The Best New Wines from Chile

Chile shows signs of being capable of producing high-end wines to compete with the best of the New World. But for now at least, these wines still tease with their potential. Large quantities of foreign capital and expertise, not to mention the involvement of some top American and European winemakers (notably the ubiquitous Michel Rolland), are drawing the attention of wine lovers looking for the next hot thing, but my recent tastings confirmed to me that the real action here is in the value range, up to about $20 a bottle. Dropping $40 or more on a bottle of wine from Chile is a risky venture. Many of the highest-priced Chilean reds are caricatures of fancy wine, with lots of oak and lots of alcohol, but also often a distinctly green, herbaceous character and limited concentration and depth. Too many wines continue to taste as if they were made according to a formula and rolled off an assembly line, untouched by human hands.

In the under-$20 range, however, some genuinely interesting wines are being made. And this must be the best source on earth for lively, well-made, inexpensive sauvignon blanc. Many of the best sauvignon bottlings are landing on U.S. retail shelves for less than $10, which makes them very good value compared to wines of similar quality from New Zealand and South Africa. Fans of this increasingly popular variety will be stunned by how far their wine buck goes here. I was also encouraged by the number of clean, bright chardonnays I encountered, a refreshing change from the often cartoonishly oaky examples that have littered the market over the past decade.

Carmenère continues to be pushed as Chile’s great red hope for unique wines that convey some sort of national character. This strategy no doubt reflects rival Argentina’s success in establishing its malbec as a uniquely Argentine wine, so that international wine drinkers won't simply think of that country as a source for inexpensive knockoffs of Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet. For years carmenère planted in Chile was thought to be merlot, and long-time drinkers of Chilean wine know that whatever it really was, variety-wise, most of those wines were nothing to get worked up about. Can a weedy, hollow merlot by any other name smell more sweet? Whether carmenère turns out to be the panacea that the Chilean wine industry is hoping for is a major question mark. But certainly, Chile needs to do something to reverse the steady decline in its share of the U.S. wine market over the past five years—at a time when sales of wines from Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have surged.

Happily, Chile has benefited from three consecutive good to excellent vintages, the most recent one, 2005, having been especially consistent in quality across all varieties. The 2005 growing season was long and benign, with most harvesting taking place two weeks later than normal. Grapes were uniformly healthy and able to shake off any possible ill effects of some fall rains that fell just prior to harvest, and there look to be a large number of very good wines coming on line. The whites I tasted are vibrant, racy and finely cut, and should provide excellent near- to mid-term drinking pleasure. The growing season of 2004 started with a damp, rainy winter and a cold early spring, with incidents of severe frost. But the heart of the growing season was very warm, pushing ripeness up quickly, even alarmingly, before things settled down. The harvest took place under normal conditions. The best wines have good ripeness and structure, but some wines don't have the sweetness to support their acids. The 2003 harvest yielded some of the best red wines Chile has yet produced. A long season marked by hot, cloudless days and cold nights, and a late harvest, has helped to produce wines that, at their best, display a textbook balance of ripe fruit flavors and fresh, energizing acidity. Perhaps the top bottlings from 2003 are bellwethers for Chile’s potential.