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Chilean Wines: Good Values, High Ambitions

2013 January 9

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour
Felipe Müller of Viña Tabali and Francisco Correa, ProChile Director

Chile has been a strong source of value priced wines since the late 1980s. It is now the world’s ninth largest producer of wine—ahead of both Germany and Portugal–and the fourth biggest source of wine imports to the U.S. after France, Italy and Australia.

The Chilean wine industry has higher ambitions, however, than just being known for good values. In 2010, they adopted a detailed strategic plan, Plan 2020, aiming to become the leading source of premium quality New World wines by the year 2020.

Winemaking has a long history in Chile, dating back to the mid-1500s with vines brought over by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries. It is also the only country in the world whose vineyards are totally free of the phylloxera louse, which nearly destroyed the vineyards of Europe in the late 1800s.

This is due to Chile’s geographic isolation–bounded by the Andes on the east, the Pacific on the west, and the vast desert of the north. As a result, unlike wine grapes virtually everywhere else that have to be grafted onto American hybrid rootstock resistant to phylloxera, most of Chile’s are planted on their own roots.

Chile has faced challenges, however, in producing truly top quality wines. For one thing, much of the vineyard area was initially sited in flatlands near major population centers, like Santiago, rather than on hills and in coastal areas more ideally suited for viticulture.

This has changed in the last two decades, with plantings now occurring in very promising cool climate locations such as Limarí Valley, a foggy area near the coast, and Choapa Valley, with rocky foothill soils 2,700 feet above sea level.

Another issue has been incorrectly identified grape varieties—particularly a vast amount of vines long misidentified as Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

The most widely planted wine grape variety in Chile is Cabernet Sauvignon, where it has done very well, producing ripe and easy to drink wines with black currant fruit, a touch of mint and olive, and soft tannins.

Carménère has become Chile’s answer to Argentina’s Malbec as its distinctive and widely planted Bordeaux heritage varietal. The fact this traditional Bordeaux grape, now virtually gone from France, was widely present in Chile was only discovered in 1994. Previously, these Carménère plantings based on cuttings brought to Chile from France in the mid-1800s were thought to be Merlot, or a local clone of Merlot.

Carménère grapes, image courtesty Wikimedia Commons

Based on over 30 single varietal bottlings of Carménère I’ve tried so far, I believe it is better employed in blends with Cabernet and other red varieties than on its own. It simply lacks the complexity and depth of flavor to make a very interesting varietal by itself. I frankly think Syrah and other Rhone varieties are more worthy of focus for new plantings in Chile than Carménère.

The other major grape misidentification was Sauvignon Blanc, most of which turned out to really be Sauvignonasse, also known as Sauvignon vert, a mutated crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. No wonder few Chilean Sauvignon Blancs up through the early 2000s actually tasted like Sauvignon Blanc!

Now that many Sauvignonasse vines have been replanted to Sauvignon Blanc, largely with clones developed in California, this variety is rapidly becoming the most exciting white varietal wine from Chile.

At the Chilean Wine Tour trade tasting in San Francisco this past fall, I got to taste several Sauvignon Blancs from these new plantings, including several from cooler appellations. I was most impressed.

The star producer at this tasting for me was Viña Tabalí. Their winemaker, Felipe Müller, is pictured at the top of this post. He was named Chile’s top winemaker in the 2010 Bicentennial Edition of Guía de Vinos de Chile.

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

The first vines for Viña Tabalí were planted in 1993, but the project wasn’t really launched in its current form until 2006, when owner Guillermo Luksci established it separately from his much larger Viña San Pedro operation, and hired Müller. They now have over 250 hectares planted in Limarí Valley, including a very isolated vineyard in the foothills called Talinay. Muller urged Luksic to purchase this vineyard after finding it was planted on porous limestone, much like vineyards where he had worked in Sancerre and Burgundy.

The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from this vineyard is intensely flavorful and minerally, with lively acidity and a surprisingly long finish for this variety. It is a very high quality wine, selling here for less than $20. The Tabali 2011 Pinot Noir Reserva Especial and 2010 Pinot Noir Talinay Salaia Vineyard were also among the best Chilean Pinot Noirs I’ve sampled.

