Costa Rica wine culture matures, selection expands
Just a decade ago, wine suppliers in Costa Rica were limited to a few supermarkets and importers offering a small choice of mostly Chilean wines, a few from Argentina, and fewer from Europe and the U.S., while South Africa, New Zealand and Australia vineyards were just names on the horizon. But a lot can happen in 10 years, and today the range of available labels, wineries, grape varietals, quality and price is astonishing, with distributors and retail outlets supplying hotels, restaurants and individual clients.
It seems Costa Rica’s enological palate has matured into a sophisticated and discerning market. Purchasing habits still focus on immediate consumption, for a party, dinner or gift for friends. David Murillo of Vinum La Enoteca, in the western San José suburb of Escazú, says he sees a younger crowd coming into the wine shop, with 95 percent of sales for wines to be drunk straight away. However, the remaining 5 percent are keen collectors who lay down young vintages as part of their overall interest and passion for wines.
For professional sommelier Randall Calderón at Alpiste wine distributor in Guachipelín de Escazú, the best buyers fall into the 35-plus age group; they have some knowledge of wines and tend to choose the traditional Riojas, Toscanas and Chiantis where price is not a major factor. However, Calderón says he is also seeing a group of younger consumers in the 25-to-35 age range who are experimenting with cheaper, less complex wines at first, and then starting to delve more into less well-known vineyards and pricier reserve vintages or grand crus.
Calderón says he doesn’t see the growth in wine sales as purely Tico-driven.
“Just because wine sales have increased dramatically in Costa Rica doesn’t necessarily mean more Ticos are drinking wine,” he says. “I would say at least 50 percent of wines are distributed to the tourism industry.”
Where is the best place to buy wines? The Central Valley is very well covered with supermarkets, specialist wine shops and commercial distributors. Outlets are also appearing throughout the rest of the country, and several companies in San José offer online purchases with delivery.
Saretto supermarket (2228-0247) in San Rafael de Escazú has long been the preferred haunt among expats looking for a decent selection of wines at good prices. Marcos Candia has been in charge of Saretto’s wine and liquor department for 24 years and is happy to advise customers about what’s on the shelves. Most sales are of wines from Chile and Argentina, followed by Spain, he says. French wines are falling off with the poor euro exchange rate and overall price increases at the source, he adds. Saretto offers a huge choice, from economic boxed wines to some respectable vintages, although one wonders how well the “bigger” wines survive not being kept in temperature-controlled storage.
Upscale Auto Mercado (www.automercado.co.cr) covers most wine-growing regions in stores throughout the Central Valley and in the Pacific coast towns of Playas del Coco, Tamarindo and Herradura. Walmart stores, including Más x Menos and Maxibodega, often have excellent deals, though selection may be limited.
All the below companies sell retail or wholesale, often with decent discounted prices off a minimum purchase with free delivery in the Central Valley.
Alpiste (Guachipelín de Escazú, next to Blue Valley School, 2215-3332, www.alpiste.co.cr), an Italian importer founded in 1976, mainly covers wines from Italy, Chile, Argentina and Spain. In-house professional sommelier Randall Calderón, certified by the Argentine School of Sommeliers, will advise clients visiting the salesroom. The wide selection includes half-bottles and magnums, organic wines from Italy, U.S. cooking wines and a new limited-edition Spanish light Valduero wine (only 9 percent alcohol and 50 calories per glass). The company often offers two-for-one sales not advertised online, so try to visit. Online purchases of over $80 include free delivery in the Central Valley.
Cava en Casa (La Ribera de Belén, 8377-8511, www.cavaencasa.com) offers online sales only, with delivery included. This company has a sizeable 450-label list of wines from Italy, New Zealand, Argentina, California, Chile and Spain. Membership to its Wine Club includes gift bottles with technical notes on each and discounts on purchases.
French Paradox (San José, 2215-0539, www.frenchparadox.co.cr) offers online sales of French AOC Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais and champagne, with a few Chilean and Argentine labels. The website offers informative articles in English about pairing wine with food, how to store and serve wine, and tips on laying down wines. It offers an easy-to-follow sales sheet and price list.
