing and a bad thing:  obviously getting your crop to ripen without heroic efforts is a benefit, but wine grapes specifically tend to derive much of their flavour concentration and character from having to struggle a bit to grow, and when they’re deprived of that opportunity to strive the results in the glass can be flat and uninteresting.  To combat the Central Valley’s generosity, Torres planted the Las Mulas grapes on nutrient-poor soils and entirely avoided the use of herbicides or pesticides (the vineyard sites are certified organic).  The vineyards are wholly hand-harvested, with nary a machine in sight, making this New World wine done in old school ways…yet somehow still hovering around the $15 CAD mark on the shelf.  Each of the offerings below cleared by (pre-primed) expectations for that price point with ease. Read the rest of this entry »





The Great Coravin Test, Part 5: Six Months Later

26 01 2016

To catch you up on the epic journey that is concluding with this post:

  • I got to borrow a Coravin back in July (Part 1)
  • I accessed three awesome bottles with it and wrote tasting notes (Part 2)
  • I checked back on them two weeks later to see how they were doing (Part 3)
  • I dove into some cellar treasures and gave some final Coravin thoughts (Part 4)
  • I promised to come back to my three test bottles one last time…in half a year.

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Take 5. One last time.

How time flies.  Suddenly it’s six months from the week of my original Coravin tasting write-up and I owe this story an epilogue.  After seeing this trio of my bottles front and centre in my cellar on a daily basis and accessing them multiple times through the Coravin needle, I actually felt sort of bad cutting off the foils and pulling the corks out of them like they were any old weeknight wines.  But science does not wilt for sentiment, and I had a job to do.

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Torres New/Old World Value Duet

8 09 2015

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

New/Old World.  Pink/red.  Value/value.

New/Old World. Pink/red. Value/value.

Over the past couple years, Torres has become my Old Reliable, the brand that never lets me down regardless which sub-$20 value offering I’m trying, regardless where in the world it’s from, and regardless of my level of expectation or uncertainty going in.  It has now been named the World’s Most Admired Wine Brand for two years running by Drinks International (to get a sense of that accomplishment, others in the top 15 this year include Vega Sicilia, Chateau d’Yquem, Ridge, the First Growth Chateaux Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion, and Tignanello), and it succeeds without a multi-hundred-dollar wine on its resume and with wineries on three separate continents, focused on marrying high quality with affordable pricing wherever it goes.  That combination is not easy to achieve, but Torres makes it look routine.  I had a chance to toast the end of summer amidst the weekend snow in Calgary with two QPR (quality-to-price-ratio) gems from the Torres portfolio, one from the New World and one from the Old, each crafted with the same evident care and attention. Read the rest of this entry »





The Great Coravin Test, Part 2: Initial Tasting Report

23 07 2015

The journey continues.

The journey continues.

If you missed Part 1 of this soon-to-be-epic tale, wherein I got a Coravin to borrow and figured out how to use it, you can click here to get caught up.  This post will set the control for my test of the Coravin’s wine-preserving prowess, documenting my initial tasting impressions of three different bottles that I was provided along with the device so that I could give it a spin:  one white, one lighter red and one fuller red.  I actually tasted these last Friday, July 17th, so that’s the point from which the preservation clock starts ticking.  I will taste them all again in a couple of weeks and report back, and then again in a few months to see just how far the magic of the Coravin can stretch.  Word of warning if you ever try this yourself:  when you have a tool that lets you taste as many wines and access as many bottles as you want in a night without pulling a cork, you end up drinking a LOT of wine.  Duly noted.  On to the wines — be sure to check back in two weeks to see how they’re doing!

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Wine Review: 2012 Miguel Torres Santa Digna Brut Estelado Rose

9 02 2015

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

From Chile, with love.

From Chile, with love.

Whatever your opinion is on Valentine’s Day, it has had a highly valuable (and surely unintended) side effect on the wine industry:  for one lone day a year, it has shone the spotlight brightly on pink wine.  Rose wines continue to be misunderstood, undervalued, unfairly derided and almost absurdly underrated, so I will happily sing the praises of any day that brings the world’s attention to them ever so briefly, even if it’s a Hallmark-created one.  And if you’re going to grab a pink wine to celebrate February 14th with your true love (and after all the effort I put into the last two sentences, you’d better), I humbly suggest it should be this one, whose flavours are matched equally by its story…and its price.

Miguel Torres is one of Spain’s largest and best regarded wine empires, still entirely family-run after 5 generations.  Torres brands show up in all of Spain’s top wine regions, but the family is also highly prevalent in Chile, where current CEO Miguel Torres Maczassek lived for three years starting in 2009 to head up operations.  Despite being a European, international company, Torres is passionately devoted to telling a local story with each of its labels, and Torres Maczassek himself has a clear love for Chile that shows through when you talk to him and is reflected in his wines.

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Wine Review: 2011 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere

19 11 2014

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

If someone made a movie about the story of Carmenere, I would watch it.

If someone made a movie about the story of Carmenere, I would watch it.

The story of Carmenere is one of my favourite stories in all of wine.  It starts, as many wine stories do, in France, where centuries ago Carmenere was one of the six varietals used to make red Bordeaux, along with Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.  As French explorers set out to claim and colonize new territories outside of Europe, they often brought plantings of their national vines with them, introducing these grapes to foreign soils.  It turns out they were lucky they did, because when the phylloxera louse decimated the vineyards of Europe in the mid-19th century, it wiped out Carmenere in Bordeaux completely — today, there are only five red Bordeaux varietals.  Everyone thought that Carmenere had been tragically lost forever…and then it randomly showed up in Chile over a hundred years later.

On November 24th, 1994, the French ampelographer (actual meaning: one who identifies and classifies grapevines) Jean Michel Boursiquot was paying a visit to the Carmen vineyards in Chile when he noticed that the Merlot growing there wasn’t actually Merlot at all, but Carmenere.  The lost grape of Bordeaux had been growing in the Southern Hemisphere for more than century, but due to its vines’ and grapes’ uncanny resemblance to those of its Bordeaux cousin Merlot, everyone assumed it was the latter, particularly given the general understanding that Carmenere no longer existed.  This led to some extensive (and confusing) cross-planting of vineyards that proved extremely difficult to unwind.  Boursiquot’s epic discovery was a boon to world viticulture, and it gave Chile what it needed most at the end of the 20th century:  a wine identity, forged in what is now proudly recognized as the country’s national grape.  It was also a big help to the resulting wines:  Carmenere ripens weeks later than Merlot, and if picked early (due to mistaken identity) it can exhibit strong, and generally unpleasant, green pepper flavours. Read the rest of this entry »








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