Chile is a thermometer of a country, 2,650 miles long and averaging only 110 miles wide. At the bottom is frozen Antarctica; at the top, the world’s driest desert. Santiago lies right in the comfort zone, with warm summers and mild winters, cooler than Napa Valley but drier than Bordeaux. Serious wine vineyards begin just north of the city, and stretch 150 miles down the Central Valley, south to the town of Talca.
Vinifera grapes were first planted in Chile beginning in the 1850s, when wealthy aristocrats developed a thirst for fine wines in France, and they took Bordeaux as their model. (Because of Chile’s isolation and unique natural conditions, the vine pest phylloxera has never ravaged its vineyards.) Cabernet Sauvignon has always brought the highest prices among Chilean wines, and still commands the largest share of vinifera vineyard acreage. But while the move away from the traditional style is accelerating, there’s no agreement on the new ideal.
For Bruno Prats, elegance is the guiding virtue. The owner of Bordeaux’s Cos d’Estournel has teamed up with Paul Pontallier, winemaker of Château Margaux, and Chilean enologist Felipe de Solminihac to create Viña Aquitania, a 60-acre vineyard and winery in the Maipo Valley a stone’s throw from Cousiño-Macul. They make only one wine, an estate-bottled Cabernet Sauignon labeled Domaine Paul Bruno; 1994, their second vintage, will be the first released in the United States, probably in September. Tasted from barrel it was supple, with expressive fruit and only a minimum of oak. True, the vines were only four years old at harvest, but where was the richness and concentration of a great Bordeaux?
“We want to make wines that are concentrated yet tender,” Prats says, arguing that models from other countries won’t work here. “We came to Chile because we like this elegant style of wine.”
Pilar Gonzalez agrees. “In general, Chilean conditions produce elegant wines. I don’t think my grapes would make a big, thick, concentrated wine.”
Women are rare in Chile’s wine world, but another woman takes the opposite side of the Cabernet debate. Gaetane Carron, 30, was born and raised in France, but abandoned a business career to become a winemaker. Wanderlust and opportunity have taken her to Australia, Oregon and now to a Cabernet vineyard at Puente Alto in the Maipo Valley. Casually dressed, quiet but intense, Carron is making the top Cabernet for Concha y Toro, Chile’s most powerful and successful winery. Called Don Melchor, after the founder of the vineyard, the wine is estate-bottled from a 525-acre vineyard, a gravelly slope on the northern bank of the Maipo River south of Santiago.
“We’re switching from Chilean to French winemaking techniques completely,” Carron says. More intensity, she means, with hotter fermentation than is traditional here, longer macerations, aging in small French oak barrels. “In the Maipo region, we’re always the last to harvest.” The result is a wine with exceptional richness and concentration for Chile; though clumsy in some vintages, it continues improving. The current 1991 Private Reserve (87 points, $13) shows both concentration and elegance.
Another Maipo Valley winery aiming at world-class Cabernet is Santa Rita, founded in the 19th century and, like Carmen, owned by Ricardo Claro. Casa Real, made only since 1989, is an estate-bottled Cab from the original vineyards in Alto Jahuel, not far from Concha y Toro. Only about 3,000 cases are produced each vintage; the first U.S. release will be the 1992, sometime this fall. In a tasting at the winery, held on the shady verandah of an old building that is being renovated as a restaurant for visitors, Casa Real showed rich and complex, perhaps the most structured of any Chilean Cab I tasted during a two-week trip.
“We want to prove that we can make a concentrated, long-aging wine. Not the usual soft, easy-drinking wine,” vows Santa Rita’s German-born winemaker, Klaus Schroeder.
Not all of Chile’s top Cabernets come from the Maipo Valley. Don Maximiano, an estate-bottled wine from Errazuriz Panquehue in the Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago, and Los Vascos in the Colchagua Valley to the south, demonstrate that quality has few boundaries. But Maipo Cabs are the Pauillac or the Napa Valley of Chile, and the race is on to prove who can make the best. It’s a competition that’s healthy for Chile and only makes more winners for wine drinkers in America.