Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
May 2005 Good News from Chile
Chile seems to have been in a cycle the last few vintages in which odd-numbered years produced strong, high-quality reds and the even years were, well, uneven. This started with El Niño's visit in 1998 and continued with his biennial returns. If you fell in love with Chilean wines with the 2001 vintage, you might have tasted the 2002s and wondered what all the fuss was about.
There's good news from Chile these days. The excellent 2003 vintage is about to hit our retail shelves. And from the few examples I was able to taste on a recent visit to Chile, the 2004 vintage has broken El Niño's spell.
Even more good news you probably know, but it bears repeating: Chile's wines are bargains, including the expensive ones. This is even more true now that the soaring Euro is making its effects known on the prices of European wines. You're already hearing the hype about the hot, ripe 2003 vintage in Sancerre, Rheingau, Tuscany and elsewhere, but when you tire of paying half-again-as-much as you're used to for your favorite Rhone, think of Chile.
There's nothing like immersing oneself in the wines of a region to develop an understanding of the stylistic similarities and differences that define a region's character. I'd often noticed a particular aroma and flavor in Chilean wines, and on my weeklong visit in March I confirmed my theory. Not that I'll be forever more infallible in picking out a Chilean wine in a blind tasting, mind you, and I'm not saying this to ingratiate myself to the good people who so stingily dole out the Master of Wine title. But I think I'm on to something.
It's flint, a mineral, stony character that is almost universal in Chilean reds and not uncommon in its whites. "Minerality" is the new buzzword for quality among wine geeks; these wines definitely have it. Whether "Old World" in style or the new-ish "fruit-forward" and over-extracted international style, this flinty matchstick aroma and flavor is the common lineage of Chilean wine.
So much for the national generalization. Chile's winemakers are also defining which regions produce the country's best wines. If you pay attention to wine labels, you're probably familiar with the Maipo, Rapel and Colchagua valleys. Look for four others: Casablanca Valley, Leyda Valley, Buin and Apalta, the latter two sub-appellations of the Maipo and Colchagua valleys, respectively.
Casablanca Valley, northwest of Santiago, is "Californian" in the sense that it opens to the Pacific and boasts cooling breezes. This makes it ideal for cool-temperature grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Montes sources some (but not much) delicious ($13) Pinot here, as well as its Montes Alpha Chardonnay ($20). Santa Rita produces an intense, stony Floresta Sauvignon Blanc ($19) from Casablanca fruit. Errazuriz sources its deliciously complex 2002 Wild Ferment Chardonnay from here.
But the star of Casablanca is Veramonte, which somehow manages to make big, highly extracted reds from warmer-weather grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère, the components of its flagship 2003 Primus ($22). Veramonte's 2004 Sauvignon Blanc is not to be missed, with its stony acidity and effusive fruit.
Leyda is an emerging region that is not yet appearing on wine labels in the States, but should soon. This is Casablanca but more so. Montes produces a small amount of Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc ($16 for the 2004) from Leyda that should win over any New Zealand fan.
Buin, in the Maipo Valley south of Santiago, is the longtime home of Santa Rita, rightfully known as a reliable producer of bargain table wines. But don't miss the Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 ($50) and the Triple C 1999 ($40), a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère - both are huge, complex, elegant and tannic.
Santa Rita's flagship reds are labeled Maipo, while Cousiño-Macul is putting Buin on the label, and the map. Cousiño-Macul is completing a brand new winery in Buin and transferring its operations from the Macul estate, which has been enveloped by Santiago's urban sprawl. The graceful 2003 Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) features gorgeous aromas of mint, flint, chocolate, currant and plum, and complex flavors of blackberry, cocoa and gravel. (No, I don't chew gravel, it just tastes stony, OK?) Their flagship Finis Terrae ($20) has two strong vintages in the pipeline with the 2003 and 2004; they are alive and complex and promise many years of enjoyment. Winemaker Matias Rivera said he aims to keep the alcohol level in his wines at or below 14 percent to preserve the balance. Bravo!
Apalta is a horseshoe-shaped niche of the Colchagua Valley, further south of Santiago, that is rapidly becoming known as Chile's Grand Cru vineyard. Santa Rita bottles its Floresta Cabernet ($40) from Apalta fruit; the 2002, despite the vintage, is deep, complex, well-structured and delicious, one for the cellar. The two names you'll find most closely connected with Apalta, however, are Montes and Casa Lapostolle. Both have invested time and money in cultivating vineyards on the floor and the slopes as well as in constructing state-of-the-art wineries to handle their most premium red wines.
To get a taste of Apalta, you need spend only about $20 for Lapostolle's Cuvée Alexandre line or a Montes Alpha red. Tasting them side-by-side can give an interesting lesson in stylistic differences between winemakers working a stone's throw apart. Lapostolle's winemaking team, guided by Michel Rolland, produces wines of high extraction, with effusive fruit and alcohol well over 14 percent. It's a style that rarely works in the $20 price range, but it does here because of the quality of the fruit.
Aurelio Montes' Alpha reds are equally big but more restrained and stylish. Montes flirts with but rarely exceeds the 14 percent alcohol level, which allows the complexity of his wines to show through, especially in the 2003 Alpha Cabernet and 2003 Alpha Syrah. Where he does cross the 14 percent threshold, however, Montes succeeds because of the care given the fruit in the vineyard. The 2003 Purple Angel ($48), a gorgeous new release almost exclusively of Carmenère and half from Apalta fruit, is refined, opulent and long. It's Carmenère come of age.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.