It used to be that when it came to wine, "cheap" and "Chile" were conjoined twins, never separated.
Chile has produced wine since the late 1800s; in the 1980s and 1990s, its low cost of labor and land, mostly disease-free growing conditions and mild climate made Chile a pumping station for inexpensive wines shipped worldwide, largely to a thirsty American wine market that may not have understood Bordeaux, Burgundy or Italian labels, yet instantly bonded with Chile's varietally labeled Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons.
Since then, Chile's wine industry has evolved, improving its viticultural and winemaking techniques, and the wines have improved by quantum leaps. Consultants such as Californians Paul Hobbs and Nick Goldschmidt have helped fine-tune the vines and wines, and Chileans have learned which grape varieties grow best in which areas. They've also discovered growing regions previously thought to be too cold for viticulture, including Casablanca, San Antonio, Leyda, Limari and Bio Bio, and broken down the massive Central Valley region into more concise micro-regions.
Today, Chile produces some truly great, and expensive, wines to go with the everyday, $7.99 bottles found on supermarket shelves. Connoisseurs are familiar with Concha y Toro's Don Melchor ($80) Cabernet Sauvignon, Casa Lapostolle's Carmenere-driven Clos Apalta ($75), the Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) and Montes' Alpha M Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant red blend ($82) and Purple Angel Apalta Vineyard Carmenere ($60).
But with the dismal economic situation, only the wealthy will be buying these wines until times get better, yet many of us desire wines with more interest and complexity than the $7.99 'cheap and cheerfuls' deliver. The good news is that Chile has a deep cellar of sophisticated wines in the $20-ish category, well-suited for wine lovers tightening their belts. And that includes me.
Reports from retailers, restaurateurs and analysts say consumers are buying as much wine as they did a year ago, before the financial collapse, though they're spending much less. The buyer of $75 bottles is now paying $50; the $30 purchaser seeks $20 wines, and so on down the line. Restaurant wine sales have plummeted, as folks eat out less, scan wine lists for the least expensive bottles, order by the glass, or bring their own wines if the corkage fee is modest. Most fine-wine retailers don't buy in enough volume to get the best deals on wines, so supermarkets are the place to shop for bargains (and limited selection). Based on the big bang Chilean wine offers for your hard-earned buck, expect to see more Chilean bottles on the shelves.
Jon Fredrikson, publisher of the Gomberg Fredrikson Report, told Unified Wine & Grape Symposium attendees in Sacramento last week that 'Conspicuous consumption has gone out of favor as value-conscious Americans are buying more wine at lower price points, often for consumption at home.' He said wines sales in restaurants have declined as much as 12%, and as a result, high-end California producers 'are scrambling to find new distribution channels, and most small wineries are focusing on direct-to-consumer sales.'
As difficult as this is for California wineries, it presents an opportunity for mid-priced Chilean wines, some of which have previously fallen between the cracks -- not expensive enough to impress collectors and high rollers, but not inexpensive enough to woo bargain-hunters. For those who appreciate $20 wines that taste like $40, look to Chile, as I did on a recent visit to judge the Wines of Chile Awards in Santiago. Between the competition -- limited to wines priced $30 or less -- and tastings at wineries, I found a number of delicious Chilean wines that are available in the United States and suitable for serious but penny-pinching wine drinkers. Among my discoveries:
At the competition, the judges were mostly bored with the Sauvignons in front of us, and we gave just one gold medal, to the pungent, citrusy 2008 William Cole Vineyards Bill Limited Edition Casablanca ($20). Yet when I toured the cool, coastal-influenced regions of the San Antonio, Leyda and Casablanca valleys, I found several excellent Sauvignons Blancs, and learned that they had not been entered in the show because the 2008 vintage had not been bottled in time.
