I haven't been buying a lot of wine from Chile in recent years. Looking back over my tasting notebooks, I find just seven Chilean wines tasted over the past two years, a puny roster by any standard.
Why? Frankly, in recent years I've come to stereotype much of Chile's low-end export output as, well, boring.
Perhaps significantly, all the Chilean wines on my recent tasting list sold for $10 or less - in some cases much less. Now, I'm no wine snob, and I delight in finding excellent wines in the single-digit range. Even when the weakness of the U.S. dollar against the Euro is taken into account, bargain wines abound from Europe's wine regions - France, Italy and Spain are all fruitful fields for picking good cheap wine, not to mention Portugal, Austria, Greece ... well, you get the idea. With a little care in the choosing, similar low-cost values can be found in California, Australia and even Chile's neighbor Argentina, particularly among its Malbecs.
But the Chilean industry, it seems, has chosen to focus the bulk of its experts in the market niche nicknamed "fighting varietals," so called because of the intense competition among mass-market brands in the more well-known and popular grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Many of these low-end wines, to be painfully honest, are simple, bland and, as I said before, boring. But come to think of it, so are a lot of the similar wines from California, Australia and even Europe. Was I categorizing all Chilean wines unfairly just because so many of them fit this model? After all, the wine heritage in Chile is as old and as strong as it is on the U.S. West Coast; its wine regions, including the excellent Colchagua Valley, are well situated in both climate and soil, and its modern wine culture enjoys strong links to Bordeaux, from where a number of Chile's leading wine families emigrated during the 19th Century.
There was just one way to find out. Checking with South American wine expert Bernard Streiff (whose tour company, Rancho San Diego, is sponsoring a Chile-and-Argentina wine tour this December, featured as a sponsored link from today's edition, see below), I picked out a couple of Chilean reds from a slightly higher price niche, both made by respected producers that receive critical acclaim ... and both of which are scheduled stops on the Rancho San Diego tour.
Now, this is more like it! I opened both wines with a simple steak dinner, char-grilled medium-rare in the Argentine fashion, and was much impressed. The wines were significantly different: A Cabernet Sauvignon from Montes Alpha was ripe and fruity and overtly oaky, a crowd-pleasing "New World" or "international-style" wine, while a Merlot from Casa Lapostolle's upscale "Cuvée Alexandre" line was much more Bordeaux-like and "Old World" in character. But they were both very fine wines indeed, well worth their slightly special-occasion price, and more than sufficient to help me overcome my temporary prejudice about Chilean wine.
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Montes Alpha 2001 Colchagua Valley Apalta Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($20.99)
Dark ruby, with reddish-orange glints. Blackcurrant and black-cherry aromas present a "fruit-forward" aromatic melody over an appetizing bass line of dark chocolate. Full and ripe, juicy fruit flavors follow the nose, luscious "sweet" fruit overrides gentle acidity; soft tannins are present but almost lost beheath the fruit. High in alcohol at 14 percent, and showing the spicy accents of time spent in French oak. A crowd-pleasing style that's full and lush and easy to like; I expect it consistently does well in Wine Spectator ratings. Softens a bit and loses some structure after an hour in the glass, suggesting that it's not an ager. U.S. importer: T.G.I.C. Importers Inc., Woodland Hills, Calif. (July 17, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with dry-aged ribeye steak, simply grilled medium-rare over charcoal.
VALUE: A bit above everyday fare at the $20 point, but it's certainly competitive with other New World Cabernets in the same general price range.
WHEN TO DRINK: Its luscious, forward fruit is such a key element in its amiable style, I'd just as soon drink it up in the next year or two before this element fades.
WEB LINK: The winery's page about its Alpha line is here:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Look for vendors and compare prices for Montes Alpha on Wine-Searcher.com,
Casa Lapostolle 2000 "Cuvée Alexandre" Colchagua Valley Merlot ($19.99)
Very dark reddish-purple, bright reddish-violet at the edge. Blackberry and plum aromas are pure and clean, elegant natural fruit. Cherry-berry fruit and lemon-squirt acidity on the palate, well balanced over a distinct tannic core. Much more "traditional" than the Montes Alpha, "Old World" in style, rather reminiscent of a Right Bank Bordeaux if not quite so austere. Although the wine sees 12 months in French oak barrels, the wood seems discreet and well integrated. U.S. importer: Schieffelin & Somerset Co., NYC. (July 17, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Char-grilled, medium-rare dry-aged beer ribeye steaks make a perfect accompaniment, ameliorating the wine's youthful tannins and showcasing its pure fruit.
