The wines of Chile

Standing atop the stone staircase on Cerro Santa Lucia, the hill on which this city was founded in 1541, looking east past the verdant vineyards that dot the suburbs, you can see the dramatic, snow-capped Andes.

The pure snowmelt that flows from those peaks has always been Chile's agricultural pride. Its farmers boast that they need only dig a trench -- not even put in pumps -- to nourish their lush orchards, fertile vegetable fields and vast vineyards.

So it's ironic that only now, since winemakers have learned the discipline to let their vines drink less greedily of that eternal flood, are they beginning to make the best wines their country can.

Chile stands ready today, after several stumbling starts, to make a major splash in the world of top-value wines. At friendly, mostly $5-to-$12-a-bottle prices. Even a dollop of $25 wines to compete with the world's finest.

It's not surprising that Chile's most popular export wines happily mirror America's favorite wines to drink -- chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon. It's because Chile's favorite foods are also America's:

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* Its round, sweet sauvignon blanc with seafood from the icy Antarctic waters brought to Chile's Pacific shore by the Humboldt Current. Delicate, flaky congrio eel, sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), parrillada de mariscos (seafood grill).

* Its lush chardonnay with another Chilean specialty, pollo a la brasa, spit-roasted chicken with baked onions and rice.

* Its heady merlot and rich cabernet sauvignon with Chilean beef, which, tended by huasos, the Chilean version of Argentina's gaucho, is approaching that country's in quality. A favorite is the parrillada, in which nearly every part of the cow or pig, from prime filet to sausage to, if you insist, the intestines, is seared on big outdoor charcoal grills.

Chile, when you think of it, is a natural place to make good-value wine. Sunnier than France. Cooler than California. Land and labor cheaper than either. Its vine-rich Central Valley, isolated by the Pacific to the west, the Andes to the east, the Atacama desert to the north, the Antarctic to the south, is like an island -- free of the diseases, from mildew to the plant louse phylloxera that plague the world's other vineyards.

Its wine heritage is French. Its vines were first imported by wealthy landowner Don Silvester Ochagavia from Bordeaux at the end of the last century, just before phylloxera devastated France's wine industry. Because of that, Chile is dotted with fields of 100-year-old cabernet sauvignon vines -- older than most in France. And old vines, any French vigneron will tell you, make the best wine.

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Until recently, what held back Chilean wine was its outmoded methods of winemaking -- hot, roiling fermentation, long aging in ancient casks of the Chilean redwood called rauli -- which turned out tired, tannic wines the world no longer wants.

Now that's changing. Finally, after the 1988 end of the stultifying, 15-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, two important things are happening.

Chile is now seen as hospitable by French, Spanish and American wine executives with money and modern know-how. And the country's old wine dynasties, recognizing the competition, are finally pumping in the money to copy those modern methods with $600 French oak barrels, temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks and such.

A final detour: Chilean wines, cheap and good, took America by storm in the 1980s. But by the start of the '90s many Chilean vineyard owners, drunk with success, fell into the trap of letting in too much of that magical Andes water, increasing production to as much as 10 tons per acre. It overtaxed the vines, made wines that were washed out and insipid. But a quick plummet in popularity showed the owners the folly of greed. Today Chile's winemakers -- the successful ones, anyway -- are learning the discipline of quality over quantity.

Some top examples:

A hundred miles down the Pan American Highway from Santiago, in the middle of Chile's bounteous, snowmelt-fed garden valley packed with artichokes, cherries, asparagus, potatoes, oranges, strawberries, avocados and onions, just off a crumbling asphalt road clogged with horse-drawn carts and bicycles, lies Casa Lapostolle -- one of the world's most modern wineries.

It isn't even finished yet. In their hurry to make wine, its owners poured concrete slabs and mounted state-of-the-art computerized presses and stainless steel fermenting tanks covered only by black nursery screen -- planning to erect a building around them when time permits.

Ask resident winemaker Nicolas Rappeneau how it differs from the French wineries where he learned his trade, and he says: "Actually, it's a lot more modern."

The modernity is financed by a $12-million investment by France's Marnier-Lapostolle family, owners of Chateau de Sancerre in the Loire Valley, makers of the world-famous Grand Marnier liqueur.

"In France, there's no place to plant new vines; it's even hard to buy more grapes," says Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle. "So we decided to make a new wine. I was put in charge of making a study of where."

For expert help she turned to Michel Rolland, owner of Chateau Le Bon Pasteur in Bordeaux's Pomerol area and consulting winemaker to eight other wineries, from France to Argentina.

They settled on Chile's Colchagua wine subregion, forming a partnership with the Chilean Rabat family, which had founded the winery in 1927, buying acres of vines already planted, some of which today are more than 100 years old.

"We provide the equipment, the money and the expertise," says Marnier-Lapostolle.

"Chile had good grapes but not very good winemakers," says Rolland. His toughest task: Even when he offered to pay growers for six tons per acre if they would thin their crops to deliver only four, they protested before finally agreeing.

"In Chile, it's criminal to cut grapes," Rappeneau laments. "It's like cutting off an arm."

