The Best New Wines from Chile

While Chile continues to be a very good source of wine values, prices are no longer as consistently attractive at the low end as they were the last time the IWC published coverage of this category, two years ago. At the same time, though, quality at the low end has improved as producers have become more discerning about choosing what varieties should be planted where. The cooler coastal regions are now home to numerous new plantings of white varieties that were formerly grown in the warm Central Valley. So although today’s white wines are more expensive than they were in past years, they are almost uniformly better.

I tasted through nearly a thousand wines for this year’s report, and while I was once again stunned by the quality-to-price ratio that Chile is capable of delivering at the low end, and impressed by a handful of world-class reds produced at the top, I found a troubling inconsistency of quality—not to mention value—in the vast middle range. Simply put, there are too many competently made but essentially generic and innocuous wines in the $15 to $30 range, which is a highly competitive segment of the market right now for any wine-producing country.

Chilean wine production is dominated by enormous wineries, many of which fall under multinational corporate umbrellas. Time and again, I found myself wondering if the stultifying culture of a bottom line- and marketing-driven corporate world has had a dampening effect on the willingness of Chile’s wine producers to wait a bit longer to harvest and to make wines without technological overkill. Absent risk-taking, wines may be correct but will rarely offer real character or individuality. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, but there’s also a case to be made for wines that exhibit site or at least regional character. On a tour of Chile’s most important wine-growing areas last year, I rarely felt the palpable energy that exists in regions where a small, eccentric producer’s influence can extend to the largest producers. It’s not as if most of Chile’s producers lack the resources. On the contrary: no region’s wineries can beat Chile’s for architectural grandeur, state-of-the-art machinery, expensive barrels, and fancy glassware, not to mention size. This is, after all, a country where wine exports are mostly counted in containers, not cases.

After tasting so many Chilean wines in recent months, I found it interesting that it was almost always the usual suspects whose wines showed real personality and performed at a world-class level. Yes, it’s encouraging that a handful of new faces have appeared in the upper tier, but Chile is not yet a bountiful source of 90+-point wines, at least by the standards of this publication. Still, the relative handful of best Chilean wines can be major bargains when compared to top-end wines of equal quality from other countries. And despite the amazing quantity of sometimes correct but often uninteresting wine that I tasted in recent months, there are more of these very good to excellent wines coming out of Chile than ever before.

On the marketing side of things, Chile also faces a challenge: its wine labels seem more complicated than ever before, with rampant abuse of the word “reserve”—which seems to have lost any semblance of its original meaning—as well as a head-spinning array of fantasy names, so-called barrel and vineyard and block selections, and so forth. I was also struck this year by the number of confusing names and labels employed by numerous producers who make a range of wines under the same winery or corporate umbrella. Many Chilean wineries are owned by larger entities, and wine names are often mixed together in an indecipherable hash. A rush to create catchy packaging and an aura of exclusivity can muddy the labels pretty fast, and confused consumers are apt to shop elsewhere if they can’t figure out a wine’s name. If somebody with twenty years’ experience in the wine business is frustrated, imagine Joe Cabernet’s reaction. But despite this obstacle to sales, 2007 saw imports of Chilean wine to the U.S. increase 13% by volume and 24% by value over 2006, which says that not only are Chilean wines growing in popularity here, but also that people are obviously willing to pay more for them.

Recent vintages in Chile. Wines from the 2007 vintage have been flowing into the market since last summer, and the quality of the whites looks extremely good. The growing season was cool overall, allowing for a later harvest than normal if producers chose to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s too early to make a call on the 2007 reds, but the technical numbers say that the best wines will be fresh and racy, while too many others will be on the lean side.

Two thousand six was also a long growing season, but with more warmth than 2007 offered. The season began on a cold note, which stunted the flowering and helped to keep yields lower than normal. Conditions then turned warm and there was little rain (this is considered a drought vintage). Unlike in Europe, Chile’s vineyards are virtually all irrigated, some of them liberally, so lack of rainfall was not an issue. The warm days were complemented by cool nights, which allowed slow maturation of the grapes, and, in theory, greater complexity of aromas and flavors in the finished wines than is normally possible in vintages in which sharp heat spikes or consistently hot weather make for inadequate natural acidity or uneven ripening. These favorable conditions extended through the harvest, in which the cabernet sauvignon and carmenère were picked later than the norm, with the potential for making fully ripe and complex wines. The 2006 white wines are holding up very well, by the way, although I wouldn’t risk holding any but a select few much longer.

Two thousand five, another extended growing season, is proving to be a strong vintage, with plenty of wines offering vibrant aromatics, sweet and fully ripe fruit, and harmonious tannins. The weather was moderate throughout the season, starting with a cold spring and followed by a clement summer with no serious heat spikes and little precipitation, except for some heavy rainfall in the Casablanca Valley in March, which is early fall down there. The best wines are ripe, sweet and supple in texture, but with the requisite structure and concentration to age.

Of the nearly 1,000 wines I tasted for this article, 300 rated 87 points or higher, with another 150 or more meriting 85 or 86 points. Please note that these latter bottlings (listed as “also recommended”) can offer superb value, as many of them retail for under $10. Owing to space limitations, nearly 200 “other wines tasted” have been omitted from the print version of this issue, as have many wines without U.S. importers or from wineries that did not present at least one wine rating 87 points or higher.