jump to navigation

Vinos de Chile May 27, 2008

Posted by Alex Sawit in About Wine.

By Alex Sawit

27 May 2008


I’m a big fan of Chilean wines. Pardon me for being blunt, but I just want to be crystal clear about where I stand. You see lately I’ve been getting quizzed with “What do you think of Chilean wines?” sort of questions by folks visiting the shop. I tell them the same thing I’ve been saying for some time now: Chile makes great wines.

It’s amusing how attitudes have changed. Just a decade ago critics would have relegated Chilean wine as stuff merely for value-conscious consumers. I recall watching a BBC television interview in the mid-1990s in which a prominent British wine critic rejected the notion that Chile would soon be counted among the elite winemaking countries of the world. Chilean wine simply wasn’t good enough in her opinion. Yet only a couple of years later this same critic changed her tune. “In my view,” Jancis Robinson wrote in her regular column (27 September 2003) in the Financial Times, “Chile has shown that it can make great wine.”

I had faith in Chile’s tremendous potential to begin with. So I’ve decided to post an old review I wrote a few years ago in which I happily expounded on this issue and which is still relevant today. The review, dated 25 November 2002, is presented here in condensed form.

* * * * *

Call it a gut-feeling, but for me this story has been a long time coming – a story that can finally be told with the arrival of two Chilean reds that are sure to stun wine lovers because of their undeniable artistry and great value. To tell this properly, however, I need to start from the beginning.

I have always had faith in Chile as a winemaking country – a country that I believe has the innate potential to nurture truly great wines. This is my conviction despite Chile’s long-standing reputation as a maker of quality bargain wines. For the last twenty years, the prevailing image of its wines has been that they are safe and dependable at most, boring and predictable at least. Still, these misgivings had nothing to do with soil and climate, as even Chile’s critics conceded that the terroir of its vineyards had a unique potential to produce wines of distinct beauty and character.

Half the problem lay in hopelessly outdated methods of winemaking that Chileans had been practicing for generations (not to mention the prejudices of old-fashioned Chileans, who grew up drinking tough, unrefined wines). Modern technology was essential if Chile was to evolve as a more respectable wine producer; indeed, state-of-the-art technology is the reason why many New World vineyards can consistently produce technically good wine nowadays. Yet even as Chilean producers took steps towards modernization, technology alone wasn’t going to lift Chilean wines to rarefied heights.

It is a simple imperative that all great winemakers know by heart. Technology can produce good wine, but it takes an artist to make great wine. And without true artistry, Chilean wines would continue to be relegated to the dustbin of consideration by the world’s wine critics.

But Chile has been learning on a fast-track, thanks to a new generation of globetrotting winemakers who have been absorbing the best in both New World technology and Old World artistry. With each year their efforts have been steadily providing more and more promising wines. While the industry still has a distance to climb, there are enough indications to argue that the day is approaching when Chilean wine in general can be worthy of broad comparison to some of the best traditions of the Old World, especially Bordeaux.

Yet for a select few, that day has already arrived.

Few Chilean reds stir exciting comparisons to the traditions of Bordeaux better than the recently revitalized Marques de Casa Concha of Viña Concha y Toro. The Marques Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 and Marques Merlot 2000 reflect a new “Bordelais-style” artistry that departs from old-fashioned ideas of Chilean wine. The new style is the creation of Concha y Toro’s gifted young winemaker, Marcelo Papa, who joined the winery only in 1998 yet is now one of its top aces. It’s all part of a growing youth culture at Concha y Toro, which has become something of a university for a new generation of winemakers schooled in a mix of hi-tech savvy and classical Medoc tradition, the latter being a desirable side-effect of the company’s strategic alliance with Mouton Rothschild. While it goes without saying that Chilean winemakers have always looked to Bordeaux as an inspiration, the new generation seems determined to challenge their role model with increasingly sophisticated offerings.

Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are aged for over a year in French oak, something all the top Chilean wineries do for their best wines, yet it is the way they have been aged that sets them apart, using deft combinations of one, two and three year-old barrels to gently impart only the finer characteristics of the wood. Both reds exhibit levels of smoothness and sophistication one normally associates with some of the better growths of Bordeaux.

The Merlot comes from the winery’s Peumo Vineyard in Rapel Valley, grown under the same microclimate and in the same loose soils of clay and sand that produce the winery’s top Carménère. There is a juicy ripeness on the nose, the sweetness of tangerines lightened by freshly cut hay. This dark purplish wine is full-bodied and deep with personality, going from raspberry to cherry liqueur-filled dark chocolate towards the finish.

The Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand comes from Maipo Valley just north of Rapel, from the stony alluvial soil of the Puente Alto Vineyard that boasts of the winery’s most treasured Cabernet Sauvignon vines, many of which are 25 years old. This is Marcelo Papa’s home turf, planted with the grape he loves best, and it is here where he pulls out the stops. The Cabernet is the better of the two Marques reds if only because Papa is more intimately familiar with how to make this varietal work, so there are less inconsistencies here than in the Merlot. The result is a stunning Cabernet of chameleon-like ability. Here is a graceful Chilean red that unsuspecting wine lovers could honestly mistake for a fifth-growth Paulliac – full and velvety, of ripe blackcurrant with just a touch of sweetness and cushioned by a soft blueberry freshness, followed by a lingering hint of spice. And it smells very, very expensive.



And that’s the word irony for both Marques varietals, the term “expensive.” Both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are ridiculously low-priced for the kind of wines you are getting.

The Marques combination of luxurious quality at bargain prices is an unassailable selling point for wine lovers anywhere on earth, even in a global market bristling with some very good value wines. [A good question to ask] is whether the establishment in France will take warning from the new artistry of Chilean wines like this or simply dismiss them as flukes like they did Australian wines back in the 1980s.

Me? I’m betting on Marcelo Papa and Chile’s many other blossoming young wine artists. If they could produce something like Marques while still on a learning curve, then it’s only a matter of time before they succeed in doing far more than merely comparing favorably with the best of Bordeaux. Just call it a gut feeling of mine.





No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: