Chile offers wines Americans like to drink: fresh, fruity, with straightforward varietal character, at reasonable prices. Simplicity is the key to Chile’s success. The wines are made from grapes Americans already know and like: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for the reds, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for the whites. Vintages hardly matter, because Chile’s vineyards enjoy temperate, semi-arid weather that ripens the grapes consistently from year to year. The appellation system is relatively primitive, and the big wineries tend to blend fruit from widely spread growing regions, so regional character is still blurred (though beginning to emerge). Most of the Chilean wines we see in America are produced by a handful of large companies; labels are few and brands are consistent. It’s simply hard to go wrong.
Chile’s wine industry was founded in the 1850s by wealthy aristocrats who modeled their estates after Bordeaux châteaus. Most of the early wineries were established in the Maipo Valley, just south of Santiago, Chile’s capital. This is still the heart of Chile’s wine country, which extends 250 miles through the country’s Central Valley, a narrow, fertile region at the foot of the Andes. And Chile’s best wines are still made from Bordeaux’s traditional grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. The wine industry foundered in the wake of the Allende years, during the 1970s and early ’80s, but now has the critical mass of capital and expertise needed to propel it into the top ranks of quality.
The style of Chilean wines tends to resemble the elegance of Europe rather than the power of the New World. The focus is on fruit flavor, but with a finesse that other fruit-driven styles, from California to Australia, often lack. The wines are medium-bodied, supple and balanced, best in their youth, when their fruit is fresh and delicate. Some producers are now striving for–and achieving–more concentration. The longevity of these wines is still open to question, but even the richest retain harmony and accessibility.
The reds are the best bets so far. Refreshing, great accompaniments to food, they are polished, rarely heavy or jammy, with bright fruit, firm acidity and light tannins. Most are ready to drink two or three years after harvest; few reward extended cellaring. The top Cabernets still come from the Maipo Valley, but look also for Cabs and Merlots from Colchagua, a subregion of the Rapel Valley south of Maipo.
Maipo Valley giants Concha y Toro and Santa Rita are two of Chile’s top Cabernet producers; both offer bottlings at several price points, and their best wines (called Don Melchor and Casa Real, respectively) can rival some of Bordeaux’s classified growth châteaus in character and concentration. Cousino-Macul, Chile’s first premium winery, and Domaine Paul-Bruno, a venture founded by Bordeaux stars Bruno Prats of Cos d’Estournel and Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux, are Maipo neighbors that aim for a lighter, more elegant style.
Other notable Cab producers include Errazuriz, in the Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago, and Los Vascos, owned by Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Casa Lapostolle and Carmen are newcomers earning reputations for Merlot. Undurraga, Santa Carolina and Canepa reliably offer excellent value in red wines.
The whites play second fiddle so far. Chardonnay has only been widely planted since the late ’80s, and though good examples are available, overall it lacks the consistency and character of the other varietal wines, mostly offering straightforward fruit with some oak influence. Sauvignon Blanc is more exciting, especially wines coming from the newest vineyard region, Casablanca; crisp and exuberant, they mix fruit and herb flavors in refreshing balance. Vina Casablanca, Carmen and Casa Lapostolle all make vivid Sauvignon Blancs. Caliterra and Miguel Torres are other reliable white-wine producers.
Chilean wines stay mostly within a relatively narrow price band, with the vast majority of wines ranging from about $5 per bottle to nearly $15. Overall you get what you pay for. Because the soil is fertile and irrigation is permitted, and often overused, the vines can be made to yield enormous harvests; the result can be simple wines with little concentration or varietal character at the low end of the price range. But the top wineries are seeking out better matches of site and grape variety, reducing yields and improving their vinification methods, so wines in the $8 to $12 range are better now than ever.
However, ambitious producers are determined to test both the outer limits of both quality and price. Unfortunately, sometimes Chile’s top-priced prestige wines suffer from overoaking and overextraction, and can lose the refreshing drinkability that is so attractive in the country’s wine character. But improvements are bound to come rapidly, especially since new players are jumping into the game.
Today Chile’s top wineries offer clean, accessible wines in food-friendly styles at reasonable prices. Because of the country’s natural advantages and economic structure, the bulk of Chile’s wines are likely to remain attractive bargains to American wine drinkers. But over the next few years, the top players and emerging boutique wineries will push wine quality higher. Don’t be surprised to find outstanding wines — still at fair prices — emerging from Chile before too long.