The world's wine value turns upscale
by David Marglin
If I had a bottle for every time someone has called Chilean
wine one of the best values
in the world, I could probably stock a small store.
In this case, the popular wisdom is true: Chilean reds -- usually less than
$20 -- are excellent values, assuming you like them. Chilean wines are the essence
of New World style: fruit-forward, often verging on overripeness, with big
tannins. Most are massively
woody wines, with loads of American (and some
They are built for export to the US, where the tastes that once
led foreign wine producers to spike wine with extra
sugar now seem to favor
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
One intriguing thing about Chilean reds under $20 is how similar they taste. To
me, these are very much "made" wines, where the style of the winemaker is
clearly evident. And those styles are very similar -- I would be hard-pressed
to discern one from the other. This consistency, if you will, is laudable, but
I often get the feeling that it barely matters which bottle I choose.
One reason for such consistency is the weather. Chile's climate is perfect for
growing grapes, and the average
vintage, according to Bruno Prats of
Chateau Cos d'Estournel, is similar to that of a top-class year in the Medoc.
Chile tends to have such "average" years about nine times out of 10 (1998,
unfortunately, was an off year). The wines' general "bigness" may have to do
with the fact that Chilean winemakers are descended from the Spanish and the
neither of whom had any qualms whatsoever about making their wines
as big as possible. Put those two factors together, and what you get is the
level of consistency found in your favorite fast-food joint. (Of course, I do
love fast food . . . )
Over the past decade, some of the world's biggest and most prominent winemakers
have made Chile their home away from home. Well-known wineries with ventures in
Chile include Napa's Franciscan, which owns half of Veramonte; Mondavi, which
is developing a $6 million state-of-the-art winemaking facility called
Caliterra; Château Lafite, whose owner owns 50 percent of Los
Vascos; Château Mouton-Rothschild, the principals of which recently
launched Almaviva; and Château Margaux, whose owner has a joint venture
called Paul Bruno/Acquitania.
Why all this investment? Well, for one thing, Chilean wines sell. Chile is a
prime wine-growing country with relatively cheap land, unexploited potential,
and a track record. For another, military dictator Augusto Pinochet's
unpleasant 17-year reign ended in 1990, prompting a lot of people with old wine
money to feel comfortable buying land or doing long-term deals with wineries.
With the country booming, and with the success of winemakers' exports to the US
and Britain during the '90s, it's no wonder that the region has gotten so much
positive press and foreign investment.
Now the challenge is to make top-flight red wines. There's a lot at stake for
Chilean winemakers; if they can make high-end
wines that compete with the
world's best cabs and merlots, their cheaper brands will gain cachet from their
more deluxe cousins. Right now there are more than a dozen Chilean reds that
retail for more than $40, including Sena (a Mondavi-backed venture) -- the 1996
vintage, which sells for $50, is bright and tastes of black fruits such as
cassis and blackberries. There is Casa Lapostolle, which many people recognize
as the leader of the Chilean high end, whose 1997 Clos Apalta from Colchagua
may be the best Chilean merlot ever exported. Next door grows the Montes Alpha
"M," made by the distinguished Aurelio Montes; it's a cabernet-based
Bordeaux-style blend, and the utterly soft and velvety 1997 sells for $60. You
would not be able to identify this wine as Chilean. The first release of
Carmen's Gold Reserve (an excellent winery in the better-known Maipo Valley
that employs biodynamic farming techniques) is scheduled for February, and this
1997 is a huge cabernet that was aged in new French oak ($65 is the suggested
retail price -- if you can find it).
We must hope that the flood of these expensive Chilean monsters doesn't drive
up the prices of the cheaper, high-value Chileans. Right now, Chilean reds from
1996 and 1997 -- both excellent years -- are worth the money. El Niño
made 1998 a pretty bad year, but the early word on 1999 is extremely positive.
An educated guess is that there will be price increases for the 1999 wines,
which had low yields but superior quality. Meanwhile, more than a dozen readily
available Chilean reds are big, memorable, and
worth laying down. I have listed
a few of my favorites below, but with no individual tasting notes, for fear I
will sound like a broken record.
Here is the global, one-size-fits-all, all-purpose Chilean high-value red-wine
tasting note: big black fruit, loads of oak, a hint of chocolate, dashing
cassis flavors. Will benefit from a bit of age.
If this sounds good to you, any of these wines will be most enjoyable.
All prices are approximate; check with your local retailer about
1996 and 1997 Carmen Reserve Cabernet Maipo Valley ($10).
1997 Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Rapel Valley ($11).
1997 Montes Montes Alpha Cabernet Curico Valley ($18).
1997 Santa Rita Reserva Cabernet Maipo Valley ($12).
1997 Veramonte "Primus" Carmenère Casablanca Valley ($11).
1998 Montgras Reserve Merlot Colchagua Valley ($16).
1997 Vina Tarapaca Reserva Merlot Maipo Valley ($10).
And I wish you well in your New Year's celebrations. Since you'll likely
remember exactly where you were and who you were with for the rest of your
life, it's a fine time to break out your best. I know I will.
Till the next millennium, then. Enjoy!
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Uncorked archive