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06.25.2008

2005 Veramonte "Primus" Red Wine, Casablanca Valley, Chile

primus_05.jpgIt's hard to believe that in the early 1990's less than 100 acres of vineyards were planted in Chile's Casablanca valley. In little more than two decades, this region of Chile has surged in growth and popularity, and is currently producing excellent wines that generally represent fantastic values on the world market. The region is currently home to more than 10,000 acres of vineyards.

Back when the grape acreage was still in the triple digits Agustin Huneeus decided that the Casablanca valley was one of Chile's most promising wine regions, and that he needed to start making wine there. Not surprisingly, the world took notice. Huneeus was not just any aspiring winemaker. Indeed, by 1990 Huneeus could lay claim to being one of Chile's first great modern wine pioneers.

In 1960 Agustin Huneeus entered the Chilean wine scene by becoming CEO and majority owner of Concha y Toro, the wine brand that would eventually put Chile on the wine map for the rest of the world. In 1971 the political climate in Chile became unstable and Huneeus left for the United States, where he took over the helm of the beverage giant Seagrams Worldwide for a time, as well as Franciscan winery in Napa. He went on to purchase the Quintessa winery in 1989.

The early 1990's were calmer times in Chile, and Huneeus was afforded the opportunity to spend more time in his home country exploring the continually expanding wine regions, including the Casablanca Valley. These explorations turned serious rather quickly, and before long Huneeus was the proprietor of a brand new Chilean winery called Veramonte.

Veramonte, by now, is a well established producer of quality Chilean wines, and a recognizable brand for anyone who strays into the global section of their wine shops, as well as those who have a thirst for reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc, of which Veramonte makes a seemingly never-ending supply.

Veramonte makes primarily single varietal wines with a sole exception: this wine called Primus. The story of this Bordeaux blend goes all the way back to Bordeaux in the 1800s, when a wave of French immigrants were setting off to the new world to try and make their fortunes. Being French, they weren't going anywhere without their wine, and knowing that they were headed to an unknown world, the only way to ensure that there would be wine there was to bring the vines to grow it themselves. So off they went to Chile with vines representing the best of Bordeaux packed in wet sawdust and paper. Only a couple of decades later these few samples and others like them would be some of the only vines that were not utterly destroyed by the Phylloxera epidemic that ravaged Europe's vineyards.

When Bordeaux got to replanting their vineyards, they did so carefully and methodically, but for some reason, they pretty much ignored one of the grape varieties that was originally common in their vineyards: a grape called Carmenere. To be fair, they also gave Malbec short shrift as well, and now Bordeaux is mostly Cabernet, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, while Chile has been trying desperately to turn Carmenere into its signature grape.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Carmenere isn't that special of a grape, and the single-varietal Carmeneres I've tasted haven't impressed me greatly. What Huneeus knew, however, and Chilean wineries are increasingly discovering, was that Carmenere is an excellent blending grape, and as part of blends that resemble the ancient wines of Bordeaux, it is beautifully expressive.

And that is why Veramonte's top wine is a blend of Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The best grapes from the top vineyard parcels are carefully sorted, destemmed, and fermented separately before blending and aging for 2 years in French Oak barrels, about 50% of which are new each year. The wine spends an additional year in bottle before release.

With the level of care, aging time, and the designation as the winery's top wine, not to mention a snazzy, heavy bottle, it's easy to imagine this wine as one of the more expensive Chilean wines around. Hell, it even tastes expensive. But I'm happy to say instead that it undeniably represents one of the best values in the wine world today.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose that would make even the most distracted wine taster immediately pay attention: perfumes of chocolate, cherry cordials, and vanilla waft from the glass. In the mouth the wine is beautifully balanced, with a polished feel on the tongue, and the flavors seem to burst in the mouth. Cherries, chocolate, and old wood paneling swirl in a storm of fine grained, dusty tannins and velvet texture. The wine's finish is long and has beautiful aromas of cocoa powder and confectioners sugar. Surprising, unique, and totally delicious.

Food Pairing:
This is a rich wine, though not one slaked in oak, so despite its brawn, it is quite food friendly. I'd love to drink it with some lightly spiced slow-cooked pork on crunchy bread.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $19

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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