Previously, if you could find them, Chilean wines were noteworthy more for their low cost and unremarkable character. Now, walk into any good wine merchant and you will find an intriguing selection of Chilean wines that are still attractively priced but can easily hold their own among bottles from other countries.
The big change for Chilean wine began in the '80s, when internal regulations and restrictions were loosened, opening the industry to outside influences. Enthusiastic winemakers began adopting modern production techniques and equipment such as trellising in the vineyards and using temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks for fermentation. Chile is blessed with hardy rootstock that dates to the 1830s, when a Frenchman, Claudio Gay, imported the classic vitis vinifera grape (the type used most commonly for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) to Chile in an effort to develop the country's industry. Ironically, not long thereafter, the pest phylloxera wiped out the vineyards of France, leaving Chile with the oldest original French rootstock. To this day, for reasons that aren't known, Chile has remained phylloxera-free.
As they adopted new ways of making wine, Chilean producers also broadened their vineyards and began introducing varietals beyond the Cabernet-Merlot-Sauvignon Blanc trinity. An astonishing discovery in 1994 boosted those efforts when oenologists discovered that a varietal called Carmenère was growing among what was thought to be vineyards of Merlot. Originally one of the classic components of Bordeaux reds, Carmenère was thought to have been all but wiped out in the French phylloxera catastrophe. The Chileans have energetically and profitably capitalized on this discovery, and have made Carmenère the poster grape of their industry in the same way that their Argentine colleagues have done with Malbec. A deep purple grape that needs the long growing season that Chile provides, Carmenère generally produces wines that are deeply flavored and well-balanced in tannins, which makes for very enjoyable drinking.
When I taste Chilean wines today, it is hard to recall their forebears, which were adolescently forward, with brash, bold fruit character up front and not much else to recommend them (what James Beard referred to as "gulping wines"). Now, I find the better ones full of balance and finesse. On this last trip, the Sauvignon Blancs won me over almost across the board, as they had the characteristics that I enjoy most in the varietal, a minerally crispness with a touch of citrus tempered by a slightly floral bouquet. These made for delightful drinking with the abundant seafood we encountered on this journey.
I found the Cabernets still fruit-forward, but now with enough acid balance to ascend from the level of one-note bores to engaging companions worthy of further exploring and tasting. The Carmenères could certainly hold their own to quaff and to partner good food (especially grilled meat), but I also very much liked the Carmenère blends (usually a pairing with the softer Merlot) and highly recommend them.
In the Colchagua Valley, we had the chance to visit three notable wineries:
First was the extraordinary Clos Apalta, home to the exceptional Lapostolle Residence, whose guests are given an exclusive in-depth tour — arranged at your convenience—that should not be missed. From the outside, it is an impressive modernistic structure defined by striking vertical wood beams that curve above its top, suggesting the stays of a gigantic barrel. Built on six levels, four of which were carved out of the granite hillside, the winery relies on gravity to move the wine throughout its production phases so that it is manipulated as little as possible. Although the winery has a prosaic purpose, it has dramatic aesthetics, most notably in the barrel-aging rooms and the Lapostolles' private wine library (open only to Residence guests). In both aging rooms, the lighting is hushed, with elements in the ceiling laid out to echo the Southern Cross constellation. The library, reached by a metal staircase, is set right into the granite, assuring perfect storage temperatures for the hundreds of bottles of Lapostolle wines. A tasting after the tour confirmed my admiration for the Clos Apalta, an elegant Bordeaux-style red; and the crisp, refreshing Casa Sauvignon Blanc.
A short drive away, Montes is a low-slung building set among verdant vineyards ringed by a mountain range. This is a much larger facility, and has a more industrial look and feel inside. In no way, however, does that affect the caliber of the wines, which is high indeed. Montes first made its mark with its signature Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, and has gone on to create a wide-ranging portfolio of wines. Our post-tour tasting renewed my liking for the Alpha M red, a Bordeaux-style blend that is elegant and well-balanced and capable of great aging. This being Carmenère country, I particularly enjoyed tasting Montes' Purple Angel, a blend of Carmenère and Petit Verdot that makes for a lush, eminently drinkable wine. The real surprise was the Late Harvest Gewürztraminer, a luscious dessert wine that had a rich and rewarding honeyed mouth feel.
A bit farther away, the Neyen vineyards have long supplied grapes to winemakers throughout the Colchagua Valley and beyond. Ten years ago, the owners decided to make wine themselves, and built a facility that echoes an old adobe structure on the property for that purpose. Walking through the vineyards on the tour, I had the thrill of seeing gnarled, noble vines that were more than 120 years old and still producing bountiful fruit! Neyen makes just one wine, a blend of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the stunning tasting room in the old adobe building, we tasted the 2005. Rich with the flavors of red berry fruits balanced by just the right acidity, it is a wine with great finesse and structure, one of the best I tasted during our stay in Chile.