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What Defines a Great Chilean Wine?

Chilean wines are so good in so many ways, it's hard to emphasize just one strength. Lettie Teague analyzes the best new bottles

When I told my friends that I'd be going to Chile, every one of them expressed envy and a desire to do the same. But none could say why. I thought this was odd—until I discovered that Chileans themselves are as much at a loss when it comes to describing what's most compelling about their country. Jorge Matetic Hartard of Matetic Vineyards, in Chile's San Antonio Valley, had to think for a few minutes before answering. "I guess it must be the wine," he ventured, with the sort of uncertainty one would never encounter in a vintner from, say, Tuscany or Bordeaux. Other winemakers I talked with cited the Andes Mountains or salmon as Chile's most famous asset, and didn't even mention wine. While Chilean vintners aren't lacking in self-esteem (quite the opposite) or confidence in their wines (which have, in fact, never been better), they do seem to have trouble communicating this to the world.

It's an ironic state of affairs for a country so focused on exports. Indeed, in 2004, Chile's wineries sent 74 percent of their production out of the country, much of it to the U.S. and the U.K. And yet vintners complain that most of their customers don't really understand Chilean wine, from the names of the top bottles to the grapes the country grows best. "Chile lacks focus," said Sebastian Allende, the export director of Santa Rita, as we sat tasting the winery's new releases, which ranged from its inexpensive 120 series (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Carmenère) to its flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, Casa Real.

I noted that Allende's complaint wasn't lodged against Santa Rita (Chile's third-largest winery) or his fellow producers but Chile itself. It was a charge I was to hear over and over again during my trip: Chile was confused, Chile was unclear, Chile didn't know how to promote its wines. And which wines should Chile emphasize anyway? Its great bargains, like the terrific $10 Sauvignon Blancs that I'd tasted recently back in the States? Or perhaps its Carmenère, a grape once mistaken for Merlot that only Chile seems to do great things with, or at least, be able to grow? Or should the focus instead be on the so-called icon wines, the Bordeaux-style blends designed (and priced) to compete with the best wines in the world?

This was a conundrum to be sure, but then Chile itself proved no less a puzzle, starting with Santiago, where my trip began. A sprawling city of some six million or so, Santiago makes Los Angeles seem compact. The downtown, dominated by skyscrapers, looks like any American city, while the vast outskirts incorporate what look like small farms and a lot of badly paved roads. And yet some of the most important wineries in Chile are set along these roads, including Concha y Toro and Santa Rita.

Both Concha y Toro and Santa Rita are based in the Maipo Valley appellation, one of Chile's premier red wine regions, which surrounds Santiago and runs roughly between the Andes and the coastal mountain range. And yet parts of Maipo are more like a suburb than farmland; for example, a subway stop recently opened virtually outside Concha y Toro. Perhaps this would increase interest among Chileans, said Marcelo Papa Cortesi, chief winemaker of Concha y Toro, noting that most of the winery's visitors are from Europe, Brazil and the U.S., and very few from Santiago itself.

While Chilean tourists aren't common at Concha y Toro, they're even scarcer at Almaviva, a winery located along a road where stray dogs run in packs. But at least the stray dogs had homes, I remarked while passing what looked like a series of doghouses set up every few yards along the side of the road. I was quickly corrected. They weren't doghouses but animitas, shrines built to commemorate spots where people had been hit by cars. There was even an animita in front of one winery we passed—an interesting challenge, no doubt, for the winery's PR team.

Almaviva had no animita, though it did have plenty of barbed wire atop its walls and a security guard in yellow-striped pants in a beehive-shaped guard house. And yet the winery, set well back from the road, was a striking wood, glass and steel structure that would have fit easily in the Napa Valley. (The contrast proved a constant throughout my trip: mostly unpaved roads that led to multimillion-dollar wineries made of wood, glass and steel. Often the only change from one winery to another was the shape of the guard house and the color of the guard's pants.)

Almaviva, whose first vintage was 1996, is one of Chile's more recent international joint venture projects, created by an alliance between Concha y Toro and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Mouton Rothschild in France. Joint ventures such as these were particularly commonplace in Chile a decade or so ago; there are currently more than 20 foreign alliances of one sort or another. Most of the foreign partners have been French, although there have been exceptions, notably Napa's Robert Mondavi and Marchese Piero Antinori of Tuscany, who both launched joint ventures with important Chilean wineries. (Mondavi partnered with Errazuriz and produced Seña in Chile's Aconcagua Valley; Antinori with Viña Haras de Pirque to create the Cabernet-Carmenère, Albis, in Maipo.) The Antinori/Viña Haras de Pirque partnership is in its fifth year, while Mondavi's dissolved in 2004; the ownership has reverted to Eduardo Chadwick, president of Errazuriz.