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

At the seminar that preceded the tasting, we learned about the results of another Plan 2020 initiative, to better define Chile’s wine geography and determine how to best represent it for each of their numerous appellations and sub-appellations. While this work isn’t finished, as of 2011 three overarching “vitivinicultural” zones have been adopted. Producers are now allowed to include one of these zones as “complementary information” to the denomination of origin on the label, if at least 85% of the wine comes from that zone.

The three new complementary denominations of quality are Andes, for the most mountainous locations, lying along the foothills of the Andes; Costa, for vineyards lying in areas demonstrably affected by coastal weather and conditions; and Entre Cordilleras, for vineyards lying between the Andes and the Coastal mountains, locations also known as the “generous plains.”

These designations are said to have been based, among other things, on data regarding highest temperatures registered in the regions, periods of frosts and analyses of indigenous vegetation.

I think it’s highly unlikely these new designations will become widely known by consumers, but for wine geeks like me, I think this is useful information. I commend the Chilean authorities for making this effort to further identify and communicate the types of climates and conditions under which Chilean wines are made.

For my detailed tasting notes on 75 wines tasted at this event, see below. Besides Tabalí, the top producers at this event, with wines I rated 91 points or higher, were De Martino, Montes, Ribera del Lago, Santa Rita, Casa Silva, Valdivieso and Ventisquero.

WINES OF CHILE 2012 U.S. TOUR – Terra Gallery, San Francisco, California (10/9/2012)

Antuco

  • 2010 Antuco Syrah Gran Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Medium dark red violet color; redolent, baked plum, dried berry nose; oak, baked berry, violets palate; medium-plus finish (86 points)
  • 2010 Antuco Limited Edition – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Dark red violet color; redolent, ripe currant, oak nose with a sense of smoke; baked currant, oak palate; medium finish (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Carmenere, 20% Syrah) (85 points)

Cantaluna

Carmen

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

Casa Donoso

  • 2011 Casa Donoso Carménère Bicentenario Gran Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Medium red violet color; appealing, menthol, currant leaf nose; tart currant, menthol palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (with some Cabernet Sauvignon; from 70 yr old head trained vines) (88 points)
  • 2011 Casa Donoso 1810 Carmenère-Cabernet Sauvignon – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Very dark red violet color; redolent, baked plum, black fruit, menthol, integrating oak nose; appealing, tart plum, black currant, black fruit, menthol palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 points)
  • 2009 Casa Donoso Perla Negra – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Very dark ruby color; redolent, berry, black fruit, cedar nose; poised, tart black fruit, plum, incipient tobacco palate; medium-plus finish (blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Cabernet Franc and Malbec) (89 points)

Catrala

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

De Martino

  • 2008 De Martino Syrah Alto Los Toros Single Vineyard – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; intriguing, tart plum, menthol, black fruit, light mint, olive nose; tight, tasty, tart berry, blackberry, cassis, violets palate with very firm, sweet tannins; needs 4-plus years; medium-plus finish (w/15% Petit Verdot) (91 points)

El Principal

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

  • 2007 Vina el Principal – Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley
    From magnum – very dark purple red violet color; herbaceous, tart currant, olive nose; tight, tasty, poised, tart currant, ripe plum, ripe black fruit palate; needs 2-plus years to coalesce; medium-plus finish (90 points)
  • 2008 Vina el Principal Memorias Cabernet Sauvignon e Carménère – Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley, Pirque
    Dark red violet color; menthol, ripe currant nose; tasty, ripe currant, menthol palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Carmenere; 14 mos in French oak) (90 points)
  • 2010 Vina el Principal Calicanto – Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley
    Dark ruby color; maturing, tart black fruit, plum nose; tasty, maturing, tart black fruit, plum, light menthol palate; medium-plus finish (61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Carmenere, 14% Cabernet Franc, 5% Syrah) (89 points)

Folatre

Hacienda Araucano

Hugo Casanova

  • 2011 Hugo Casanova Carménère Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Dark ruby color; smoky, tart berry nose; tar, spoofilated, sweet black fruit palate; medium-plus finish (10 mos aged 60% in new French and American oak and 40% in stainless steel) (81 points)
  • 2010 Hugo Casanova Family Reserve – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Medium dark ruby color; baked cherry nose; baked cherry, oak palate; medium finish (70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah) (84 points)
  • 2009 Hugo Casanova Cabernet Sauvignon Founder’s Reserve Don Aldo – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Dark ruby color; oak, baked cherry, black cherry nose; mature, black currant, tart cherry, dried berry palate; medium-plus finish (88 points)

