What happened to Chile?
Once a market favorite for its inexpensive, high-value red wines, Chile seems to have fallen from view. Argentina is the current South American darling for its malbec, which offers high-value bottles that span the price spectrum. Ask a wine lover where the bargains are, and you’ll hear Spain, Italy, France or Argentina, but rarely Chile.
The February 2010 earthquake that devastated southern Chile might have played a part; it hit the wine industry in that part of the country especially hard. But most wineries were insured, and the 2010 and 2011 vintages were generous, so supply is good and the industry has recovered. The earthquake seems to have been a temporary setback.
“The industry today has important challenges in other areas, such as cost increases due to energy costs and a labor shortage,” said Arturo Cousino, owner of Cousino-Macul winery, in an e-mail interview.
Yet Chile remains a reliable source of bargain wine, especially from older, established wineries. Concha y Toro’s Frontera line, at about $5 a bottle, and labels such as Walnut Crest and Santa Rita’s 120 line, at less than $10, offer great value. Cousino-Macul’s estate line continues to excel at around $12. Errazuriz is hard to pronounce but easy to swallow. Price increases have edged wines that were $15 a few years ago toward $20 today. That’s a 33 percent jump, not insignificant even though the wines still represent great value against similarly priced bottles from around the world.
A bigger problem is brand identity. While Argentina claims its own grape in malbec, Chile has no counterpart. In the 1990s, Chile touted its merlot, only to find that most of the vines were actually carmenere, an obscure Bordeaux variety that tends to taste like unripe weeds. Handled with care and kid gloves, carmenere can produce an excellent wine, such as the Montes Purple Angel, a $50 beauty. But carmenere is unlikely to seize consumers’ palates as a Chilean brand, at least on its own. Used with other grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, which continues to excel in Chile, it can provide a Chilean signature to Bordeaux-style blends unlikely to be matched.
Against that backdrop, Chile’s winemakers have been working to improve their product and explore new winemaking regions. Cousino-Macul has upgraded its vineyards in Buin, south of Santiago and invested in new ones in the Maipo Valley, south of Santiago, Cousino said.
Winemakers also are specializing their vineyards as they learn which grapes perform best where.
“If 30 years ago a vineyard would have a variety of grapes from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carmenere and chardonnay, among others, nowadays we’re more selective, and the vineyards are oriented toward producing grapes in their most favorable terroir,” Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at De Martino winery, said in an e-mail.
De Martino has explored several new wine regions in Chile, including the Limari Valley, extreme areas in the Andes mountain range at 6,500 feet and higher and the Atacama Desert in the country’s southern reaches. “We have pushed the boundaries of Chilean wine,” Retamal said. De Martino also is picking grapes earlier to produce wines with food-friendly acidity and lower alcohol levels, he said.
So don’t forget Chile, and don’t take it for granted as a fountain of cheap wine. The middle range is quite good, and in the next few years it should be getting better as more varied wines reach the market.