Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wine by the Glass: a Chilean Novelty

Chile is rightly known for its wines but, for visitors, those wines are not always so easy to find. To be sure, there are established wine routes in the Valle de Casablanca, Colchagua, Maule and other areas, but to find those same wines even in Santiago, much less elsewhere in the country, can be an effort. Many of the most innovative producers export upwards of 90 percent of their output, and the biggest wineries such as Concha y Toro and Errázuriz dominate the domestic market.

That’s not to denigrate producers such as Concha y Toro and Errázuriz, which produces some truly fine wines, but it can be hard to find anything else except at a few small specialized wine shops and elite restaurants. It’s even harder to find wine by the glass - Chilean restaurateurs seem to fear that, if they open a bottle of wine for a customer to sample, nobody else would even consider even touching it and, in a week or so, they’ll have to pour it down the sink.

Writing guidebooks as I do, I experience this a lot - part of my job is to eat in restaurants and, because I’m working in places where I don’t always know someone, I often dine alone. I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, but in Chile that can be problematical because I can’t drink an entire bottle and often the only alternative is the botellín - a tiny bottle equivalent to a glass-plus (pictured above alongside a full-sized bottle). Usually it’s Santa Rita’s Carmen Margaux, a Cabernet that’s a passable table wine at home, but not what you want when dining out. There’s a somewhat bigger selection in half-bottles, but even those are less than the best, and smaller bodegas are still shut out.

That may be changing slowly, however. The leader in this change may be Baco, a bistro-style restaurant and wine bar in the Santiago borough of Providencia, where I had dinner last week. Set back from a busy two-lane street, it offers a mostly Francophile menu that’s not a personal preference (though I liked the bread) - I chose gnocchi for my main dish - but the selection of wines by the glass more than compensated. In the tobacco-free main dining room, which includes a semi-circular bar and polished natural wood details, a chalkboard displays the day’s choices from both major and minor producers; on this warm evening, I first refreshed myself with a cool Anakena Viognier 2009 and then enjoyed a Gillmore Cabernet Franc 2006 with my entrée. Each glass of wine bears a circular label around the base so that you don’t forget what you’re drinking.

Beyond the main dining room - which plays an oddly eclectic selection of music at a volume that does not disrupt conversation - there’s a secluded patio that’s also accessible from the parallel street to the east (where it has a small retail outlet selling the same wines it serves in the bistro). The patio, though attractive and sheltered, is the de facto property of smokers.

Meanwhile, one of the country biggest producers has expanded its operations to Santiago proper: Miguel Torres, the Spanish company that has long operated a restaurant at its Curicó winery, now also operates the Restaurant Miguel Torres on the Isidora de Goyenechea restaurant row in Las Condes, called the “Sanhattan” of Santiago for its high-rise office buildings and apartments (nearly all of which withstood the February 27 earthquake with barely a scratch). For 7400 pesos (about $15), their midday Spanish-Mediterranean special includes a choice of appetizers (in my case, a sort of cucumber gazpacho), main dishes (I chose plateada, a braised beef brisket), and desserts (a blueberry cheesecake). Miguel Torres also offers reasonably priced wine by the glass though, in this case, it’s limited to their own winery. On balance, I liked the food better here, but would have appreciated a selection of wines from other bodegas.

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