Forget Chile? Is it just me, or are people beginning to forget about Chile? When I first started drinking wine seriously, about 10 years ago, Chile was right on the cusp of becoming the hot new wine nation. By the time the 90s were in relatively full swing, so was Chile; for a stretch of several months in '94 or '95, it seemed that every dinner party I attended, small or large, featured a few bottles of Concha Y Toro cabernet sauvignon, a solid red produced by one of the Maipo Valley's premier wineries (and still sold, incidentally, for a song). Los Vascos made numerous appearances, as well.
I am myself guilty of taking Chile for granted. Rarely these past few years, while browsing at pretty much every wine store that crosses my path, have I sought out the Chilean section. To be sure, when I visit Odeon and end up eating meat or liver or some other substance sawed off a cow, often I waste no time whatsoever with the wine list and go straight for Casa Lapostolle's "Cuvee Alexandre" cabernet sauvignon, one of the best, most satisfying cab values, to be completely honest, on Earth, and a Chilean wine, to boot. Chile is my fallback. Most of what they let out is pretty good. And most of it plays to my oenophilic weakness, which is for big fruity reds made to be drunk young.
As with a lot of attention-getting winemaking countries, Chile's success owes much to geography. You probably already know this, but Chile is a narrow stripe of land that's squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. According to my sources?Oz Clarke's useful Wine Atlas for the most part?Chile's climate is a Southern Hemisphere version of California's. Lately, I've gotten considerably more interested in wine geography and climatology (trying to get my head around the whole terroir concept, a French idea that says wine must represent that place where it was grown), so bear with me.
Here's how it works: The coastal mountain range that guards the Pacific edge of central Chile is relatively low, certainly by contrast with the Andes, which are immense and snow-covered year round. A cold Pacific current, the Humboldt, forces cool air through the coastal range and promotes morning fog over the Central Valley. After dark, cold mountain air rushes down the Andean slopes to the valley floor. For the bulk of the day, however?after the fog burns off but before the evening chill?the valley bakes. Clarke explains that this combination of factors causes the vines to "shut down at night, boosting grape acidity and enhancing their fruit intensity, color, and aroma." Weather and geography join forces to promote grapes that effectively start making their own wine.
That's the story on the Central Valley, anyhow. Evidently, microclimates can vary widely, all over Chile, within this basic Humboldt Current/Andes framework. But the point is that climatic extremes deliver something desirable in oenology: stressed-out grapes. Grapes that have been worked over by nature?straining at their skins, made dense with natural sugar?produce better wine than grapes that have been allowed to take it easy. Obviously, you can grow grapes all over the place, but only in certain special places can you grow grapes that can be made into decent wine. This is why there are no priceless vintages hailing from Macon, GA.
The Chileans have been making wine for about 450 years, a fortunate piece of history for Europe, because after the phylloxera root louse decimated the Old World's vineyards in the 1860s, scions (a fancy wine word for the part of the grapevine that bears fruit) from Chile were grafted onto American rootstock and used to revive the European wine business, which in any case took decades to fully recover. Again, Clarke is my source here. He writes that Chile, post-phylloxera in the 19th century, even became a sort of haven for unemployed European winemakers, who had nothing to work with back home and were thus drawn down to Chile by moneyed Santiago gentry eager to raise the level of the wine game, which had previously been confined to the production of a fairly unremarkable local varietal, the pais. By the 1990s, Chile was globally renowned as a winemaker's goldmine; jetsetting vintners flew in from all over the world to consult on the voodoo and esoterica that goes into modern wine production. Chile has also been lucky: The Andes form a natural shield against phylloxera, which is the winemaker's worst nightmare. A burgeoning export market for inexpensive cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay hasn't hurt, either.
By and large, I think Chile does reds better than whites. The Chileans do whites okay, but when I think of, say, Chilean chardonnay, I'm usually thinking about bargain chardonnay. Reasonable quality at a significantly lower price than California chardonnay. Sauvignon blanc is crisp and refreshing with a smooth texture, but for the price I'd rather have something crazy and memorable from New Zealand. With the reds, on the other hand, one can find both high quality and low price?and not actually have to look that far. This is especially true for Chilean merlot. Merlot, like chardonnay, is a varietal with a long and noble history (some of Bordeaux's bluest blue-chip producers use it almost exclusively) that recently got overexposed and had its reputation tarnished. American merlot is dangerous stuff, in my opinion. There are extremely reliable producers (Forman pops to mind) who build Bordeaux-style merlots intended to be cellared for 10 years, but a alarming quantity of California merlot is watery, insipid and very, very short-lived, showing far more brown at the edges after just a year or two than I'm comfortable with. Spending a lot of money on domestic merlot is a risky proposition, unless you've done your homework, and half the time it seems to me that the cheap stuff is deeply uncompetitive with low-cost reds from France and Australia. Long Island winemakers claim that they have made awesome strides with merlot (a few tout it as their specialty and as the region's signature wine), but in my own tastings, the evidence isn't there.
Chilean merlot has no real pretenses toward ageworthiness, and in almost all instances should be drunk as quickly as possible. (Some might disagree with me on this one, so I'll amend slightly: under $15, Chilean merlot should be drunk immediately.) The climatology I delved into earlier makes this eminently possible: A typical Chilean merlot is an absolute fruit bomb, hovering somewhere between a jammy Australian shiraz and a spicy California zinfandel, concentrated and expressive. The texture is usually smooth and plush, pillowy, with just enough tannin to command a little attention as it goes down. Chilean merlot is robust without being off-putting and, to my palate, a tad less harsh than Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Matches up better with a wider range of food. Makes for easier drinking, and tends to cost less.
The Rapel Valley, to the south of Maipo and Santiago, has the best track record for merlot in Chile. This region is responsible for my current budget favorite, the delicious '98 Dallas-Conte ($10), the oenological offspring of Australian vintner David O'Leary and the Chilean producer Santa Carolina. I consider this one to be the perfect hotdog wine?but only if you like your hot dogs a little grill-charred and slathered in mustard. Ketchup, with its tomatoey sweetness, would kill the fiery tongue-buzz that the Dallas-Conte harbors in its dark ruby core, following an explosion of berry flavors. It has the gusto to slice through a tube of fatty meat nestled in a toasted bun, plus the spicy structure to do battle with a whole range of condiments (but, like I said, especially mustard). Probably a fine chilidog wine as well, but I'll never know, as I can only drink root beer with chilidogs.