Change in Latin America starts to pay off by the bottleful The big Chile: Two South American countries Argentina's the other one are starting to reap the benefits of democracy. Read: Producing better wines.

Vintage Point

March 20, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

For many years, savvy wine consumers had a surefire way to deal with house guests who overstayed their welcome: They just started opening South American wine.

Yes, indeed, there was nothing like a $5 Chilean chardonnay or Argentine cabernet to get 'em scurrying like roaches. Before you could say "have another glass," they'd be halfway to Saskatchewan.

Unfortunately, you no longer can rely on the South American strategy. Nowadays, anytime you open a bottle of Chilean or Argentine wine, you run the risk of being delighted.

In all fairness, South America has been exporting some sound bargain wines for decades. Back in the early 1970s, a certain college student in Washington learned that the one decent wine you could buy for under $2 at the local bodega was Chile's Concha y Toro cabernet sauvignon.

But through the 1980s, most of the wines sent to the United States by both countries were a case study in mediocrity. Even at $4 to $5 a bottle, most were no bargains.

Chile specialized in weedy, vegetal cabernet sauvignons. Argentina's specialty was dried-out reds shipped years past their prime if they ever had a prime. With the exception of Argentina's exotic torrontes, white varietals were generally grotesque.

But with the end of military rule and the transition to relatively stable democracy, investment and talent have poured into South America, especially Chile.

Internationally known wine figures such as Michel Rolland of Bordeaux, Miguel Torres of Spain and Augustus Huneeus of Franciscan Vineyards have become involved. The Rothschild family of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild has put its money into Chile's Los Vascos winery.

It's taken a few years, but the investment in new oak barrels, better fermentation temperature controls and cleaner winemaking facilities is beginning to pay off. A recent tasting of South American wines also showed better concentration and fruit, a sign that wineries are cutting their notoriously high vineyard yields.

Some older brands, such as Chile's Cousino-Macul, have dramatically improved their wines. Some new brands, such as Argentina's Fabre-Montmayou and Chile's Casa Lapostolle, are making terrific wines for modest prices.

With the introduction of Cousino-Macul's $22 Finis Terrae, a Bordeaux-style blend, South America has its first truly great collectible red wine. The 1992 tastes like Chile's answer to Joseph Phelps' Insignia.

If this trend continues, it might not be long before you see an end to the practice of adopting American-sounding names for South American wineries (i.e., Walnut Crest) to fool consumers into thinking they're buying California wine.

This is most brazenly accomplished by a Chilean winery called Stonelake. Take a look at the 1993 cabernet sauvignon and you'll see a California-style designer label, with the geographic designation Lontue, which hardly anyone knows is in Chile. Now, if you squint and turn the bottle just the right way, you can read "Produce of Chile" in teeny-weeny tan type on a cream background.

(Hint: Don't ever sign a tan-on-cream prenuptial agreement.)

The irony is that Stonelake's cabernet is a terrific $10 wine that would, but for that ruse, enhance the image of all Chilean wines.

The intensely nationalistic Argentines seem less prone to this sort of nonsense, but their wine industry also has some peculiarities. One that consumers should beware of is the delusion that Argentine reds become wonderful with advanced age.

They don't. Just try the 1982 Fazio-Joyaux Malbeck ($11). This grotesque, stewed wine is enough to make you cry for Argentina. Sadly, it's not an isolated example.

South America continues to be primarily a red wine continent now, although there are encouraging signs that whites can flourish in both Chile and Argentina.

In Chile, sauvignon blanc is showing considerably more promise than chardonnay. The 1995 Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc ($8) is a wonderful example. Meanwhile, the full-bodied, rich 1993 Catena Chardonnay from the Agrelo Vineyard ($13) shows that a well-made Argentine chardonnay can compete with the best Napa Valley producers.

Both countries seem destined to make their mark on the red wine market with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. It will take more than the lovely 1994 Fabre-Montmayou Malbec ($7) to persuade me that Argentina can build a reputation with this minor Bordeaux varietal.

Consumers should be able to find a broad selection of South American wines in better stores. Here are some worth looking for:

Chile

1992 Cousino-Macul Merlot, Limited Release ($11). This is an astonishingly fine wine with great concentration and wonderful flavors of black cherry, chocolate, black raspberry and herbs. An extraordinary value, it outclasses 95 percent of California merlots.

1992 Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon ($9). Great intensity, purity and length from Chile's leading winery. It beats most Californians in this price range.

1994 Stonelake Chardonnay ($10). If you like Kendall-Jackson's fruity style, you'll like Stonelake.

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