The Really Cool Wines Of Chile

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - September 29, 2006
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I must start out by saying that whenever people recommend something to me that supposedly tastes really good and is under $10, I am always very skeptical. Most of the wines I taste in that price range are vapid, ordinary or just plain yucky (that is a real wine term). But recently I was simply bowled over at the quality of a new Chilean winery that you just have to taste to believe.

What makes Chile such an exciting field for finding great wines is that there is still so much potential in the country for making world-class wine. They are blessed with such a unique geographical and topographical situation. Chile is thin and long, and runs down the western edge of the Andes Mountains. The Andes are a key in understanding the growing conditions throughout the country. Unlike most of the valleys in California where quality grape growing takes place, i.e. Napa and Sonoma valleys, which run north to south, all the valleys in Chile run east to west. What this means is that there is little or no obstruction to the cooling effect of the winds blowing in from the Pacific Ocean combined with the cooling effect of elevation from the Andes.

This cooling effect allows for grapes to hang on the vine for a longer period than many other warmer regions of the world. This extra hang time improves complexity in the flavor of the grapes that translate into better wine. In addition, apart from some areas within the Central Valley of Chile, many of the wine growing regions in Chile such as Elqui and Limari in the North and Bio Bio, Itata and Malleco in the South, and even San Antonio, just west of Santiago, are still in their infancy as far as exploration and planting of vineyards.

And that’s not all - many of the world’s great winemakers are prospecting to find the next region to make great wines in. The exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Chilean peso is also a huge plus in our favor.

Chile has been making some very good value-oriented wines for a long time. But many of those same wineries that have been known for producing wines in this category have gone into a rut, either not keeping up the standards of the wines or focusing on more premium reserve wines that cost double the price and take away quality wine that used to go into the regular range of wines.

In the first case, Australian wines have taken over the minds and palates of people who used to drink Chilean. They are competitively priced and their exuberance of fruit and character are undeniable.

In the second case, having a high-end wine that garners some great score in a wine magazine may be nice and certainly makes a brand name more marketable, but it often alienates the regular wine drinker who is used to paying less than premium prices.

That’s why I was so excited when I was introduced to the wines of Cono Sur Vineyard & Winery. This project, founded in 1993, seems to have everything going for it. First, it is owned by two of the wealthiest families in Chile, who are also the largest vineyard land holders in the country. Their winemaking consultant is Martin Prieur from the revered Domaine Jacques Prieur in Burgundy. It also has committed to making organic wines as one of the pioneers and leaders of organic farming.

But all of this means squat if the wine sucks (another real wine term). The wines I tasted were absolutely compelling - and so are the prices! To me, this is a winery that is really fulfilling much of the potential that Chile has to offer. So if you’re looking for value and quality, there is plenty of reason for you to look to Chile again.

Incredible Values from Cono Sur (just like connoisseur):

2005 Chardonnay ($8). Wow, this has stunningly decadent fruit, but is balanced and complex. I can’t believe the price!

2005 Merlot ($8). Yes, finally a Merlot that tastes like Merlot, not Zinfandel. Cool berry fruit with spices and smooth texture.

2005 Riesling ($8). Dry and zesty, absolutely beautiful with food. Talk about a thirst quencher! I finished the bottle before I knew it.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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