Chile is moving up in the world. Once synonymous with inexpensive, cheerful wines that paired well with jeans and T-shirts, the South American country is in the midst of a jacket-and-tie makeover.
The bargains remain plentiful, to be sure, notably represented by the entry-level offerings of such popular brands as Concha y Toro and Santa Rita. Those big companies blossomed in the 1990s as investments soared with the demise of dictator Augusto Pinochet's economic stranglehold. But the past decade has seen another revolution take root. Throughout the narrow, 4,300-kilometre ribbon of land bordered by the Andes to the east and Pacific Ocean to the west, quality is the new mantra, especially in the $12 to $30 range.
Credit some of the progress to technology, such as temperature-controlled fermentation to enhance fruit freshness and new French oak barrels, which have all but replaced old wood casks. But the big leap has occurred in the vineyards. Growers have been taking a surgical approach to planting, moving beyond the warm valleys to higher ground on the Andean foothills as well as to cooler sites near the coast. Better sites build stamina in the vines, yielding concentrated berries with a backbone of balancing acidity.
Some of the recent plantings have proven especially favourable to the new darlings of Chilean viticulture, pinot noir and syrah, which have joined bread-and-butter varieties merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Carménère, the country's signature red, with its fruity-spicy profile, has found its own groove, shedding its herbaceous backbite with the move to well-drained slopes free of excessive winter rain or haphazard flood irrigation. With softer tannins than cabernet sauvignon and syrah, carménère is proving a compelling constituent in new, quintessentially Chilean blends.Although Chile's shipments to Canada recently fell behind those of its value-oriented South American neighbour, Argentina – the latter with its crowd-pleasingly chunky malbecs – there are signs of a turnaround as consumers discover newly available premium brands and higher-quality offerings from established producers. In the 12 months ending this past November, Chile and Argentina represented 5.3 per cent and 5.4 per cent, respectively, of wine volume sold in Canada. But in that period Argentina declined 8.1 per cent compared with a gain of 6 per cent for Chile. If the trend continues, Chile will be ahead of its neighbour.
"Consumers are coming to Chile for higher-priced, $15-plus alternatives, and we have the quality to attract them and keep them," says Javier Santos, Canadian country director for Marnier-Lapostolle, which produces the excellent Lapostolle brand.
You'll find that quality reflected in the offerings below, available in the provinces indicated.
Coyam Emiliana 2007
Score: 92 Price: $29.99 in B.C.
The country's creative blending skills are evident in this uncommon union of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, carménère, merlot, petit verdot and mourvedre. It's as though Bordeaux had merged with the northern and southern Rhône valleys. Big-bodied yet balanced, this red shows notes of blackberry, currant, vanilla and toasty oak, seasoned with a dusting of herbs. Perfect for roast beef. It should improve with 10 to 15 years in the cellar.
Luis Felipe Edwards Dona Bernarda 2007
Score: 91 Price: $35.99 at B.C. private stores only
Named after founder Luis Felipe Edwards's wife, whose face graces the label, this red is based mainly on cabernet, blended in most years with carménère, syrah and petit verdot. Big and juicy, it offers a core of pure cherry and cassis coated in fine-grained tannins. Match it with steak or cellar it for up to 10 years.
Undurraga Altazor 2007
Score: 91 Price: $49.99 at B.C. private stores only
It's hard to guess the grape constituents here – the mark of another offbeat and intriguing blend. For the record, they are: cabernet sauvignon, syrah, carménère and merlot. This concentrated red serves up loads of dark-skinned fruit, bitter chocolate and soothing eucalyptus, and it begs to share a table with rack of lamb or prime rib.
Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Score: 90 Price: $15.50 in Ont., $21.99 in B.C., $18.25 in Que.
This is the sort of home run that has been drawing exacting consumers to Chile's mid-range (yet still attractively priced) wines. Full-bodied and succulent, with a sweet explosion of cherry and cassis flavours, it carries through with chocolate, fine-grained tannins and a dry finish. Medium-rare steak would pair beautifully.
Carmen Gran Reserva Carménère 2009
Score: 90 Price: $21.99 in B.C.
An opulent carménère, oozing superripe, prune-like fruit, with added nuances of vanilla and coffee, it would make fast friends with barbecued ribs.
Santa Rita Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Score: 89 Price: $13.95 in Ont., $15.99 in B.C., $15.10 in Que.
A long-standing favourite of bargain hunters, this full-bodied red continues to deliver impressive value. Textbook cabernet flavours of cassis and black olive are joined by chocolate, charred oak and invigorating mint. It would mingle gloriously with steak. And, remarkable for a wine at this price, it could improve with up to eight years in the cellar.
Montes Alpha Syrah 2009
Score: 89 Price: $19.95 in Ont., $23.55 in Que.
A ripe, full-bodied red with flavours of plum, chocolate and black pepper, it's built on a spine of solid acidity and smooth tannins. Think of northern Rhône syrah – with more opulent, sunny fruit. Try it with hearty red-meat stews.
Cono Sur Viognier 2010
Score: 88 Price: $10 in Ont., $10.99 in B.C. and N.S.
A star brand of the past decade, Cono Sur specializes in organically grown grapes. This entry-level white, part of the Bicycle range, lacks the certified-organic designation but is grown with minimal intervention. The orange-and-floral character of aromatic viognier comes through nicely, carried on a silky frame with a sweet, almost off-dry core. Perfect for Indian curries.
Montes Limited Selection Pinot Noir 2009
Score: 87 Price: $14.95 in Ont.
Light medium-bodied, this red delivers recognizable pinot flavour, unlike most pinots at its price. The cool Casablanca Valley, with its maritime influence, does justice to the delicate variety. Plum jam and herb flavours culminate in a crisp, balanced finish. This is a good red for fish, especially grilled salmon.