Delika (off Santa Ana-Belén road, Ofibodegas del Oeste, 2239-1019, www.delika.cr), a distributor of imported gourmet products and wines, was founded in 2003 by Jürgen Mormels, proprietor of the respected Jürgen’s Restaurant in eastern San José. Sommelier Andrés Mazuera says most of Delika’s wines are not found in supermarkets, especially the premium vintages and grand crus, which are kept in temperature-controlled chambers. Stocking wines from Chile, Argentina, France (Saint-Émilion) and California, clients can buy directly at the store or phone in orders for delivery. Become a Facebook fan (facebook.com/delikacr) for the latest promotions and details of free courses on selecting vintages or pairing wines with food.
Grupo Pampa (Flexi Park, off Santa Ana-Belén road, 2293-0101, www.grupopampa.co.cr), possibly the country’s biggest wholesale wine importer and liquor distributor, offers more than 282 wines, champagnes, fortifieds and ciders, and will soon have online purchases. The company also sells fine Stölzle-Oberglas glassware. A comprehensive PDF download lists wines from all regions, with some unusual names such as the Don Pascal label from Uruguay and ice wine from Canada. The website is easy to navigate, with prices listed per bottle and per case. The company also offers a wide range of gift packages and temperature-controlled storage cabinets.
HÅ&COM (Llorente de Tibás, 1 km east of La Nación, 2297-1005; and Plaza Solarium, Guanacaste, opposite Liberia airport, 2668-1250, www.haycom.co.cr), formerly Holtermann, offers more than 450 wines from all regions, with some limited grand cru vintages, at its Bodega05 showroom. Online sales with delivery are available. Bodega05 also offers wine seminars on topics such as wine service, food pairings and wines from around the world.
Distribuidora Isleña (Barreal de Heredia, 2293-0609, www.distribuidoraislena.com) offers wholesale and retail sales with a smallish list of vintages from France, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, the U.S. and Chile.
Specialist Retail Outlets
Cabernet Wine Shop (Curridabat, La Carpintera commercial center, old road to Tres Ríos, 2271-3270, www.cabernetshop.com) recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and sells about 650 wines from Chile, Spain, Australia and Argentina, as well as wineglasses, storage cabinets and books. It can also supply wines and provide glasses on loan for weddings or events.
Vinum La Enoteca (Escazú, Plaza Los Laureles, old road to Santa Ana, 2289-5917, www.vinumlaenoteca.com) offers wine-of-the-month promotions and delivery of online purchases anywhere in the country through DHL, as well as cavas, glasses and other accessories and online articles. It also organizes events and wine courses. Free membership to Club Vinum La Cofradía comes with notices of promotions and wine tastings or courses. The Club de Vinos ($65 per month) membership comes with one Old World and one New World wine per month, with a complete guide on each vintage and discounts on purchases.
Upscale restaurants are keen to advise customers on which wines pair best with their chosen meals. Occasionally, you wonder if the wine waiter is just pushing a more expensive label, rather than honestly guiding you through the wine list.
Several places now have a sommelier to help out with expertise and experience in both wines and food. A particularly innovative option has been introduced for diners with smartphones. The Muse restaurant in the Beacon hotel in Escazú Centro (www.mybeaconescazu.com) has teamed with French wine importer French Paradox to offer a small app, iTagCode, that allows diners to access details about any wine on the list by phone-scanning each label’s bar code. This virtual sommelier recommends a bottle to go with your meal – just the thing for gourmet gadget geeks.
Club de Catadores
This wine tasting club (2286-3815, www.intergourmetcostarica.com) was founded in 2005 to promote wine culture in Costa Rica with tastings, talks on pairing food with wine, and wine dinners. Membership of $100 (Blend) or $250 (Platinum) includes bottles of wine, discounts at partner businesses, invitations for club visits to restaurants, tours and promotional events, and a newsletter.
Wine buffs can splurge at the 2011 ExpoVino Costa Rica, set for Oct. 27 and 28 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Real InterContinental Hotel in the western San José suburb of Escazú. Admission costs $35 per day or $50 for both days and includes a wineglass, glass holder, tastings at the different stands and a directory of importers and distributors. For information, go to www.expovinocr.com.
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