VALUE: A bit above everyday price, but it's quite competitive in its niche, a good value when you're looking for something a little special. Also, shop around, as many Web merchants offer the 2001 for a few dollars less than I paid.
WHEN TO DRINK: Structure, balance and firm but palatable tannins suggest excellent aging potential, up to a decade or more under good cellar conditions.
WEB LINK: The winery Website offers a choice of (rather time-consuming) Flash or non-Flash in Spanish or English:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find vendors and compare prices for Casa Lapostolle on Wine-Searcher.com,
Rancho San Diego Travel
You are invited to a special wine tasting tour of Argentina and Chile, Dec. 1-11, 2004, hosted by Michael Schachner, food and wine consultant, writer for Wine Enthusiast magazine, and author of several articles on Chilean and Argentinean wines.
Tour featuring Buenos Aires - Mendoza - Santiago - Santa Cruz - Colchagua Valley, home to many of the best Chilean wineries.
Tour highlights: small escorted group - private tasting - leisurely designed for cultural visits and free time - dining at some of the finest restaurants of South America - Wineries especially selected by Mr. Schachner. December is the best time of the year in Southern Hemisphere.
Tour space limited - For information and to receive your color tour brochure by mail, contact Bernard Streiff by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bernard Streiff - Certified Travel Counselor
California Wine Club:
If you're a collector or a connoisseur, then The California Wine Club's Signature Series is for you! With the Signature Series, the search is unique. Club owners, Bruce & Pam Boring seek only the rarest, most decorated, most coveted wines from California's best boutique wineries. Some are library wines, held in reserve deep in the cellar ... others are covered in gold and silver medals, with only a few cases remaining.
The Signature Series is not for everyone, and due to the limited availability of wine, club membership is limited to just 800 members. Each shipment includes two bottles of rare, hand-selected wine as well as detailed tasting notes and winemaker comments. Monthly shipments vary in price, averaging $125. For more information or to join the Signature Series call 1-800-777-4443 or visit
Bonus tasting report:
A recent California Wine Club Signature Series selection offered a real wine lover's surprise package, a two-bottle treasure chest that included both the remarkable Quintessa 2000 Rutherford Napa Valley Red Wine, a high-end Bordeaux-style blend from the noted producer Augustin Hunneus, a limited-production item that retails at the winery for over $100 (and, sadly, is now out of stock and so won't be reviewed); and the very fine Sonoma County Ladi's Vineyard Syrah from Paradise Ridge (Byck Family Estate) featured below.Paradise Ridge 2000 Ladi's Vineyard Sonoma County Syrah
Clear, dark reddish-purple with flashes of brilliant garnet. Appealing Syrah aromas, black fruit with spicy, pleasing background notes of sweet leather. Ripe and plummy on the palate, luscious fruit blends with a hint of cocoa, with a firm acidic structure to bring it all together. Oak is present but nicely integrated, playing a delicate background to well-balanced fruit. Very fine Syrah in the New World style. (July 12, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: A fine match with free-range chicken in two forms, simply char-grilled and presented in a Middle Eastern pilaf with toasted rice, olives and golden raisins.
AVAILABILITY: California Wine Club Signature Series. Call 1-800-777-4443 or visit
This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles that I think you'll enjoy:
Dave McIntyre's WineLine: Finger Lakes Rediscover Riesling
Wine Lovers' Discussion Group: Call me crazy but I'm exploring Burgundy ...
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Ohio uproar: Local wineries shunned (July 16, 2004)
Obscure grapes and wines: Grillo (July 14, 2004)
Voting Booth: Wine for grilled fare (July 12, 2004)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Plastic-wrapped seafood sausage (July 15, 2004)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, July 19, 2004