Chile creates many affordable wines but few great ones. Casa Lapostolle has changed all that.

The image of Chile as an outpost of rugged gauchos and cheap wines says a lot more about gringo stereotyping than about the place itself. Chile considers itself a "European" South American nation, with a quarter of the population claiming old-world ancestry. And if these days the country seems a touch more Continental, at least part of the reason is Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle of the remarkable Casa Lapostolle vineyards.

Marnier Lapostolle, who was born in 1957 ("a good vintage," her husband points out), wears well-cut, understated suits and discreet high heels that are offset by a couple of rather prominent diamond rings. She is the great-granddaughter of the founder of Grand Marnier, the Paris-based company that since early this century has produced wine as well as the famous orange-flavored liqueur. Since 1994, Marnier Lapostolle has brought her savvy to Chile and, in the process, helped raise the standards of Chilean winemaking.

Marnier Lapostolle and her husband, Cyril de Bournet, were looking to expand the wine side of the family business, and the improving political and economic climate, along with an ideal grape-growing climate, led them to South America. A Chilean Grand Marnier distributor who had worked with the company for 60 years suggested Chile. "One day he showed us a vineyard called Apalta," Marnier Lapostolle says. "It was a coup de coeur--love at first sight."

Casa Lapostolle now owns three vineyards that cover 790 acres in the central part of this long sliver of a country, which is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. While the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is among the hottest places on earth and the southern tip is covered by the Patagonian ice cap, the central part has a temperate, Mediterranean climate. "The climate is so good that sometimes the vines are too prolific," Marnier Lapostolle says. "Winemakers here are now beginning to understand that by reducing yield you improve quality."

Casa Lapostolle vineyards will eventually produce as many as 150,000 cases a year, but the emphasis is not on quantity. Among their seven wines is Cuvée Alexandre Merlot, one of the best Merlots in the world (and, at $20 a bottle, a steal). And now the company is launching a top-of-the line $40 wine that it is billing as its flagship: Clos Apalta, which was released in the United States last month. (Ninety percent of Lapostolle wines end up abroad, about half of that in the United States.)

Chileans were historically big wine drinkers, consuming prodigious quantities made from País grapes brought over by Spanish priests in the 16th century. In the 20th century, domestic consumption declined as people took to beer and imported sugary drinks. By the time Marnier Lapostolle arrived, foreign investors had begun to take the Chilean wine industry seriously again, though almost exclusively in the "value" segment of the export market. The domestic market, however, was still so unsophisticated that Chilean vintners would sell two different wines under the same label: one for export and a simpler, less interesting one for Chile. Casa Lapostolle was among the first to offer the same wines in both markets. "The surprise was that, despite being more expensive, our wines became very popular in Chile," de Bournet says. "Other wineries gradually decided to follow our lead. The local market is improving all the time now."

Early on, Marnier Lapostolle recalls, she decided to hire Michel Rolland, the renowned Bordeaux enologist. "I didn't want to make a French wine in Chile," Marnier Lapostolle recalls. "I wanted to make the best wine I could from those vineyards, but I needed French expertise." One day, she says, as she and Rolland walked together among the Apalta vines, "Michel stamped his foot on the soil and said straightaway that this was a very good location." Unlike most Chilean vineyards, which were planted on rich soil for a high yield, Apalta--surrounded by mountains and facing south--has just the right poor soil for a low yield.

Casa Lapostolle was set up in partnership with the Rabat family, local landowners with a strong interest in winemaking. The seven wines produced by the company are divided between the regular line (one each of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) and the higher-end Reserves, named Cuvée Alexandre after Alexandra's great-grandfather. The new premium wine, Clos Apalta, is a blend of 95 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Marnier Lapostolle and Rolland dreamed it up in 1994, but they were determined to wait for the right vintage before selling it. "It's a great wine because it reflects the personality, the terroir, of the vineyard, and that's very important to me," she says. "It's deep purple, round and at the same time has a structure and an envol," or bounce. "It's a wine you can drink now or let age for 15 years."

Marnier Lapostolle and de Bournet live in Geneva, and she makes five 10-day trips a year to Chile. On a recent visit, at their hacienda at the Apalta vineyard, the couple and several guests--among them José and Maria Estrella Rabat--clustered around a gnarled 150-year-old cork tree for a wine tasting.

Soon the group migrated to the hacienda's dining room, which is furnished with 19th-century Chilean antiques. "When we eat with the Rabats there can be 15 people around the table, just like that--young and old," Marnier Lapostolle says. Ruth Van Waerebeek-Gonzalez, a cookbook author who is Belgian by birth and Chilean by marriage, prepared a meal of classic dishes adapted from her recently published work, The Chilean Kitchen (HPBooks). These included a bean-and-corn stew spiked with paprika-flavored oil; succulent grilled steaks simply seasoned with sea salt and paired with a tomato salsa that has enough heat to cut the richness of the meat; and a seafood version of the Chilean recipe for caldillo de congrio--a delicate soup that's so good it inspired Pablo Neruda to write an ode to it.

Along with all the Chilean dishes, a dessert prepared by Maria Estrella Rabat brought Marnier Lapostolle a little taste of home. It was an exquisite Grand Marnier soufflé.

Story by Sara Wheeler, the author of Travels in a Thin Country (Modern Library).