For $25 or less, I was impressed with two single-vineyard Sauvignon Blancs from Errazuriz from 2008: The minerally, passion-fruity Single Vineyard Manzanar Estate Aconcagua Valley, and the more structured La Escultura Estate Casablanca Valley, which gets its fine texture from a touch of barrel influence. These are the first bottlings of these wines, and while they're not yet in the U.S., they're on their way, to sell for approximately $18 each. They're worth the wait.
Casa Marin's racy 2008 Cipreses Sauvignon Blanc ($25) from San Antonio Valley is made from grapes grown within sight of the ocean, and it has fine grassy freshness and pleasant salinity. The Matetic EQ San Antonio Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18), from a slightly warmer site in this very cool region, is quite rich yet refreshing, and Garces Silva's 2008 Amayna Sauvignon Blanc ($18) from Leyda, within the San Antonio, is amazingly complex, minerally, and with good palate weight.
The judges awarded the Best of Category award to the 2007 Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay Casablanca Valley ($17), and the honor was richly deserved. I tasted this wine blind in the judging and three more times after, and it showed much like a Meursault, with elegance, yeasty complexity and minerality. It will appeal to those who think they don't like New World Chardonnay, and it's a tremendous wine for the price.
I was also impressed with the 2007 Loma Larga Casablanca Valley Chardonnay ($17), tasted at the winery with winemaker Emeric Genevière-Montignac. Vibrant fruit and creamy richness are supported by crisp acidity. The 2007 Miguel Torres Cordillera Chardonnay Curico Valley ($14) was chosen Best Value White at the competition, and while it's straightforward, it's a crowd-pleaser, with ripe pear/apple fruit and caramel and spice notes.
Cabernet Sauvignon has been Chile's strongest suit for years, typically melding New World ripe fruit with Old World structure and herbaceousness. With the bar set high by the likes of ultra-premium Montes Alpha M, Concha y Toro Don Melchor and Santa Rita Casa Real, there is room for top-quality Cabs at more moderate prices, particularly in tough economic times.
I found such wines in the 2006 Intriga Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley ($25), elegant and integrated, and with a core of ripe black fruit, supple tannins and some forest-floor complexity. The 2007 Arboleda Cabernet Sauvignon Aconcagua Valley ($18) is young and tannic, yet some time in bottle should soften the edges, allowing the succulent cassis and spice and leather notes to shine. Miguel Torres' 2006 Manso de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon Curico Valley sells in the U.S. for around $29 and has aromas of celery leaf and pomegranate, intense black cherry fruit, rounded tannins and a lingering finish.
The Cabernet trophy winner, 2007 El Aromo Reserva Privada Maule Valley, is not, to my knowledge, sold in America. Should you find it, grab it, as it's a gem and will likely be under $15.
I didn't find many Merlots on my trip, though one was super: 2006 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Rapel Valley ($20), impeccably balanced and savory, with firm structure, juicy plum and black raspberry fruit, and a hint of smoke.
Previously misidentified as Merlot in Chile, this late-ripening variety, when grown and vinified carefully, can produce wines with an intriguing herbal tinge to their fresh cherry/berry flavors, spice and chocolately character. The under-ripe greenness that plagued Carmenère in the past seems to be disappearing, thanks to new plantings in warm areas which allow the grapes to reach full maturity, and restricting yields.
Morande's 2006 Edicion Limitada Carmenère Maipo Valley ($21) is a big, flamboyant wine with ripe dark fruits, smoke and fresh herbs. The 2007 Viña Tarapacá Gran Reserva Carmenère Maipo Valley ($20) is soft, supple and loaded with blueberry character, and the 2006 Errázuriz Single Vineyard Don Maximiano Estate Carmenère Aconcagua Valley ($25) is a toasty wine, remains fresh and lively, with hints black cherry, chocolate and leafy herbs.
It's a rising star in Chile, when grown in cool pockets of Chile, yet it's also a work in progress, as most winemakers admit; most have been making Pinot Noir for less than a decade. I tasted some very promising Pinots, one of the best being the 2007 Garcés Silva Amayna Pinot Noir Leyda Valley San Antonio ($27): properly truffle-y and earthy on the nose, with sumptuous black cherry fruit, toast, a shake of black pepper and silky mouthfeel. Cellar it for at least a year.
