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Could Chile be Cabernet's next capital?

Still rustic in many respects, the country's ancient wine industry is establishing itself as a player in the ultra-premium field.

October 16, 2002|Charles Olken | Special to the Times

Chile is known to Americans mostly for inexpensive varietal exports: simple, almost candied Chardonnays, muddy Cabernets, green-tasting Sauvignons. But its wine country has vast potential, as many foreign wine firms, from Robert Mondavi to the Rothschilds, have recognized. And there is one category in which Chile already competes in terms of quality on the world stage: ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon in the $50 to $100 range.

Chile's wine country looks the way Sonoma or Napa did years ago, before either became so developed. You see the same rolling hills, the same sense of empty expanse. Though wine has been made there for centuries, it has not yet "arrived," and there still is a rustic quality to its wines. But its wine industry is developing rapidly, making Chile a country for wine lovers to watch.

The following Cabernets are good examples of the style, listed in order of preference.

1997 Carmen Gold, Maipo Valley, $60. This one is my personal favorite. It has depth, focus, richness and intensity and would show well in any tasting of similarly priced wines.

1999 Errazuriz, Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve, Aconcagua Valley, $50. Don Maximiano Errazuriz founded the winery about 130 years ago, and its most famous wine carries his name. The winery and vineyards are located north of Santiago in a narrow, ocean-cooled valley and this wine is made from both hillside and mountain-grown grapes. "Don Max" in 1999 is a sturdy, rich wine with black cherry fruit in abundance. It is typical of its warm vintage, but the 1998 Don Max was less impressive in my blind tastings. A sample of the 2000 showed the softer, less forceful elegance of other wines of that vintage.

1999 Almaviva, Maipo Valley, $90. This wine, co-produced by Mouton-Rothschild and Chile's Concha y Toro, has a curranty focus and sinewy texture. Its finish may be a bit gritty and overripe, but the depth of character is first-rate.

2000 Almaviva, Maipo Valley, $90. In Chile, 1999 was moderately warm and 2000 cool. This wine is as well-focused as the 1999 version but not as deep and rich.

1999 Clos Apalta, Rapel Valley, Apalta Region, $65. The recently planted Apalta region is a classic foothill location. It's perfect for highly extracted reds, such as this Merlot, influenced by consulting enologist Michel Rolland of Bordeaux's Pomerol district. It tastes of Merlot aged in very good barrels, though it has a gritty finish contributed by the hillside origin of its grapes.

1999 Montes Alpha "M," Rapel Valley, Apalta Region, $70. There is a little extra heat in this vineyard, and the wine it produces has an attractive, rather in-your-face intensity, but the result is more powerful than refined. I rate it just a little below the preceding wine; still, this is all Chilean in concept, and winemaker-owner Aurelio Montes is rightfully gaining fame for his brash winemaking style.

1999 Sena, Aconcagua Valley, $80. I rate this one equal with the Montes "M," but the wine itself is very different. The Sena project combines the energy and winemaking know-how of Robert Mondavi with the local knowledge of Eduardo Chadwick and his American-born winemaker, Ed Flaherty. For the first vintages, the grapes come from the Errazuriz holdings, although the choice of grapes and blend is in the hands of the Mondavi people. A new, sloped hillside vineyard is being developed in virgin land that looks like Napa or Sonoma. The joint venture has been making Sena since 1995, and the 1999 rates well, although the 1997 seems to be the best vintage of Sena.

1998 Concha y Toro, Don Melchor, Maipo Valley, $40. This established upper-crust red suffers from the weakness of the 1998 vintage. It has the touch of mint you expect to find in a Cab from the Maipo Valley, but not the concentration.

1999 Viu Manent No. 1, Colchagua Valley, $70. Lots of power, no refinement and distracting notes of black pepper and dry tannins. Chilean wine writers give it high scores, but I humbly disagree.

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