Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Top Wines from Chile

Claudia Gomez, Winemaker, Garcés-Silva (Amayna)
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Wines of Chile USA held an excellent wine tasting in Chicago on Tuesday, April 27. What follows are my thoughts on the top wines, arranged by category:

I am a passionate devotee of Sauvignon Blanc the world over and this has clearly been the most exciting development over the past five to seven years in Chile. One could also say that this is arguably the country's top performing variety now, though you'd certainly get an argument from Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

The turnaround has been the result of planting the finest French and American clones in the coolest climates, from Casablanca Valley to San Antonio and Leyda (a sub-zone of San Antonio) near the Pacific Ocean. As a whole the wines show beautiful varietal purity, from spearmint and melon in Casablanca to kiwi, pink grapefruit and gooseberry for the San Antonio examples.

The best examples at the tasting included:

2009 Amayna (San Antonio Valley-Leyda)
2009 Casa Silva "Cool Coast" (Colchagua)
2009 Cono Sur "Vision" Loma Roja Block (Casablanca)

These three wines are exceptional and offer great evidence of the brilliance of this variety in Chile. The Amayna, from immaculately farmed vineyards at this gorgeous estate less than seven miles from the Pacific offers intense gooseberrry and stone fruit flavors, lovely texture, vibrant acidity and great persistence in the lengthy finish. Winemaker Claudia Gomez has made this wine into one of the top four or five in the country by emphasizing the influence of the razor's edge climate in Leyda. At a suggested retail of $20, this may be the finest Sauvignon Blanc value in the world.

I wrote about the Casa Silva wine in a post this past December; the wine mirrors the Amayna in its aromatic complexity and vareital purity; it is only slightly less racy in its profle. Getting a Sauvignon Blanc this good from Colchagua, normally known for its big red wines, is a wonderful development for Chile. (Suggested retail $23)

The Cono Sur is amazingly fruity with appealing pink grapefruit aromatics. The texture on this wine is gorgeous, while the acidity is pinpoint. This is, in a word, delicious. I recently tasted a 2006 Vision Sauvignon Blanc from Cono Sur and it was in fine shape, so look for this wine to drink well for 3-5 years. (SRP $15- a steal. If I owned a wine bar, I'd invest in this as soon as possible.)

Chile's own grape, Carmenere is finally starting to realize the promise it can deliver. Originally confused with Merlot, it has now been 15 years since it was correctly identified as a separate variety that had been brought over from Bordeaux in the nineteenth century.

Growers now plant Carmenere in better sites, as they realize the grape needs a warm climate to ripen fully and display its fruit as well as signature spice (Colchagua Valley has become a leading area for the grape.) Too many versions in the previous decade were overly herbaceous, but more and more versions now display proper ripeness and well as excellent complexity.

Among the best at the tasting were:

2008 Terra Andina Reserva (Rapel) ($13)
2007 Montes "Alpha" (Colchagua) ($25)
2005 Santa Rita "Pehuen" (Apalta, Colchagua) ($65)
2008 Errazuriz Single Vineyard (Aconcagua) ($20- excellent value)

The Santa Rita is ont of the most intense examples of Carmenere in the country; this could become one of Chile's signature wines. For me, the Errazuriz is the most pleasant surprise; this is a dynamic wine - big and bold with great spice. What a powerful wine that offers superb balance! This should peak in another 7-10 years and it is an amazing value for $20. You'd have to spend two to three times that for simiilar quality from a Napa or Bordeaux red.

While Syrah has really never caught on in California, the variety is becoming more important each year in Chile. "You will see a lot of Syrah in Chile in the coming years," Alfonso Unduraga, commercial director for Koyle, a new wine project, told me. "The wines have beautiful color and structure."

