In less than a decade, Chile has assembled a lineup of world-class red wines with world-class prices to match.

It has been just 15 years since Concha y Toro brought in a French winemaker to help it make its flagship wine, Don Melchor, a Cabernet Sauvignon with power, well-expressed terroir and a price tag of about $15, which was expensive back then. A look back in time confirms that Concha y Toro was one of the first among Chile’s best wineries, some of which did not even exist in 1987, to invest unprecedented resources and talent into producing better wines, some of which can now be called great.
Today Chile has about two dozen top-shelf red wines, most with prices to match their virtues. Whether these wines can successfully compete with the best of Napa, Bordeaux, Tuscany and beyond is not a matter of quality, because the wines are undoubtedly of high caliber. The real question is whether consumers are willing to spend $40 to $90 on a Chilean wine.

We’ve been asking that question since the beginning of the super Chilean wave in the mid ’90s. While producers and importers insist that their wines are selling out, one still doesn’t get the impression that Chile has achieved equal footing with other firmly established wine regions. Which is probably unfair, given how much money and international know-how has been pouring into Chile’s wine industry over the past 10 years.

Just look at Chile’s 10 best wines. French wine entities are co-owners of two of the country’s very best labels: Casa Lapostolle and Almaviva. Spain’s Miguel Torres produces another one, while an American attorney with South American connections has chosen Chile as the spot to pursue his dream wine, Domus Aurea.

Native Chilean winemakers—led by the folks at Santa Rita and the partners at Montes S.A.—have done a lot by themselves: for example, exploring hillside plantings outside Santiago and in places like Apalta in Colchagua, vineyard sites that yield the most flavorful fruit.

Perhaps the biggest and most positive departure top Chilean producers have made from their bulk wine roots is that many have become sticklers for low yields, something that winemakers around the world view as the key to quality. For the best red wines, which are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, quantities of two tons per acre is the most you’ll hear about, while basic varietal wines, the horse that carried Chile to the brink of quality, are made from harvests two to three times larger.

So much has changed in Chile over the past decade, not the least of which is politics. But for our purposes no change has been more rewarding to chronicle than the increased focus on more structured, more flavorful wines of quality. Thus, in an effort to educate more than to wave the flag for Chile, we offer sketches of Chile’s unofficial Top 10, arguably the best wines from this country on the market today.

Domus Aurea 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley)
94 points $50 upon release this summer
The partnership of Ricardo Peña, Ignacio Recabarren and New York attorney David Williams began making this 100 percent Cabernet from a 45-acre hillside vineyard on the outskirts of Santiago in 1996. The 1999 Domus, to be released this summer, is their finest effort to date.

The key to the wine, according to Williams, is the Clos Quebrada de Macul vineyard, which was planted in 1970 in the Andean foothills above Macul, just east of Chile’s capital. In its formative days, Clos Quebrada de Macul, jointly planted by the Peña and Cousiño families and later owned exclusively by the Peñas, was sourced by many wineries for its mountain-style fruit. When Ricardo Peña’s father died in the early 1990s, his son inherited the property and set out, along with Recabarren and Williams, to produce a world-class wine from the property. "Our goal was to express the essence of Macul," says Williams.

Now in its fourth vintage, and with much work on the vineyard backing it up, the wine offers profound structure and lushness. The fragrant aromas are of soy, lavender and licorice, while in the mouth, it’s pure silk. Production in 1999, due to drought conditions, was 1,400 cases.

Late last year Recabarren left the partnership to pursue other interests. Pascal Marty, who has been with Baron Philippe de Rothschild for 20 years and was co-general manager at Almaviva, will take over winemaking responsibilities with Patrick Valette, a French consultant with a growing resume.

Santa Rita 1999 Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley)
94 points $65
In the March 2002 issue, I called this wine a "dead ringer" for Napa Cabernet, meaning it features luscious berry fruit and a supple texture. Tasted for the second time, about eight months after its release, the wine is still offering an easygoing personality and plenty of charcoal and smoky oak. Complexity may not be its strongest attribute, but in terms of raw hedonism, it scores highly.

Casa Real is the product of vines planted between 30 and 40 years ago in Buin, in the heart of the Maipo Valley near Santa Rita’s 19th-century manor house and chapel. It is 100 percent Cabernet, grown in the Alto Jahuel vineyard in the Andes foothills.

Winemakers Andrés Ilabaca and Cecilia Torres note that the factor that most influences the grapes, and hence the wine, is cool mountain air that descends from the Andes during the growing season. They say daytime temperatures in February and early March can approach 95ºF, but by nighttime it usually drops into the sixties. The vines are neither irrigated nor fertilized, so vigor is low, with final yields averaging just one and a half to two tons per acre.

Like with all great wines, Santa Rita’s expressed goal with Casa Real is to convey terroir. Based on my experience with this wine, it is apparent that the terroir of Buin and Alto Jahuel creates a Cabernet of supreme density, concentration and richness.

