A country known for decent, inexpensive wine is combining winemaking talent and financial committment to develop a unique style.
Chile has been known for years as a source of easy-drinking varietal wines at very reasonable prices, and a recent Wine Spectator tasting confirmed the truth of its reputation. We also discoveredthat Chile is developing its own unique style, with wines that are refreshing, balanced and great with food.
If you’re shopping for wines under $10, Chile delivers the goods. Wine Spectator editors in New York tasted 141 reds and whites from Chile and found 16 Best Buys. In fact, only 15 wines cost over $10; Chilean producers are intent on maintaining their value status. Very few wines were frankly disappointing; it’s hard to go wrong in Chile.
We found very good wines (rated 85-89 on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale) among all the Big Four varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Concha y Toro and Santa Rita, Chile’s two largest wineries, offered reliable value throughout their widely available ranges. And smaller estates, such as Carmen (owned by Santa Rita) and Casa Lapostolle (a new Chilean-French joint venture) are leading the way to new peaks in quality.
Best of all, the best of Chile’s wines are coalescing into a coherent national style. Its focus is on fruit flavor, but with an elegance that other fruit-driven styles, from California to Australia, often lack. The wines are medium-bodied, supple and balanced. They are best in their youth, when their fruit is fresh and delicious. Some producers are now striving for–and achieving–more concentration, especially in the reds. Their longevity is still open to question, but even the richest wines still retain this harmony and accessibility.
The Big Four Varietals
Chile’s vineyards are planted all through the 350-mile long Central Valley. Soil and climate conditions do change along the way, and some regions have developed styles of their own: bright fruity whites from Casablanca; elegant, smoky Cabs from the Maipo Valley. But terroir and appellation are still emerging concepts in Chile, and many wines are blends of grapes from different regions. It makes most sense to consider them first by different varietals and by producers.
Cabernet Sauvignon is Chile’s best wine, and has been since cuttings from Bordeaux were first introduced in the 1850s. And then as now, the Maipo Valley has been the source of Chile’s top Cabs. Undurraga’s Reserve 1991(88 points, $9) offers ripe, concentrated plum and currant flavors with a smoky dollop of new oak. Canepa’s Private Reserve 1992 (88 points, $8) also shows ripe fruit and a firm structure. Alameda’s Vintner’s Selection 1992 (85 points, $5) is a terrific value, a lively wine with jammy berry flavors.
Outside of Maipo, we were impressed with the lush plum flavors of Crane Lake’s 1992 Cabernet (86 points, $5). Made by a California-based team headed by Gary Ramona, who once worked for Robert Mondavi, it comes from the Colchagua Valley, in the Rapel region south of Santiago. Los Vascos, now entirely owned by the parent company Château Lafite-Rothschild, is also located in the Colchagua Valley; the 1993 Cab is clean and concentrated (85 points, $7). The sophisticated Carmen 1992 (87 points, $6) was also made with Rapel fruit.
Merlot is also an old-timer in Chile’s vineyards, but it’s a recent addition to the varietal stable and quality is less reliable. Still, some of our favorite reds were made from this grape. Concha y Toro’s striking Marqués de Casa Concha 1993 (89 points, $10) is ripe and balanced. Carmen’s 1993 Reserve (88 points, $9) shows lush yet vibrant blackberry flavors. A 1994 Merlot Casa Lapostolle (87 points for a barrel sample, $9) is the first release from this new venture, whose consulting winemaker is Michel Rolland, a star in Pomerol. It’s a promising start, with deep fruit and firm structure.
Sauvignon Blanc is Chile’s traditional white grape (also an early import from Bordeaux, along with the now-rare Sémillon). However, a Chilean taste for oxidized whites left most producers ill-equipped to make the fresh, fruity wines that please American buyers. Also, the vineyards were dominated by a clone, called Sauvignonasse, or SauvignonVert, that lacked the depth and vivacity of the true variety. Since Miguel Torres introduced cold-fermentation in 1978, however, the wines have improved dramatically. Now with the development of an ideal terroir in the cool Casablanca Valley, Sauvignon Blancs are bidding to become Chile’s best white wine.