Las Niñas

  • 2012 Viña Las Niñas Syrah-Mourvedre – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark ruby color; menthol, cherry nose; fresh, tart red berry, menthol palate; medium finish (85 points)
  • 2011 Viña Las Niñas Carménère – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark red violet color; earthy, tart red fruit, red plum nose; earthy, tart red fruit, red plum, smoky palate; medium-plus finish (87 points)
  • 2011 Viña Las Niñas Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark ruby color; menthol, coffee, tart plum nose; menthol, coffee, tart plum palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish (86 points)

Loma Larga

  • 2010 Loma Larga Pinot Noir – Chile, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley
    Medium dark cherry red color; redolent, tart cherry, baked cherry, apricot nose; tart cherry, baked cherry, apricot palate; medium finish (86 points)
  • 2006 Loma Larga Syrah BK-BL – Chile, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley
    Very dark red violet color; oak, baked plum nose; oak, baked plum palate; medium finish (86 points)

Maquis

  • 2009 Viña Maquis Carménère – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark ruby color; earthy, tart red fruit, plum nose; earthy, tart red fruit, plum palate; medium finish 86+ points (86 points)
  • 2010 Viña Maquis Cabernet Sauvignon – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark ruby color; appealing, tart blackberry, black currant nose; tight, tart black currant palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 87+ points (w/15% Cabernet Franc) (87 points)
  • 2008 Viña Maquis Lien – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark ruby color; appealing, tart berry, blackberry nose; tart berry, blackberry palate with an earthy finish; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (blend of Carmenere, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah) (88 points)

Montes

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

  • 2010 Montes Outer Limits CGM Apalta Vineyard – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark red violet color; ripe black currant, cassis, blackberry nose; plush, suave, ripe cassis, black currant, blackberry, soapstone, French oak, black fruit palate with good acidity and balance; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (50% Carignane, 30% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre) (92 points)
  • 2009 Montes Carménère Alpha – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark ruby color; herbaceous, tart currant, pepper nose; herbaceous, tart currant, pepper palate; medium-plus finish (w/10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 mos in French oak) (89 points)
  • 2010 Montes Chardonnay Alpha – Chile, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley
    Light yellow color; oak, tart peach nose; ripe pear, poached pear palate; medium finish (87 points)
  • 2009 Montes Cabernet Sauvignon Alpha – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark red violet color; menthol, tart plum nose; tight, tart plum, currant, menthol palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish (w/10% Merlot) (88 points)

Peralillo

Ravanal

  • 2010 Viña Ravanal Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark ruby color; earthy, menthol, stewed black fruit nose; earthy, menthol, stewed black fruit palate; medium finish (83 points)
  • 2009 Viña Ravanal Syrah Ovation – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark ruby color; baked berry, ripe black fruit nose; baked berry, ripe black fruit palate; medium finish (84 points)

Ribera del Lago

San José de Apalta

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

  • 2007 San José de Apalta Friends Collection III – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley
    Dark red violet color; redolent, baked cherry, baked berry nose; intense, baked cherry, berry, black currant palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah, 2% Carmenere; new French oak) (88 points)
  • 2007 San José de Apalta Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere Gran Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; strong menthol, bright currant, tart cherry nose; menthol, bright currant, tart cherry palate; medium finish (85 points)
  • 2010 San José de Apalta Syrah Single Vineyard – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley
    Dark ruby color; redolent, menthol, baked plum nose; baked plum, roasted black fruit, pepper palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 points)

Santa Rita

Silva

  • 2011 Casa Silva Sauvignon Blanc Cool Coast Paredones Estate – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Light yellow color; very tart peach, mineral, lemon grass nose; tasty, focused, very tart grapefruit, lemon grass, mineral palate with great delineation and cut and medium-plus acidity; long finish (93 points)

