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?