When 2010 began, all eyes in Chile were focused on the country celebrating 200 years of independence from Spain, the pending selection of a new president and a potential return to glory for La Roja, the national soccer team. But as the Scottish poet Robert Burns so sagely pointed out, the best laid plans often go astray, and boy did that happen in Chile last year.
In retrospect, 2010 will go down as the biggest roller-coaster year in Chilean history due in no small part to the world’s third most powerful recorded earthquake, which struck February 27 and killed more than 500 people, and the uplifting October rescue of 33 miners who spent more than two months trapped a half-mile underneath the Atacama Desert. Along the way, Chile elected Sebastián Piñera as its first right-leaning president since the fall of the dictator Augusto Pinochet some 20 years ago, and the aforementioned La Roja did the country proud by qualifying for the knockout round of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, where they were promptly eliminated by powerhouse Brazil.
Amid this unforeseen and unprecedented drama, could wine—one of Chile’s main industries along with mining, lumber, aquaculture and table fruits—register even a blip on the radar screen? Somehow, some way, the answer was yes.
Chilean wineries suffered millions of dollars of damage and lost stock in the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked the Maule, Curicó and Colchagua wine valleys, yet, despite the still-staggering U.S. and global economies, exports to the U.S. in 2010 increased by roughly 10%.
But more than just bolstering volume, Chilean wineries continued to make improvements to the overall quality and variety of the wines they are exporting. The most notable advancements came in three areas: coastal climate white wines; Syrah from multiple regions; and Pinot Noir from the Casablanca Valley, which is now showing more consistency and proper varietal character than ever before. At the same time, Chile continued to excel with its Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet-based red blends, and in the traditionally strong bread-and-butter category of value wines, generally defined as wines that retail for less than $15 a bottle.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends
Since the dawning of Chile’s modern wine industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cabernet Sauvignon has been the horse that has pulled the cart, with wines from the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys leading the way. Except for a handful of excellent Syrahs, these are the wines that regularly generate the highest scores among Chilean reds. They are also relatively high priced, which pits them against the top Malbecs from Argentina, the best Cabs of California, top-shelf Bordeaux and other icon bottlings from around the world.
The best Cabs and high-end blends of 2010 were:
94 Emiliana 2006 Gê (colchagua Valley); $92. Dark, dense, spicy and full of everything nice. Chile’s top-rated wine in 2010; a blend of Syrah, Carmenère, Cabernet and Merlot. Editors’ Choice.
93 Casa Lapostolle 2007 Clos Apalta (Colchagua Valley); $80. Deep as a mine, with herbal, tobacco and leather accents sprucing up serious berry fruit flavors. Drink now through 2016. Editors’ Choice.
93 Concha y Toro 2007 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon (Puente Alto); $95. Full as can be, and frankly a bit heady. Marks the 20th anniversary of Don Melchor; best from 2012–2017.
93 Domus Aurea 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $60. After a few down years, Domus Aurea is back. This is a dynamic mix of brawny berry, tobacco and toast. Drink now through 2014. Editors’ Choice.
92 Santa Carolina 2007 VSC (Maipo Valley); $30. Maybe the best-ever wine from Santa Caro- lina. Shows pure fruit and just a hint of fresh herbs. Classy and elevated. Editors’ Choice.
Syrah was probably the biggest eye-opener last year, and after struggling for a number of years to develop an identity, the variety is now coming into its own in Chile.
Marcelo Papa, the winemaker of Maycas del Limarí, attributes Chilean Syrah’s sudden climb to the fact that vineyards planted roughly 10 years ago are now mature and showing their best. “The vineyards planted in the 1990s are now performing really well, but many are from warmer climates. I think there will be even better Syrah when some of the newer cool-climate plantings mature. These were planted mostly in the 2000s, so we have a lot to look forward to. The challenge, of course, is to sell these wines.”
Top-rated Chilean Syrahs of 2010:
93 Matetic 2007 Syrah (San Antonio); $86. Inky and bursting with black fruit aromas; dark, smoky and rubbery on the palate and finish. One of the best Chilean Syrahs ever. Drink now through 2014. Editors’ Choice.