Two Casablanca bottlings topped our list: Viña Casablanca’s bold 1993 (87 points, $8), made by Ignacio Recabarren, one of Chile’s most talented winemakers, and Villard’s Casablanca Vineyard 1994 (85 points, $7), vibrant with citrus, pineapple and herbal flavors. A 1994 Gato Blanco from Lontue (86 points, $5) is one of the first fruits of a collaboration between Bordeaux enologist Jacques Lurton and San Pedro, in the Rapel region near Curicó. Now owned by Chile’s largest brewing consortium, San Pedro is constructing a huge modern winery and should be a name to watch.
Chardonnay is a newcomer to Chile, but world demand has pushed most of the country’s producers to try their hand at it. Despite an abundance of good wines, however, we found a disappointing lack of consistency with the varietal. Too many wines were washed-out, or strongly vegetal, or knocked out by over-oaking. Even the better wines often lacked Chile’s distinctive touch.
Still, there were wines that can hold their own with price rivals from California and Australia. Carmen’s1994 Maipo Valley Reserve (87 points, $9) and Concha y Toro’s 1993 Casa- blanca Valley Amelia Private Reserve (85 points, $13) both showed a fine balance of ripe fruit and toasty oak. French winemaker Thierry Villard made almost Burgundian wines from his boutique winery; the 1993 from his Casablanca Valley vineyard was our top Chardonnay, at 88 points ($8), while his Barrel Fermented Reserve 1993 wasn’t far behind, just a bit over-oaked for our tastes (85 points, $10). Far to the south, near Talca, Carta Vieja, grape growers since 1825, have begun bottling their own harvests; the 1993 Maule Proprietors Reserve (86 points, $8) is rich, firm and fruity.
Other varietals are still on tentative ground in Chile. Recabarren made a lively, typical Gewürztraminer from Casablanca fruit (Viña Casablanca 1993, 84 points, $8). Viña Segü Ollé offered an intriguing Moscatel de Alejandria 1993 (84 points, $6), with fig and honey flavors. But we were disappointed by the small range of Pinot Noirs. Most were very soft, with little varietal character; Cono Sur showed best, with a ripe Selection Reserve 1994 (81 points, $10).
A few wineries are trying blends, especially with Bordeaux red varieties, but most of the wines are either 100 percent varietal or close to it. New wine laws passed this year require wines with a varietal label to contain at least 75 percent of that varietal, with the same threshhold for vintage dates and regions of origin.
A Developing Style of Wine
Chile’s vintages are even more regular than California’s, and so far differences haven’t registered significantly in the wines. However, Chile’s winemakers improve with every harvest, and investments in wineries and vineyards are beginning to pay off, so younger vintages tend to show cleaner fruit and more concentration. We found good wines abundant on the market in every vintage since 1991; the whites are best drunk as young as possible, while reds show well from two to four years after the harvest.
The country’s wines are going through a style transformation that mirrors changes in the society as a whole. The first stage was dominance by the domestic market; even as Chile’s biggest and best wineries develop new lines of wine for export, they continue to supply the wines Chileans prefer. The second stage, still continuing, focused on clean, fruity, low-priced wines for international markets.
The leap was dangerous: new vineyards were planted without proper site selection; irrigation was increased to pump up yields; wineries were built like factories. The country might have become a kind of banana republic for wine, doomed to supply ever cheaper quaffing wines, competing at the bottom of the quality ladder.
However, the country’s natural conditions are favorable to making fine wine, and the producers realized in time that only an emphasis on quality would keep their business thriving. So they’re entering into the third stage of the transformation, to make wines with distinctive character and appeal for their qualities as much as their price. This tasting again failed to turn up a single wine rated outstanding, scoring 90 points or more. But the general level was higher than ever, and it won’t be long before it happens. If economic and international conditions remain favorable, Chile is well on its way to world-class wines.