The New Chile 

Tasting Chilean wines from Amayna & Merino at Finca

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Last week, in its new downtown Salt Lake City location at 327 W. 200 South, Finca restaurant hosted an exceptional wine dinner. In attendance were two of Chile's new wave of winemakers: Matias Garcés Silva and René Merino, representing Amayna and Merino wineries, respectively. It was an eye-opener.

Chilean winemaking and viticulture dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish colonists introduced grape vines from their native country into the New World, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère. To this day, those tend to be the wines that are most commonly produced in Chile, along with warm-climate varietals like Sauvignon Blanc.

But the highlights of this particular wine dinner were cool-climate Chilean wine varietals of the type you'd expect to find from, say, Burgundy: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It's evidence of the wide range of microclimates that reside in Chile, as well as the adventurous nature of at least two of its winemakers.

The evening began with cod croquettes and grapefruit "salsa" paired with Amayna Barrel Fermented 2009 Sauvignon Blanc ($27.66). According to Silva, the wine spends a minimum of 12 months in new French oak barrels. The wine is smoky with mandarin-orange and pear flavors, and rich in body. It stands in stark contrast to Amayna's unoaked Sauvignon Blanc ($19.95), a wine with nice minerality and salinity that's a slam-dunk for pairing with shellfish, especially oysters on the half shell. I really like both iterations of Amayna Sauvignon Blanc.

The next Finca dinner course featured a friendly face-off between the two winemakers' Chardonnays, paired with a mussel-dish duo of mussels escabeche with fennel jelly, apple and cucumber versus steamed mussels with Meyer lemon, parsley and toasted rustic bread. The Merino 2012 Chardonnay ($11) from Chile's Limarí Valley is aged half in oak and half in steel tanks. It's an interesting Chardonnay that drinks a little like Sauvignon Blanc and has lively acidity, yet is complex on the palate with flavors of tangerine, apples and lemon. I noticed that it got more interesting and complicated the longer it was exposed to air in the glass.

Silva says that his Amayna Chardonnay ($22.13) is made with "passion, passion and passion." And indeed, both Silva and Merino are passionate about their wines, though they're both relatively new to winemaking.

Amayna was launched in 2002, named for a word that loosely translates as "the calm before the storm." It describes the "ominous, yet peaceful" feeling of being a mere seven miles from the Pacific, which is where the Amayna vineyards are located, in an area that's more akin to Sonoma than what many might think of Chilean wine country.

Merino's wines are even newer; his first vintage is the current one: 2012. Prior to launching his winery, he served two terms as president of Wines of Chile, from 2007 to 2011.

A stunning dish from Finca Executive Chef Phelix Gardner was gorgeous breast of squab with sobrassada, mushrooms and huckleberry sauce. It was paired with Amayna Pinot Noir 2011, Leyda Valley ($27.95), which had bitter cherry and black-currant flavors, a hint of smokiness and that signature Amayna minerality. It was a beautiful pairing.

The final course—a complex, rich paella of housemade blood sausage, snails, lamb, winter vegetables and olive relish—was accompanied by Merino 2012 Syrah, Limarí Valley ($18). It's 95 percentSyrah and 5 percent Viognier, the latter of which gives the dark, deep, brooding wine some light, floral aromas. It's a meaty, earthy wine that proved a worthy foil for the deep, rich flavors of Gardner's paella.

For anyone wanting a glimpse into the future of Chilean winemaking, I urge you to track down the intriguing wines from Amayna and Merino.

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