92 Concha y Toro 2007 Terrunyo Vineyard Selection Block 34 Syrah (Peumo); $38. Muscled up and raring to run. Impressive for New World Syrah. Drink now through 2013. Editors’ Choice.
92 Errazuriz 2007 La Cumbre Syrah (Aconcagua Valley); $120. Smooth, modern and rich. Fruity to the max, with a meaty finish and plenty of body. Drink now through 2013. Editors’ Choice.
91 Maycas del Limarí 2007 Reserva Especial Syrah (Limarí Valley); $23. There’s minerality and perfume, with blackberry, raisin and fig flavors. Pillowy, but with good concentration. Drink through 2012.
91 San Pedro 2007 Kankana del Elqui Syrah (Elqui Valley); $44. Flush, lusty and big across the palate, but juicy and clean, with subtle berry and spice flavors. Drink now through 2013.
This category is largely dominated by Chile’s so-called signature variety, Carmenère. And doubtless, Chilean winemakers have made progress capturing Carmenère’s rich, lush and spicy character while avoiding its most common pitfalls: underripe green aromas and flavors. When Carmenère is made right, it is a potentially delicious and chewy red wine with soft tannins and depth.
Two years ago, Wine Enthusiast reported on the rise of Carignan from old, dry-farmed vineyards in the Maule Valley, particularly near the town of Cauquenes. Producers in Maule are now even more committed to Carignan, and in a country dominated by Cabernet, good Carignan is a welcome option.
Pinot Noir was a surprising achiever in 2010. Chilean wineries have been dabbling with Pinot for over a decade, but are now finally getting balance and true varietal expression out of their wines. Whereas only a few years ago most Chilean Pinots were heavy, baked and lacked elegance, wineries in the Casablanca Valley and along the coast in places like San Antonio and Leyda are now making more varietally correct, tasty Pinot Noirs in the “Sonoma style,” which emphasizes firm acids and cherry, tea and spice flavors. Southerly Bío Bío is also an improving area for honesttasting Pinot Noir.
Top red wines of 2010 not called Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or something proprietary:
92 Concha y Toro 2007 Terrunyo Vineyard Selection Block 27 Carmenère (Peumo); $38. Lush and full, with deep blackberry, black currant and Mediterranean black olive flavors. Drink now through 2012.
91 Casa Lapostolle 2007 Cuvée Alexandre Apalta Vineyard Merlot (Colchagua Valley); $24. Full-force aromas of cola and black fruits. Flashy with a play toward coffee, blackberry, chocolate and herbs.
91 Santa carolina 2007 Herencia Carmenère (Peumo); $50. Varietally correct aromas of olive, earth, tea and black fruits, with good acidity and tannic support.
90 Kingston Family 2008 Alazan CJ’s Barrel Pinot Noir (Casablanca Valley); $32. Kingston’s top wine is full-bodied and oaky but shows that Chile can produce world-class Pinot Noir.
90 Odfjell 2007 Tres Esquinas Organic Carignan (Maule Valley); $20. One of the best among Chile’s emerging crop of high-end Carignans. Fresh, red and juicy in style, with aging ability.
Chile has a long history with Sauvignon Blanc, but until about 15 years ago it was all planted in the too-warm Central Valley. There is still an abundance of Sauvignon Blanc coming from hot areas, but over the past decade wineries serious about producing crisp, characterful Sauvignons are subscribing to the mantra that the “coast offers the most.”
The emerging Leyda Valley, which has vineyards just 10 kilometers or less from the chilly Pacific Ocean, has emerged as the top spot for snappy, citric, fairly complex Sauvignons. Some producers have headed north to Limarí and others have gone to the coastal edge of Colchagua and a zone called Paredones to produce Sauvignon Blancs with spine and spirit. “Paredones is much like Leyda, just a little further south,” notes Matias Rivera, chief winemaker at Santa Helena, which has joined Casa Silva as pioneers in that zone. “This area has only three- and four-year-old vineyards, but the results are already impressive.”
