Santiago, Chile. It's exciting, textural and mysteriously sexy. Distinctly European, with heavy Northern American influence, it's one of those big cities that can be compacted into a CBD with a number of different and interesting 'barrios' or neighbourhoods.
Barrio Italia spawns off 'Avenida Italia' (Italy Avenue), where one can find designer furniture shops, craft and garden stores and cheeky boutiques with architecture to match - for example.
Around the corner from Santiago's ritzy 'The Singular' hotel and the Centre for Contemporary Art, you'll find artists and jewellers sporting their wares and a smattering of people looking for somewhere to satisfy their desires. Our destination was Bocanariz, Santiago's most awarded wine bar.
Enter Bocanariz and you are greeted with a meeting of old and new in a modernised industrial design sense. Timber, steel and stone with white washed walls welcome you to the bar area, with high tables, plenty of natural light and a soundtrack of the chatter of people discussing their lives, their food and their wine, all across a refreshingly funky playlist. You can tell that this venue has been thought about; it's practical and oh so inviting.
What's the first thing we all do in a new eatery or drinking hole? Glance around at other tables of course. My first glimpse caught a number of small wine servings on a table nearby; a business lunch meeting. Mixed in with the empty plates and half empty bottles, two of the suits were enjoying what seemed to be some sort of wine flight. Within seconds, our sommelier Andrea introduced herself and she invited us to look at the menu and the wine list of course. Whilst an option was there per head for a set menu with wines, we decided against it and explained our intrigue to Andrea and our desire for some seafood - one of Chile's culinary delights. We opted for oysters and ceviche and Andrea explained their wine menu in greater depth. [As a lover of the match between wine and food, a menu in such a wine bar is overwhelming. There are 350 bottles to choose from, with varietals I hadn't seen before. In this instance, I like to take cues from staff, rather than poke blindly in the dark.] Andrea explained that for every wine available by the glass, you could also order a 'taste' (50ml) as a way of encouraging punters to maximise their experience and compare different wines, similar wines etc.
First of all, the oysters were divine and the ceviche was the best we'd ever tasted. Flavours of lime, avocado, and fresh red onion with chunks of super fresh fish. The benefits of sampling various wines at this point was really clear. For example, comparing two Sauvignon Blancs from different wineries, valleys, different altitudes and different terroir. This set the trend for the rest of the meal. The tasting notes below are exactly what I wrote at the time. As we undertook our first course, a quick glance at the table and Andrea had delivered more of their house baked and toasted sourdough to mop up the remainder of the ceviche.
A quick debrief and with the help of Andrea, we selected a second round of food. Warmed mozzarella, deer carpaccio and mushroom carpaccio. We tried to keep the food on the fresher side, having spent the last week in Peru avoiding anything that wasn't boiled, roasted or cooked in some way to avoid a South American slant on 'Bali-belly'.
As far as Chilean wines go, I was already excited about Chile's take on white wines (having a large coastal proximity), Cabernet, Shiraz but I was definitely less acquainted with Carmenere and Carignan, the latter having been confused as Chilean Merlot for a quite a while. Both of these varietals are intensely fruited, excitingly complex with generous tannins. However, our favourite red of the day was Tipaume, a blend of 60% Carménère, 30% Cabernet sauvignon, 4% Merlot, 3% Lacrima Cristi, 2% Viognier, 1% Malbec and heralds from Valle del Alto Cachapoal, 120km south of Santiago.
Yet again, Andrea's wine suggestions and food suggestions were absolutely bang on. The mozzarella dish arrived simply, fresh and in a bowl with baby basil leaves. A warmed tomato sugo with a silky sweetness was poured into the dish and flowed around the cheese like a moat around a castle. The contrasting carpaccio dishes (one vegetarian, one clearly not) were both divine. The mushroom version was honest and delicious, with orange and lemon juice, pecorino and almond slivers, chives and salt and pepper. The deer was rich, but pleasantly so - crusted with salt, pepper and brown sugar for contrast, but the pepper was king.
We respectfully declined on dessert but ordered a cheese platter instead, still going with our second glass of the Tipaume (of which we bought two bottles after paying, walking a few blocks and then returning like lost children..)
The entire experience was really, really good. Like, really good. Expert advice from really knowledgable and hospitable sommeliers who cared about their diners and some of the best food and wine we'd both had for a good while. We couldn't fault anything, not even the price - which for Australians worked favourably after the exchange rate. We were two very happy travellers.
To let you in on another secret, we returned a couple of days later and dined in the evening. This time, we wanted to explore a bottle, so we were suggested Orzada 2016 Carignan. A carousel of mixed berries crusading in blue hues and faint oak spice. Sweet fruit, mostly blue, punctuated with a wide exploding star acidity. It gets better, our sommelier Bruno (who we found out was Andreas other half!) let us explore the cellar downstairs. Creeping past dining guests with frowns of disapproval, we clambered down the stairs into a 3x2 metre room, stacked with bottles.