Indeed the Syrah grape seems to love the warmth of the Chilean sunshine. My favorites at the tasting included:

2007 Koyle (Maipo/Colchagua) ($17)
2007 Antu (Colchagua) ($21)
2006 Maycas (Limari) ($23)
2008 Amayna (San Antonio-Leyda) ($35)
2006 Lapostolle "Cuvee Alexandre" Las Kuras (Colchagua) ($30)

Each of these wines offered very good ripeness and balance with good varietal character. To me, these are crowd-pleasing wines, as the are rich and ripe without the tannic bittterness of a young Cabernet Sauvignon. The Amayna, from a very cool climate, displays bright fruit and sleek acidity. Look for even bigger and better things with Chilean Syrah.

To date, the most celebrated wines of Chile have been the Cabernet Sauvignons and blends dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The most famous of these have been from the Alto Maipo, located some 30 miles southeast of Santiago. The reds here are most often identified by the purity of their fruit along with their supple tannins. Among my favorites at the tasting included:

2008 Peñalolen (Maipo Valley) ($18)
2006 Santa Ema "Catalina" - blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Cabernet Franc (Cachapoal) ($40)
2005 Santa Rita "Casa Real" (Maipo) ($75)

The Peñalolen is a particularly flavorful wine for the price and offers nice richness, while the Santa Ema has a silky elegance with the Santa Rita Casa Real displaying the breeding and structure of old vines in the heart of Maipo Valley.

A final note on this tasting:
There was an excellent array of wines in various price ranges and styles; overall this was a noteworthy presentation of the state of Chilean wine today. However, I wish more winery representatives from Chile were in attendance! I realize that harvest is still going on in some regions, but Claudia Gomez did attend, so I thought there might be other winemakers as well. However, if harvest is a problem, perhaps the tasting should be moved one way or another.

Several wineries sent along a commercial director from Chile in lieu of their winemaker, which is just fine, as these people deal with the wines on an everyday basis. Kudos to Santa Ema, Santa Rita and Koyle, just to name a few, for doing this.

But too many wines were being poured by distributor salespeople. Most were helpful and could answer my questions, but let's face it, these people, no matter how knowledgeable, are not directly tied in to the wineries. I realize that as a writer, I have a lot of questions and attend an event such as this to make contacts in the business. But I have to think that consumers who attended the tasting later in the evening, also want that personal touch. You want to see the Chileans who work with these wines on a daily basis, not a local salesperson.

I realize that it's impossible to get every winery set up that way, as personal schedules sometimes get in the way. But attend most specialized tastings of French and Italian wines and you get those individuals to show up and pour their wines. The same should be true for the Chileans.

Chile clearly has world-class wines, but the fact of the matter is that there just isn't the excitement caused by these wines, as with bottlings from Napa Valley, France, Italy or Spain. Maybe that's not fair, but that's the reality. So the Chileans need to go first-class with their events and do all the can to get the trade and consumers excited about their products. One way to do that is for winery associates to attend the tastings and press the flesh. People love that immediacy and they can identify an individual with his or her wine. They can't do that with a local salesperson.


  1. you are right regarding people coming from chile, but also consider that the majority of the wineries are still on harvest like santa rita, carmen and terra andina. Amayna is smaller so the might terminated harvest, since they deal in just one valley. It is impossible for most winemakers to come to usa in this time of the year

  2. Hector:

    Thanks for your explanation. As I wrote in my post, if the harvest is conflicting with the tasting, then perhaps the tasting should be moved to a different date.

  3. Hi there, I really enjoyed your write up. I am very fond of chile's wines and have been for a few months now.

    I very much enjoy a bolder wine where the sweetness of the fruit really shines through.. price is really not an issue. Is there something you can recommend me?

  4. Rory:

    Thanks for the kind words. As for your question, I trust you are talking about red wines. If that is the case, Purple Angel, the premium, limited version of Carmenere, is excellent, as is the Pehuen Carmenere from Santa Rita. There are also many beautiful versions of Syrah with ripe, sweet fruit - the Lapostolle listed above is a fine example.