Casa Lapostolle 1999 Clos Apalta (Apalta)
94 points $60
Casa Lapostolle, founded in 1994 by the Chilean Rabat family and the French Marnier-Lapostolle family, calls itself "Chilean by Nature; French by Design." A taste of the 1999 Clos Apalta, just the second vintage made (the first was 1997), confirms that proclamation.

The wine was made by Frenchmen Michel Rolland, the renowned "flying consultant" from Bordeaux, and Michel Friou, the winery’s resident winemaker. And as it was transformed from fruit to wine it received all the trademark Rolland touches, i.e., wooden-vat fermentation and micro-oxidation in barrel. Thus the texture and feel are incredibly round and soft.

The vineyard that yields the grapes for Clos Apalta, however, is anything but French. Au contraire, it is the epitome of classic Chile, as it dates back more than 50 years. Situated in a horseshoe-shaped valley framed by hills and the Tinguiririca River, the Apalta Vineyard is the premier grape-growing site in the Colchagua Valley, itself an up-and-coming subsection of the Rapel Valley. Merlot is the base of Clos Apalta, which also contains Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.

Originally tasted and rated for the March 2002 issue, a recent tasting confirmed that it’s aging beautifully and has not lost an iota of its kirsch, plum and chocolate flavors. If anything, the wine is better now than it was upon release. Soon the 2000 wine will be out, but that vintage will be hard pressed to eclipse this stellar offering.

Viu Manent 1999 Viu 1 (Colchagua)
93 points $40
Amid Chile’s sea of Cabernet Sauvignon, this inaugural top-shelf Malbec has the stuffing to steal some of Cab’s deserved thunder. It’s a big wine, which, based on a recent tasting, seems to be settling down nicely. With its deep-fruit core, soft tannins and balance, it should be rewarding to drink over the next few years.

Under the direction of Jose-Miguel Viu, with talented winemaker Aurelio Montes lending his expertise as a consultant, Viu Manent is helping to boost the ever-improving image of the Colchagua Valley via its strong lineup of wines. The anchor to that roster is Viu 1, which, despite its lack of a track record, is a well-made wine and a fair value at $40 or less.

Power, of course, is a leading component of all good South American Malbec, and Viu 1 (with a 10 percent blend of Cabernet) is a full-force bruiser weighing in at 14 percent alcohol. It’s a product of the bone-dry ’99 vintage, when vineyard yields were exceptionally low and quality was high. Total production of Viu 1 was also low—just 750 cases were bottled in June 2001.

With better distribution in the United States now in place, getting your hands on some Viu 2 (most likely the 2001 vintage) when it is eventually released could be the ticket. And while calling a first-timer one of a country’s 10 best is a stretch, Viu Manent seems to have what it takes to produce more great wines.

Montes 1999 Montes Alpha "M" (Colchagua)
92 points $72
While tasting this wine, I thought back to 1998, when founding partners Aurelio Montes and Douglas Murray of Montes S.A. launched the first Montes Alpha "M," the 1996, as its flagship wine. At the time it was about $60 a bottle—on the pricey side compared to a majority of Chilean wines. After several more stellar vintages, "M" is without a doubt one of Chile’s best, year in and year out.

Born as something called Project "X," the wine comes from Montes’ very best vines at its Finca de Apalta Vineyard in the Colchagua Valley, where just 320 out of more than 1,700 acres are planted. Montes Alpha "M" is a classic Bordeaux blend consisting of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent each of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Vines average about 10 years of age, and they are planted very close together. "Dense" is the word used by Aurelio Montes himself.

The 1999 wine is wild and jammy, with powerful yet beautiful aromas of cinnamon and nutmeg. The fruit quality is impeccable, and the flavors truly pop in the mouth. The 1997 was very good, but this is the best "M" to date.

Almaviva 2000 Red Wine (Puente Alto)
92 points $91
For the past five years we’ve been following the growth of Chile’s most expensive (and consistent) high-end wine, and how could we not? When names like Baron Rothschild and Concha y Toro team up to make a wine they think is special, at the very least it bears watching.

Unveiled in 1998 (the ’96 vintage), Almaviva, named after a character in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, continues to improve with each vintage. Winemaking duties are handled in large part by Enrique Tirado of Concha y Toro, but at Puente Alto, located on the southeastern outskirts of Santiago, it’s widely acknowledged that the contributions of Baron Rothschild senior winemaker Patrick Léon have been instrumental in making Almaviva what it is today.

Almaviva is a wine of structure and heft. It may be the recipient of much Bordeaux know-how (the mix is classic Médoc, at 72% Cabernet, 26% Merlot and 2% Cab Franc), but at the end of the day—and vintage—it is very much a Chilean wine, forward, fruity and round. The newest release, rated in our December issue, explodes with ripe cassis fruit and hints of licorice. And while the 2000 vintage may not have been quite as good as the 1999, the wine earned the same 92-point rating when tasted blind.