Although it's a relatively new project, Almaviva makes its wines from one of Chile's most legendary vineyards, Tocornal, the source of Chile's first truly great wine, Don Melchor. Concha y Toro contributed a piece of the Don Melchor vineyard (some 104 acres with an average vine age of 28 years) as part of the deal. Another Chilean winemaker confided to me that he thought this was a mistake on the part of Concha y Toro: "They knew it was a good vineyard, but I don't think they knew how great it was when they gave it up." A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cabernet Franc, Almaviva is the product of "French sensibility and Chilean soil," according to its American-born, Bordeaux-trained winemaker Tod Victor Mostero. (Mostero also used the phrase savoir faire several times to describe his work—the first time I'd heard the phrase since my high school French class.)

Almaviva has been acclaimed as one of the best wines of Chile, although the Chileans themselves don't see much of it; the domestic market accounts for only about 8 percent of sales. At around $90 a bottle, it's quite expensive, but there are a growing number of Chilean wines in this lofty price category, including Altaïr, another new French-Chilean project between Bordeaux's Château Dessault and San Pedro, Chile's second largest winery.

Mostero and Almaviva U.S. export manager Diego Garay had prepared a tasting of Almaviva wines for me, beginning with the 1996 and ending with the 2003, only recently released. All were rich, powerful and concentrated, though the 1997, an outstanding Chilean vintage, was particularly impressive—still quite youthful with terrific acidity and bright, sweet fruit.

Did Mostero think Almaviva and wines with a similar savoir faire (and stiff price) would define Chile's reputation in years to come? Almaviva was "already there," he said, but he believed global recognition was still "at least five or six years away." Much of that, he added, "depends upon Chile." Again, the country itself was up for review.

Meanwhile, Concha y Toro's Marcelo Papa Cortesi argued that a specific varietal would secure Chile's standing in the world: Cabernet Sauvignon. "I believe people will think of three places when they think of Cabernet: Napa, Chile and Bordeaux," he said. His was an ambitious assertion, but also well representative of the confidence of the Chilean winemakers I met.

But what about Sauvignon Blanc? After all, I'd read that the price of Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Chile has surpassed all others, including Cabernet. Based on the quality-price ratio of the Sauvignon Blancs I'd tasted in the past year, it seemed like Sauvignon Blanc might be a grape to stake Chile's future on too.

Papa Cortesi nodded amiably. It was true, Chile could make good Sauvignon Blanc, but Cabernet, he repeated, would put Chile on the map. And as if to prove his point, Papa Cortesi bought out the all-Cabernet, Don Melchor. First produced in 1987, Don Melchor is highly regarded but not particularly well known in the States, although much of it is exported here. Made in a beautifully balanced, restrained style, it's less powerful than the concentrated, highly extracted joint-venture wines, more classically Bordeaux in style yet arguably even more Chilean, given that it's made from some of the country's best Cabernet vines. Papa Cortesi presented me with two vintages, the 1993 and the soon-to-be-released 2003. The 1993 was still wonderfully vibrant and bright, close to its peak but aging well, while the 2003, though still young, showed considerable promise.

Papa Cortesi conducted our tasting in Concha y Toro's new wine bar (one of the first such wine bars in Chile), which not only looked like an American wine bar but was filled with Americans, too. "I don't want any heavy red wines," a heavyset woman said to an equally heavyset man in the accent of my home. (This was the first conversation in Chile I'd eavesdropped upon and understood.)

Concha y Toro is Chile's largest winery and its range of wines is considerable. Perhaps its most popular is the Casillero del Diablo group, around $9 a bottle (the Cabernet is attractively fruity and easy to drink); after that are the medium-priced Terrunyo wines. (The Carmenère is delicious—soft, spicy and rich—and the Sauvignon Blanc is particularly good, with a lovely, long finish.) At the top is Don Melchor, about $50 a bottle.

My next stop, Casa Lapostolle, was some distance from Concha y Toro in both scope and geography. A moderate-size winery based in Colchagua Valley, a two-hour drive from Santiago, Casa Lapostolle creates classic Colchagua-style wines—bigger and riper than those from Maipo. The winery produces two lines: the classic, which includes a juicy $10 Sauvignon Blanc, and the Cuvée Alexandre wines, around twice the price, among which the Syrah is the most impressive.

Casa Lapostolle is also home to Clos Apalta, an icon wine that's a blend of Carmenère, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, created by French consultant Michel Rolland. Full-bodied and lush, Clos Apalta has won Casa Lapostolle international fame, and the Chilean winemakers I talked with cited it often as one of their country's best. Yet the Casa Lapostolle team seemed even more enthused about a new wine with the clownish name of Borobo, a varietally miscellaneous wine that incorporates Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Merlot and Carmenère.

What did Borobo mean? I asked Casa Lapostolle winemaker Jacques Begarie, a Frenchman from Bordeaux. It stands for Bordeaux and Burgundy, he said. But it's made in Chile! I replied. Shouldn't there be a "Ch" in there somewhere? He merely shrugged while I tried the 2002 and 2003 Borobos (the 2002 is currently in the American market; the 2003 will arrive soon). Both tasted the same: anonymous, highly extracted, substantially oaked red wines. And unaccountably, they cost the same as Clos Apalta ($65). Why make a wine such as this? What was it supposed to represent? "Everyone is looking for a reference," Begarie replied cryptically, sounding a bit irritated. But isn't that the point? To make a wine that tastes like it came from someplace…like Chile? I asked. He shrugged. "Think of it as a red wine."

