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Chile Goes Upmarket (May 26, 2002)

Earlier this month I attended a tasting of Super Premium and Ultra Premium Chilean wines in New York.

What happens when a wine region renowned for its inexpensive, everyday wines hops on to the Ultra Premium bandwagon? You get Chilean wines that retail in the United States for $40 to $80 a bottle.

Five producers showed their wines at this event, although conspicuous by their absence were Almaviva, the Concha y Toro/Mouton-Rothschild joint venture wine and Casa Lapostolle's brilliant Clos Apalta made by St. Emilion oenologist Michel Rolland.

The wine that impressed me most at the tasting was Seña 1999, the Mondavi/Errazuriz co-production that Tim Mondavi calls "the Opus One of Chile." At a suggested retail price of $70 US, it is dense purple in colour with a lifted blackcurrant nose scented with vanilla oak. The wine is fruit-driven but subtly structured, stylish and artful with great balance (I score it *****). The 2000 vintage of the same wine was flintier and smokier on the nose, well balanced but without the gracefulness of the '99 vintage. Both were blends of Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Carmenère.

I much preferred the Montes Alpha M 2000, a classic Bordeaux blend, to Aurelio Montes' 1999 (a wine I found somewhat cooked, with a hard, tannic finish). The 2000 vintage had an inky, vanilla and red berry nose with well extracted fruit – cassis and blackberry flavours – firmly structured and intense (*****).

Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve 2000 (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) was very Bordelais in style with characteristic cedar, vanilla, red and blackcurrants on the nose, well balanced with finely integrated oak and well focused blackcurrant fruit on the palate (****½) – a more successful wine than the 1999 with its 3% Merlot. The flavours here were leaner with sweet rhubarb on the nose and redcurrant-cranberry flavours with drying tannins (****).

From left to right: Augustin Huneeus (Veramonte winery), Tim Mondavi (Robert Mondavi winery), Aurelio Montes speaking (Montes winery), Eduardo Chadwick (Errazuriz winery).

Concha y Toro's Don Melchor 1997 (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) was more traditional Chilean style with licorice and blackcurrant on the nose, full-bodied and chunky with a minty, dark chocolate flavour (****). The 1999 vintage of the same wine was lighter and more elegant, more Bordeaux in style and structure with good red berry fruit and a real sense of terroir (****½).

Without doubt, the best value was a Super Premium wine from Veramonte in the Casablanca Valley. Primus 1999 is a blend of 60% Carmenère, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. Spicy and sensuous, beautifully made with a firm structure, great balance with a flavour of currants, finishing with mellow tannins, this wine, as its owner Augustin Huneeus claimed, was “high on the delicious scale” (*****). Its price: $20 US. Huneeus is president of Franciscan Estates, a company that owns such California wineries as Quintessa (well on its way to becoming a cult wine), Franciscan Oakville Estate, Simi, Mount Veeder and Ravenswood.

For those of us who are used to paying $10 to $15 for Chilean wine, this tasting came as something of an eye-opener, and perhaps a wallet-opener. Whether the consuming public at large can make the leap to pay these Ultra Premium prices remains to be seen.

Perhaps Hernan Gras, winemaker and proprietor of MontGras in the Colchagua Valley, summed it up best when I met with him the day after the tasting in Toronto. "It's good for Chile to have a range of wines with high prices – as long as they deserve the price."




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