Now, with five vintages under their belt, Tirado and Co. have clearly become more adept at getting the most from Almaviva, regardless of vintage inconsistencies.

Casa Silva 1999 Altura (Colchagua)
91 points $90

Altura, which means "height" or "altitude" in Spanish, is another newcomer to the upper echelon of Chilean wine. At 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and equal parts Merlot and Carmenère, it is the realization of the vision of Casa Silva’s managing director, Mario Pablo Silva, and his father, Mario, to make a big-time wine.

Casa Silva has vowed to produce Altura only in the very best years; this inaugural bottling is exclusively the product of the family’s Angostura Vineyard. In the future, the Silvas’ maturing vineyards at Los Lingues, at the base of the Andes, will contribute fruit for
the blend.

Fewer than 500 cases of this mint-filled, chocolate-packed wine were made, and only a few hundred bottles had entered the market by year end. In an effort to give it all the time it needs, Casa Silva has been holding back the wine with an eye toward releasing it this spring. After spending nearly 14 months in French oak, it will ultimately have nearly three years in bottle before its global release.

Winemaker Mario Geisse, a former Chilean winemaker of the year, played a key role in vinification and grape selection for Altura. Known locally as El Padre de Carmenère, or the "Father of Carmenère," Geisse was instrumental in coaxing the most out of the Carmenère in the mix.

Valdivieso NV Caballo Loco No. 5 (Lontué)
91 points $40

Caballo Loco, or "Crazy Horse," is named after a winery executive who apparently had some wild ideas in his time. Today, in its fifth vintages, it would have to be considered Chile’s great mystery wine. An amalgam of several unidentified grape varieties made in the solera style, Caballo Loco, to be best understood, is probably better tasted than explained.

Version 5, like its predecessors, is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. That much one can taste. What else Valdivieso throws at this wine is known only to its winemakers, who put it together using stocks from the current as well as past vintages. To me, No. 5, with its spicy but largely sweet nose, ripe and full palate, and healthy yet tannic finish, seems to be mostly of the 1999 vintage. But I could be wrong.

Beyond that, it should be noted that the wine has more pronounced wood notes than many of the so-called super Chileans, and maybe that’s because it was aged in some American oak. Regardless, it has a great personality and a delicious core of sweet black currant and oozing farm-ripe strawberry fruit.

Seña 1999 Red Wine (Aconcagua Valley)
90 points $70

Before most of the other wines featured in this article existed, there was Seña, Spanish for "signature." In this case, the names on the label are those of Robert Mondavi and Eduardo Chadwick, the latter president of Viña Errázuriz in the Aconcagua Valley.

In 1995, Mondavi and Chadwick formed their 50/50 joint venture and immediately released the ’95 Seña, then Chile’s leader in terms of pomp and price. From the start, the Mondavi/Chadwick team has wanted their wine to be a champion of Chilean quality and reputation, but truth be told, that hasn’t happened. More often than not, despite a number of solid ratings from the wine press, the buzz on Seña has been fairly muted, probably more so than it should have been, given the generally high quality of the wine.

In 1999, however, Seña can legitimately lay claim to its place on this list. I disagree with a colleague of mine who gave this wine 88 points in the December 2002 issue. I find no "sappy wood" or "char," as he described, interfering with the wine’s textbook Cabernet texture and flavors. Yes, it opens with some sauvage, oaky notes, but in short time
the wine evolves and shows stature and depth.

Miguel Torres 1999 Manso de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon (Curicó)
90 points $35

Without Spain’s Miguel Torres pushing Chile’s wine industry forward during the 1980s by introducing stainless-steel fermentation tanks, there might not be a "Chile’s Ten Best" list, and certainly not one worth paying attention to.

Manso Velasco, named after a 100-year-old, 40-acre vineyard in the heart of the Curicó Valley, is probably the most naturally made wine among this group. It’s not
so much about selection and winemaking techniques here, but terroir and what ancient vines untouched by phylloxera can produce.

With Manso, winemaker Fernando Almeda lets the viejas viñas do the talking for themselves; all he does is age the wine in new French oak and then bottle it unfiltered. I tasted this particular wine in Chile for the first time in December 2001. A more recent tasting revealed improvement in the wine’s flavor profile and softer
tannins. If I were to rate it today, I might score it a point or two higher.

Other High-End Wines Worth Watching

  • Concha y Toro Don Melchor – Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Errázuriz Don Maximiano – Founder’s Reserve
  • Montes Folly Syrah
  • MontGras Ninquén
  • Terrunyo Carmenère and Terrunyo Sauvignon Blanc (from Concha y Toro)
  • Antiyal Red Wine (from Alváro Espinoza)
  • Calina Bravura Cabernet Sauvignon
Published on February 1, 2003