Chilean offerings surge in quality Wines: Winemakers have lent their talents to the development of promising new brands, and longtime producers have shown new energy

Vintage Point

August 05, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

In the bad old days of the early 1980s, tasting Chilean wine was more a punishment than a pleasure.

Most of that country's reds were vile concoctions that tasted of well-aged green pepper. Many of the whites smelled more of a tannery than a winery. Even at dirt-cheap prices, they did not offer much value.

L The difference between then and now is almost mind-boggling.

With the demise of Chile's military dictatorship has come increased foreign and domestic investment in the country's wine industry. Talented winemakers such as Michel Rolland of Bordeaux's Chateau Le Bon Pasteur have lent their talents to the development of promising new brands. Longtime producers such as Concha y Toro have shown new energy.

The result is that bad Chilean wine is now the exception. A recent tasting of more than two dozen Chilean wines failed to uncover a single wine that was truly loathsome. That would not have been the case 10 years ago.

The surge in the quality of Chilean wines is good news for frugal wine consumers. The South American nation is now one of the world's most reliable sources of enjoyable wines that cost less than $10 a bottle.

To date, the Chilean wine industry has concentrated on four widely known French grape varieties - cabernet sauvignon and merlot for reds and chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for whites.

To my surprise, the Chilean merlots in the tasting outclassed the cabernets by a significant margin.

At the high end, I was especially impressed by the 1996 Casa Lapostolle "Cuvee Alexandre" Merlot. This supple, concentrated, $20 wine offered layer upon layer of black cherry, sweet oak, blackberry and herb flavors. Produced under the guidance of Rolland, it bears more than a passing resemblance to a fine Pomerol from Bordeaux.

Just a baby step behind in quality is the 1996 Santa Rita Merlot Reserva. My notes on the wine are virtually identical to those on the Lapostolle, but the Santa Rita costs only about $12 - making it one of the great wine values on the market today.

On the lower end of the scale, priced about $6, the 1995 Vina Tarapaca Merlot offers soft, ripe, straightforward black-cherry fruit in a supple, easy-to-like style. There's nothing complex about this medium-bodied wine, but it makes an excellent "hamburger red" for casual consumption.

Other meritorious merlots include the 1997 Casa Donoso ($9); the 1997 Concha y Toro "Casillero del Diablo" ($8); the 1995 Santa Carolina ($9) and the 1996 Mont Gras ($7.59).

The best of the cabernets in the group was the 1995 Montes Alpha. It offered a complex, seductive mix of blackberry, herb, vanilla and chocolate flavors - fully justifying its $18 price tag.

Another impressive cabernet was the 1996 Santa Rita "Medalla Real" Special Reserve ($13). This tightly structured, complex and concentrated wine is a bit hard-edged now, but it's packed with black-cherry and black-currant flavors. It's one of the few Chilean wines that is likely to improve much with bottle age. Cabernet lovers can also find sound value for their money in the 1996 Santa Rita from the Maipo Valley ($12).

I was slightly disappointed by the performance of the cabernets from the Los Vascos estate, which is owned by the Domaines Barons de Rothschild of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild fame.

The 1996 regular bottling ($8.59) was a soft, accessible cabernet with good black-cherry fruit but a lack of grip in the finish. The 1995 Los Vascos Reserva ($13) offers a bit more concentration but just a little too much herbal flavor for my taste. Both are worthy wines; more should be expected from this estate.

There was nothing disappointing about the toasty, smoky, subtle 1997 Los Vascos chardonnay. It is simply one of the most classy $9 chardonnays on the market today. Isn't it ironic that a firm known for excellent Bordeaux reds should have its greatest success with a Burgundian white?

In general, Chile's record with chardonnay continues to be spotty.

For instance, Vina Tarapaca produced a well-balanced 1996 regular bottling that is a fine value at $9. But the same winery turned around and produced a $15 1996 Gran Reserva chardonnay that was overblown and disjointed. In this case, bigger was not better.

A pleasant surprise in the tasting was a red made from the malbec grape, a second-tier Bordeaux varietal that is widely grown in Argentina. Unblended malbec can be a rather crude wine, but the 1996 Montes ($11) showed a certain rough grace. It's a chunky, firmly structured wine with generous blackberry flavors. Think of it as a cabernet with attitude.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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