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A Toast to Chile
By Tina Caputo
Oct 26, 2010
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When 33 Chilean miners were finally rescued in mid-October, after two months of being trapped underground, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.  These stories all-too-rarely have happy endings, and let’s face it:  We could all use some positive news these days. 

While you could pay tribute to the rescued miners by wearing your favorite Chilean alpaca sweater, it would be a lot more fun -- and less itchy -- to raise a glass of Chilean wine in their honor. 

Chilean wines represent some excellent values -- vineyard land there costs a fraction of what it goes for in places like the Napa Valley, so vintners don’t need to charge $50 a bottle right out of the gate -- and the quality has been steadily improving over the last several years.  It’s easy to find very good wines in the $7-$10 range; for $15-$20, the quality rivals wines from other regions (like California) at twice the price. 

But which wine to toast with?

Chile’s “claim-to-fame” wine is, of course, Carménère.  This red grape variety was widely planted in Bordeaux in the early 1700s, but disappeared from the region in the late 1800s when phylloxera wiped out most of Bordeaux’s vineyards.  (What the root-louse didn’t eliminate, growers did; they pulled the vines due to problems with ripening.)  When it came time to replant after the phylloxera devastation, the French opted for more cooperative varieties.

Just before phylloxera hit France, however, Chilean growers began planting vines they imported from Bordeaux -- including Carménère.  Over the years, the variety became mixed in with Chile's Merlot vines, and growers later mistook it for a Merlot clone.  It wasn’t until 1994 that the mysterious “Merlot clone” was revealed through DNA profiling to be Bordeaux’s “lost” grape variety. 

After the discovery of Carménère’s true identity, Chilean marketers began promoting it as the country’s flagship wine, akin to Malbec in Argentina.  Its story is certainly interesting, and at their best, Carménère wines show appealing characteristics of blackberry, coffee and spice.  But the variety has some major drawbacks.  The grapes are notoriously slow to ripen -- Carménère is picked even later than Cabernet Sauvignon, which exposes it to Chile's April rains.  If the grapes aren’t ripe enough, the wines can have a green, vegetal smell.  The variety also suffers from poor rootstock and a lack of acidity.

Can you blame the French for not replanting Carménère in Bordeaux?

I had the opportunity to visit Chile some years back, and to tour-and-taste my way around its wine regions.  The country’s diverse landscape -- with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes Mountains to the east and the Atacama Desert to the north -- allows vintners to successfully grow many different grape varieties along with the famous Carménère.  I sampled plenty of Carménère during my visit, but I found the wines to be a bit funky and one-dimensional when not blended with other grape varieties. 

For my hard-earned cash, I’d much rather drink Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Syrah.

Big Daddy Cab

When it comes to Chilean reds, Cabernet is the Daddy in terms of both production and renown.  In style, it falls nicely between California and France, with plenty of ripe fruit flavor, balanced by structure and herbal notes. 

Cab fares best in the warm, dry regions of Aconcagua, Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua, where the grapes can ripen fully.  Chilean Cabs often display ripe red fruit, berry and black currant notes, and sometimes tobacco, chocolate, coffee and leather characteristics.

I recently tasted the “Amplus” 2007 Cab from Santa Ema, in the Cachapoal Valley, and found it to be a bold, concentrated wine, with blueberry and black fruit notes.  Although it’s fairly lush, the wine also has good structure and a nice level of acidity.

Other Cabernet producers to look out for include Montes, Cousiño Macul (try the "Antiguas Reservas"), Concha y Toro, and Santa Rita. 

Sauvignon Blanc

Although more Chardonnay is produced in Chile, Sauvignon Blanc is shaping up to be the country’s greatest white wine.  When I visited Chile, I fell in love with the Sauvignon Blanc wines I tasted in the Casablanca Valley, near the Pacific Coast and west of Santiago. 

This cool-climate region -- one of Chile’s newest wine-producing areas -- produces fresh, crisp wines that are less austere and more complex than SBs from New Zealand, yet more bracing than many oaked versions from California.  Along with typical grapefruit aromas and flavors, you may encounter passion fruit, melon, bell pepper and lime.  To me, this is an ideal style of Sauvignon Blanc: clean and fresh, with wonderful aromas and a bit of roundness to smooth out the acidic edges. 

SB also does very well in the cool-climate regions of San Antonio Valley/Leyda, Aconcagua and Limarí.  San Antonio Valley has a strong coastal influence, with some vineyards less than three miles from the sea.  Sauvignon Blancs from these regions tend to display citrus, green apple and tropical fruit characteristics, with mineral notes. 

Producers to check out include Errazuriz, Veramonte, Montes and Santa Rita.

Syrah

Syrah is a relatively new variety for Chile, but it’s showing great promise.  Chile’s diverse climate allows vintners to produce Syrah wines in varying styles, from ripe, concentrated versions from warm-climate regions like Colchagua (in the southern portion of the Rapel Valley), to spicy, cool-climate Syrahs from San Antonio and Elqui.  (Personally, I’m more a fan of the cool-climate wines.)

For a cool-climate Syrah in the under-$15 category, seek out the elegant, full-bodied 2007 Falernia Syrah Reserva from the Elqui Valley. 

On the warmer-climate side, the Montes Alpha Syrah ($18) from Colchagua Valley is another good bet.  (The winery also makes a powerful, black-fruited Syrah called “Folly,” but at around $80 a bottle, it’s a bit steep.)

If you’re still not sure which wine to go for, there’s no need to choose just one -- just ask “Super Mario,” the Chilean miner whose wife and mistress were both waiting to greet him at the rescue site.  With Chile’s diverse wine regions, varieties and styles, there’s plenty of variety to go around.