Jeff Creamer on Chilean Wines

Jeff Creamer is wine director at TWO. He learned the trade working under Master Sommelier Larry Stone at Rubicon before becoming the wine director at Hawthorne Lane. This year Creamer helped owner David Gingrass guide that restaurant’s metamorphosis into TWO, reshaping the wine cellar into an eclectic collection of artisan wines and hard-to-find gems.

One of the most exciting things about being a sommelier is the never-ending search for great new wines. The wine world has undergone a tremendous revolution in the past twenty years, and every season sees an exciting new release. New discoveries come in many flavors, and while it’s always fun to taste world-class wines, my greatest pleasure comes from finding a great wine at a great value.

One of the countries that most embodies the ongoing wine revolution is Chile. For many years the wine industry of Chile was focused on large-production, bargain-priced wine designed to compete for space on the grocery shelves of Europe. The industry was modeled after Bordeaux, with huge estates producing huge quantities of wine from traditional Bordeaux grapes. There was no national identity, no attempt to make wines that were uniquely Chilean.

Over the last several years this situation has changed. A small group of artisan winemakers has begun to produce modern wines of high quality and distinct character. Fortunately for the wine lover, these wines are still available at the kind of affordable prices that made Chilean wines famous years ago, and are widely available in the Bay Area.

A particular Chilean specialty is Carmenere, a grape that was once planted in Bordeaux but is now unique to Chile. Some of the best producers have made a special effort to make world-class wines from this grape, and the results have been phenomenal. Look for De Martino and Apaltagua in particular.

A hallmark of the new Chile is the diversity of its vineyards, grape varieties, and producers. Kingston Family Vineyards specializes in Pinot Noir and Syrah in the cool climate of Casablanca Valley. They have employed Byron Kosuge from Saintsbury to make one of the first Chilean Pinots to stand up to New Zealand, Oregon, and California. In the warmer Maipo valley, Alvaro Espinoza makes fewer than 500 cases a year of his fantastic blends, Antiyal and Kuyen. And in the warmer still Colchagua valley, Vina Maquis makes intense, full-bodied wines that rival Argentina for intensity. And the list goes on.

The thing that these producers have in common is that they all sold their grapes to the large houses for many years, and have recently awoken to the possibilities of making their own wines. As other growers see the results, it is doubtless that the world will see more and more of these distinctive gems.

I said before that Chilean wines have a strong presence in the Bay Area, and indeed there are several options if you are inclined to try something new. Look for these wines at K&L Wine Merchants, PlumpJack Wines, the Ferry Building Wine Merchant, and the Jug Shop. I have no doubt you will find them as refreshing and exciting as I do.