Well-made Chilean Pinot Noir is hard to find in the U.S., yet vintners assured me that more of it would be shipped to the States. Worth a search are the Matetic EQ San Antonio Valley ($27) and the 2007 Veranda Casablanca Valley.
Because of Chile's myriad climatic conditions, soil types, elevations and exposures, it produces Syrahs (labeled Shiraz by some) of varying styles, from the earthy, powerful versions of France's Rhône Valley to the ripe, jammy Barossa Valley style, and everything in between. While I tasted several outstanding Syrahs in Chile, I was most enamored by those from cool locations, including San Antonio Valley and Casablanca Valley, each approximately a one-hour west of Santiago.
San Antonio Valley is the country's closest wine region to the sea (Viña Casa Marin is just two-and-a-half miles from the water) and it excels with Sauvignon Blancs and Syrahs that have a minerally edge and high acidity. A textbook example is the 2006 Matetic EQ Syrah San Antonio Valley ($24), a concentrated, forceful wine with exotic notes of violets, blueberries and blackberries, black pepper, silky texture and a mouthwatering finish. It's a stunning wine, tasting twice as expensive as it is; a vertical tasting going back to 2002 shows it ages beautifully.
Loma Larga's 2007 Syrah Casablanca Valley ($26) comes from vines rooted 15 miles from the Pacific, yet the site gets plenty of chilling marine air to keep acids up as the fruit slowly ripens. Loma Larga Syrah is slightly less intense than the Matetic, yet equally balanced and remarkably complex, with wild blackberry, licorice, vanilla, herbs, black pepper and smoked-meat notes. It's focused and smooth.
Shifting north to the warmer Aconcagua Valley, Errázuriz produced the 2007 Max Reserva Shiraz Aconcagua ($24), which offers Rhône-like earth, smoke and mint aromas, followed by a rush of ripe blackberries, chewy tannins and a concentrated, long finish.
Here is a real success story for Chile, though it's not quite ready to tell the world.
Various blends of grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Malbec and Cabernet Franc found enthusiastic approval by the Wines of Chile judges, who doled out 10 gold medals to the category. However, I could find evidence of only one of the winning wines -- the Best of Category trophy winner, the 2007 Veranda Cabernet Sauvignon-Carmenere from Apalta ($19) -- being available in the United States. Martin Scott Wines of Lake Success, New York, is Veranda's importer.
However, the 2006 Veramonte Primus Casablanca Valley blend, a rich, spicy mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Carmenère, is complex and with Bordeaux-style leanings, and widely sold in the U.S., for approximately $20. Less serious, yet tasty, and half the price, is the 2007 Palo Alto Reserve Red Maule Valley ($10), which won a gold medal and shared the Best Value Red trophy with the El Aromo Cabernet Sauvignon. Palo Alto, made by Concha y Toro, it's a juicy blend of Cabernet, Syrah, and Carmenère
The Best of Show wine, surprisingly, was the 2006 Odfjell Orzada Malbec Orgánico Maule Valley ($18). The wine is superb (my notes from the blind tasting: 'Really fresh … gutsy and structured … balanced and smooth … licorice, vanilla, nicely oaked, great acid.'), but the shock came from the fact that Chile is not known for Malbec, and that its neighbor on the eastern side of the Andes, Argentina, is the world leader in the varietal. I think the Chileans wanted a more traditional wine to win, such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenère or Cabernet Sauvignon, yet the Odfjell Malbec is deserving.
I also gave high marks to the 2006 Valdivieso Single Vineyard Malbec Sagrada Familia Curico Valley ($19), a heavier yet still balanced wine.
The Wines of Chile competition, and its $30 price ceiling for entries, perfectly coincide with American' search for high-quality wines at low prices. Chile's got them in spades.