Tabalí

  • 2011 Tabalí Sauvignon Blanc Talinay Costal Limestone Vineyard – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Very light yellow color; intense, smoky, lemon grass, mineral nose; tasty, minerally, lemon grass, tart grapefruit, saline palate with medium acidity; long finish 92+ points (impressive, lively and minerally; a high quality wine for only $20) (92 points)
  • 2011 Tabalí Sauvignon Blanc Reserva – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Light yellow color; appealing, lemon grass, ripe grapefruit nose; ripe grapefruit, lemon grass, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (91 points)
  • 2011 Tabalí Sauvignon Blanc Reserva Especial – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Light yellow color; grapefruit, lemon grass nose; intense, lemon grass, grapefruit, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (92 points)
  • 2011 Tabalí Chardonnay Reserva Especial – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Light yellow color; lemon cream, ripe pear nose; creamy textured, lemon cream, ripe pear palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 points)
  • 2010 Tabalí Chardonnay Talinay Camachaca Vineyard – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Bright light lemon yellow color; appealing, ripe pear, white jasmine nose; elegant, ripe pear, poached pear palate; medium-plus finish 91+ poinats (91 points)
  • 2010 Tabalí Pinot Noir Reserva – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Medium dark cherry red color; appealing, ripe cherry, strawberry nose; tasty, ripe cherry, strawberry palate with balance; medium-plus finish (8 mos in oak, no new) (91 points)
  • 2011 Tabalí Pinot Noir Reserva Especial – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Dark cherry red color; appealing, floral, roses, sous bois nose; tight, ripe cherry, sous bois, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (92 points)
  • 2010 Tabalí Pinot Noir Talinay Salala Vineyard – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Dark cherry red color; strawberry, floral, raspberry nose; tasty, silky textured, poised, strawberry, tart raspberry, mineral palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 points)
  • 2010 Tabalí Syrah Reserva – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Dark ruby color; ripe black fruit, French oak nose; tasty, tart black fruit, French oak palate; needs 2 years; to integrate; medium-plus finish (91 points)
  • 2009 Tabalí Syrah Payen – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    Very dark ruby color; ripe plum, berry, French oak nose; plush, ripe berry, black fruit palate with integrating oak; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 points)
  • 2010 Tabalí Muscat Reserva Late Harvest – Chile, Coquimbo, Limarí Valley
    From 375 ml – light medium yellow color; fresh grapefruit, grapefruit rind nose; ripe grapefruit, grapefruit syrup palate with some acidity; long finish 90+ points (90 points)

Terraustral

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

Valdivieso

  • 2008 Valdivieso Éclat – Chile, Central Valley, Maule Valley, Valle del Maule
    Dark ruby color; menthol, ripe raspberry, green nose; tight, ripe raspberry, red fruit, menthol palate; needs 4 years; medium-plus finish (91 points)

Ventisquero

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

  • 2010 Ventisquero Carménère Queulat Gran Reserva – Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley
    Very dark purple red violet color; earthy, menthol, green pepper, tart currant nose; tasty, ripe currant, red fruit, mineral, olive, bell pepper palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 points)
  • 2009 Ventisquero Carménère Grey [Glacier] Trinidad – Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley
    Medium dark ruby color; tart cherry, ripe currant nose; plush, tart cherry, ripe currant palate; needs 2 years for oak integration; medium-plus finish (90 points)
  • 2009 Ventisquero Cabernet Sauvignon Grey [Glacier] Trinidad – Chile, Central Valley, Maipo Valley
    Dark ruby color; appealing, cassis, menthol, violet nose; ripe berry, ripe blackberry, mocha palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 points)
  • 2007 Ventisquero Vertice Apalta Vineyard – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Dark ruby color; oak, light smoke, light caramel nose; caramel, tart cherry, red fruit palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (50% Syrah, 50% Carmenere) (88 points)
  • 2007 Ventisquero Syrah Pangea Apalta Vineyards – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark ruby color; ripe berry, boysenberry, licorice nose; black fruit, tar, licorice palate; medium-plus finish (90 points)

Veramonte

Wines of Chile 2012 U.S. Tour

  • 2011 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc – Chile, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley
    Light yellow color; ripe citrus nose; ripe citrus palate; medium finish (85 points)
  • 2011 Veramonte Pinot Noir – Chile, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley
    Medium dark cherry red color; baked cherry, French oak nose; tart cherry, sous bois, oak palate; medium-plus finish (88 points)
  • 2010 Veramonte Primus – Chile, Aconcagua, Casablanca Valley
    Dark red violet color; baked red fruit, plum nose; rich, ripe black fruit, plum palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 points)
  • 2008 Neyen – Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    Very dark red violet color; tart currant, bell pepper, menthol nose; baked currant, menthol, bell pepper palate; long finish (80% Carmenere, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) (89 points)
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