Wait for the 2010 vintage to hit the market, but last year’s Sauvignon Blanc leaders included:
90 San Pedro 2009 1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda Valley); $19. Nettle, citrus, green herb and mineral aromas scream of coastal roots, while the juicy citrus flavors and minerality are correct.
90 Montes 2009 ltd. Selection Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda Valley); $15. Annually this ranks as one of Chile’s most complex and satisfying SBs. The nose is like an ocean breeze; the palate blends zestiness with fleshy weight. Best Buy.
89 Undurraga 2009 T.H. Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda Valley); $17. Consistent with the previous vintage. Delivers tangerine, orange and a bit of snappy green. A fit white made in the coastal style.
89 Casa Silva 2009 Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc (Colchagua Valley); $23. Minerally and pure, with coastal-influenced nettle, green apple and passion fruit aromas and flavors.
89 Viña Tabalí 2009 Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc (Limarí Valley); $20. Cool, green, minerally aromas precede bell pepper, jalapeño and gooseberry flavors. Bright, focused, edgy and stony.
Generally speaking, Chilean Chardonnay is too often warm, honeyed, heavy, overly tropical and unable to last more than a year or two in bottle.
However, as wineries and winemakers move closer and closer to the Pacific, Chardonnay is improving, if not by leaps and bounds then in baby steps. Without doubt, the strongest regions for Chardonnay are Limarí and Casablanca—the former having deep limestone soils that impart minerality to the wines.
Top Chardonnays in 2010:
90 De Martino 2008 Legado Reserva Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $15. Composed and showing no overwrought oak or tropical aromas. Best overall Chardonnay to date from Limarí, and a great value. Best Buy.
90 Cono Sur 2008 20 Barrels Chardonnay (Casablanca Valley); $NA. Hits with all the French oak a wine can take and still smell good. The palate is packed with ocean-influenced apple, pineapple and citrus. Crisp as a lime on the finish. Not currently imported. Editors’ Choice.
89 Quintay 2008 Chardonnay (Casablanca Valley); $16. Fully oaked, with popcorn, buttered toast and baked apple. Complex given the competition, and very good by Chilean standards.
89 Casa Lapostolle 2008 Cuvée Alexandre Atalayas Vineyard Chardonnay (Casablanca Valley); $24. Tropical yet pure, with pineapple, papaya, honey and toasted flavors. Not “oaky” but it is well oaked, toasty and creamy.
89 Maycas del Limarí 2008 Reserva Especial Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $23. Starts with forward woodiness, but soon apple and green banana flavors push the oak aside. Very nice mouthfeel.
No matter how much chatter surrounds Chile’s top Cabernets, Carmenère, up-and-coming Syrahs or cool-coast white wines, the fuel for the Chilean wine engine is and always will be value-priced varietal wines and the occasional blend. Due to fertile soils, favorable weather, affordable land and cheap labor, Chilean wineries are capable of making under-$15 wines of quality that many wine-producing countries simply can’t match.
Top Best Buys from a long list of very good to excellent value-priced wines reviewed in 2010:
91 Casa Lapostolle 2008 Casa Carmenère (Rapel Valley); $13. One of the best value-priced, big and rich wines you’re likely to find. Tastes great, with herbal black cherry and cola leading the way.
90 MontGras 2008 Quatro (Colchagua Valley); $15. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Carmenère and Syrah. Deep and roasted, with aromas of bacon, vanilla, pastry and black fruit. A titan for the price.
89 Miguel Torres 2008 Las Mulas Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Valley); $13. A nice and pure bargain-priced Cabernet, which is what Chile excels at. It’s all about black fruit flavors with peppery darkness.
89 Viña Casablanca 2008 Cefiro Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $10. Delivers everything the textbook calls for: graphite, berry and toasty wood on the nose, with a mouthfeel made better by ripe berry, chocolate and spice flavors.
88 Los Vascos 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley); $13. Pure Casablanca, with scents of tropical fruit, citrus and mineral. Elegant and finessed; a racy specimen with good character.