That one of Chile's best wineries was creating an expensive, anonymous blend and instructing people to think of it as just another red didn't seem like a good sign. It certainly wasn't going to give Chile its much-needed clarity.

Meanwhile, down another unpaved road in Colchagua (billowing big dust cloud, a.k.a. polvareda), the partners at Montes winery appeared to be doing a bit more to boost national pride: They were adding a Chilean flag to the back label of their wines. While Montes is well-known outside of Chile (they export 93 percent of their production, much of it to the U.S.), according to Montes co-founder Douglas Murray, many customers don't know the wines are Chilean. Or as Murray put it, "Montes has eluded the umbrella of Chile," adding, "We haven't really needed the Chilean identity."

Did they need the Chilean connection now? Was that why they'd added the flag? No, said Murray; as a matter of fact they didn't really do it for Montes as much as they did it for Chile. But, Murray added, for now, there was only one wine with a flag: Purple Angel, their premium Carmenère. (Montes is one of only a few wineries to showcase Carmenère in a luxury bottling; most wineries relegate it to their basic wines or use it for blending.)

Why just the Purple Angel? I asked. Well, Carmenère is the grape of Chile after all, said Murray. But why just the one wine? I persisted as Murray turned the bottle around to show off the (tiny) flag. Why not fly the Chilean flag on all Montes wines, especially its most popular Alpha line? (I'm a big fan of the Alpha Syrah.) That seemed like a more meaningful show of national pride. Certainly more people would see it; the Purple Angel, though delicious, is produced in very small amounts. (Last year, the Alpha wines, which include a Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, represented almost half of Montes's 560,000-case production while the Purple Angel accounted for about 1,000.)

They'd tried putting the flag on the other bottles, said Murray, but had not been granted label approval in the States: "I guess they thought the Chilean flag looked too much like the flag of Texas or maybe even Puerto Rico."

And yet for all the country's purported shortcomings, Chilean wineries were busily investing in their future; just about every winemaker I met had an expansion plan. New vineyards, new plantings, new wineries were all in the works, with two regions mentioned particularly often: Leyda Valley, a cool climate region near Casablanca, and Limarí Valley, a hotter and drier region in the mountainous north.

Both Leyda Valley and Limarí Valley were pretty much unknown to winemakers until about 10 years ago, but they're already producing some excellent Sauvignon Blancs; Syrah is another promising varietal, particularly in Limarí Valley. Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and San Pedro have all bought land in these regions. San Pedro is producing a number of Limarí Valley wines under the Tabalí label, including a good Sauvignon Blanc, though the most memorable Sauvignon Blanc of my trip was Santa Rita's intensely minerally 2005 Floresta Sauvignon from Leyda Valley, which is scheduled to be released in the U.S. later this spring for about $20 a bottle.

There are also some interesting new developments in established regions like Casablanca Valley and San Antonio Valley, a region southwest of Casablanca Valley and not far from the sea. In fact, one new San Antonio winery was mentioned to me over and over: Matetic Vineyards. "You have to try their Pinot Noir," one winemaker said, naming it as one of his five favorite Chilean wines. This sounded intriguing, albeit unlikely; of all the grapes I expected Chileans to boast about, Pinot Noir didn't even figure in my top 10. Could it be an exciting new development or evidence of some further confusion?

My first impression of Matetic was that it looked a lot like all the other wineries I'd visited, though it had the longest dirt road (tremenda polvareda) with an even more elaborate winery at the end: a long, sleek overhang coupled to an expansive all-glass front that put me in mind of an airline terminal. Jorge Matetic Hartard looked nonplussed at the idea. "A very cool airline terminal in a country like Denmark," I added hastily. "Do you want to look inside?" he replied, saving us both further embarrassment.

There are six Matetic wines—including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah—most of which are exported to the U.S. There were no plans for more, said winemaker Rodrigo Soto, who presided over our tasting. The Matetic team wanted to focus on wines suited to their particular terroir.

And certainly what they had already accomplished was impressive. The 2005 Sauvignon Blanc was well-balanced, full-bodied with a thread of minerality, while the 2004 Pinot Noir showed true Pinot character, particularly in the nose. "We want to make wines that express what Chile can really do," Soto said. We don't want to make wines that are French, he added. (Never mind that the grapes they'd planted were just that.) "We want to make wines that are the essence of a place," Soto continued. It was exactly the sentiment I was hoping to hear.

By the way, where's the name Matetic? I asked, examining a bottle, whose label read EQ. "EQ stands for Equilibrium," Soto replied. "We wanted a name that would work in any country—Australia, New Zealand or the United States. But it's really more a symbol than a name."

Symbols or flags? Carmenère, Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc? What was the focus of Chile after all? What reason might I give my friends to visit? The dusty roads, the animitas, the ever-present Andes? It wasn't the wines; after all, Chile is already sending us their best. Perhaps it's (still) up to us non-Chileans to figure out the rest.

Comments? E-mail your thoughts to Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published May 2006
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