At Casa Lapostolle, Rolland vows to make Chilean wines, not copies of his French ones.

"We're seeking the Chilean personality, how to express it," he says. "Chile is warmer, with less rain. We want the wines to be sweet and round."

From Pomerol, where the merlot grape is king, Rolland is grooming his Casa Lapostolle merlot to join the tiny new category of Chilean wines that aim to compete with the best in the world. It is hugely complex, with shifting aromas and flavors from cherry liqueur to mint to chocolate, at only $12.

"We're prepared to make Chile's best wine," Rappeneau vows.

"And next year," adds vineyard president Patricio Eguiguren, "we'll put on a roof."

The story of this 550-acre wine estate in the suburbs of Santiago is the opposite of Casa Lapostolle's. Here, tradition rules. First planted to vines by the Spanish in the 1550s, it was bought by the Cousino family in the 1850s. Even today, rifle-toting huasos on horseback patrol its tall perimeter walls.

There's an easy, patrician manner about Arturo Cousino, the estate's fourth-generation manager. A sense that things happen in their own time.

Only in 1989 did the family invest in the latest equipment, replacing the old concrete fermenting tanks and rauli barrels. He also slowed the flow of Andes water to his vines to restrict their yield and intensify flavor.

Today Cousino Macul makes excellent wines -- chardonnays lush with tropical fruit, a merlot redolent of black cherries and black pepper, a cabernet sauvignon rich and earthy and spicy.

In 1992 Cousino Macul launched what it vows will be its finest red wine, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend from a few remarkable acres of 60-year-old vines. It's called Finis Terrae -- "The End of The Earth" -- which is how the Incas of Peru described Chile to their Spanish conquerors.

"We will increase this only slowly," he says. "We're not in a hurry."

Another traditional Chilean winery gone modern, this estate, 25 miles south of Santiago, is one of the country's most beautiful. Against a background of rolling Andes foothills, endless lines of vines stretch across gentle Maipo Valley slopes, each vine pruned identically -- four feet of bare trunk, then a two-foot burst of green leaves and baby grape bunches, creating the impression of a mammoth field of leafy poodles.

At the end of each row stands the traditional blooming rose bush, a gesture to the tradition that roses suffer the same diseases grapevines do, only sooner, and so serve as sentinels.

Inside the traditional cellar, dug in 1880 on ground where Chilean patriot Gen. Bernardo O'Higgins hid out from invading Spanish troops in 1814, arises a clatter of construction as Santa Rita puts in $40 million worth of modernizing stainless steel and French oak.

When it's done, Santa Rita will be making 40 million bottles a year from its 2,600 acres, land that produces grapes at a respectable six tons per acre.

"Chile has fertile soils; we have to work to keep yields down," says export director Sergio Reyes.

Santa Rita's lines of wine, priced from $5 to $25, are uniformly bright, lush and fruity. Its entry to the new sweepstakes of premium wines, the $25 Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon, is a chunky, chewy blockbuster redolent of menthol, chocolate and cassis.

Reyes echoes the pride heard today across his land: "This is Chile's finest wine."

Casa Lapostolle

* 1995 Sauvignon Blanc, Colchagua: Fresh pineapple and banana aromas, mildly grassy flavor, hugely fruity, with hints of tangy menthol; $6.

* 1994 Chardonnay, Colchagua: Aromas of pineapple, toasty oak, butter, menthol, rich, with flavors of sweet tropical fruit and grapefruit; $8.

* 1994 Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua: Deep blueberry and leather aromas, lots of sweet-tart fruit, excellent balance of acid and firm but sweet tannin, $8.

Cousino Macul

* 1995 Chardonnay, Macul: Lush, sweet, fruity, with intense pear and bananaaromas and flavors, $8.

* 1994 Chardonnay Antiguas Reservas, Maipo: Tropical fruit made complex with hints of oak and menthol, soft; $13.

* 1993 Merlot, Maipo: Complex aromas of black cherries, black pepper, menthol, oak, rich, firmly structured, excellent balance, chewy tannins; $12.

* 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon Antiguas Reservas, Maipo: Earth and menthol aromas, very dry, very rich, spicy, firm tannins, $9.

Santa Rita

* 1995 Sauvignon Blanc, Series 120, Maule: Aromas of pears and bananas, soft,fruity, tangy, $5.

* 1995 Sauvignon Blanc, Medalla Real, Maule: Aromas of grass and menthol, classical figgy, minty flavors, $10.

* 1995 Chardonnay Reserva, Maipo: Mint, pineapple and oak aromas and flavors, $7.

*1995 Chardonnay Medalla Real, Casablanca: Oak and pineapple aromas, intense, tangy, crisp, $10.

* 1994 Merlot Reserva, Maule: Oak and raspberry aromas, dry, full-bodied, firm tannin.

* 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon, Series 120, Maipo: Black pepper and cherry aromas, bright, spicy, fruity, $5.

* 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, Maipo: Intense menthol and spice aromas, cherry and chocolate flavors, big body, firm tannin, $7.

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