A Diplomatic Champion for Chile

By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just a few days after Mariano Fernandez assumed his post as Chile's ambassador to the United States, he scored his first diplomatic triumph. Serving as a judge at the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, he convinced the four other judges at his table that a wine he particularly liked was worthy of a gold medal. The next day, when the entire 20-judge panel tasted the top-scoring wines from among the more than 300 entered, the wine he'd championed -- Osprey's Dominion Reserve Merlot 2002 from Long Island -- was voted best of show.

In the two years since, Fernandez has been busy with more traditional diplomatic duties in managing relations between Santiago and Washington. But he has also been a visible and vocal advocate of Chile's wine industry, playing a more active role than most ambassadors in promoting their country's vino.

Fernandez calls wine "my secret profession." He is an internationally recognized wine expert as a member of the Academie Internationale du Vin and honorary member of two Bordeaux societies, the European Wine Society of Austria and a cellarful of Chilean wine organizations. He is a regular judge at the annual Concours Mondiale de Bruxelles and at competitions in Spain and Chile.

His love affair with wine began in the 1970s in Germany, where the young diplomat lived in exile during the Pinochet regime, working as a journalist for a Spanish-language news service. He developed his expertise further with diplomatic postings as ambassador to the European Union, Italy, Spain and Great Britain. In 2006, President Michelle Bachelet sent Fernandez to Washington, where he expects to stay until her term expires in 2010.

In an interview over several glasses of wine at the Chilean residence, Fernandez described a wine industry in ferment, in which family wineries dating from the 1850s compete with younger operations backed by investors in France or the United States. Chile is justifiably known for producing inexpensive, reliable wines, yet it has proved in the past decade that it can produce fine luxury wines as well.

"The new style of Chilean wine is part of the new wine world: more concentration, more structure, more alcoholic degrees compared to the old style," Fernandez said. Exploring that newer style, we tasted a Montes Folly 2001, a syrah from Fernandez's collection that showed gorgeous fruit with a velvety texture, and the Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta 2003, quite expressive though still young and tannic. "If we age this another 10 years, it should mellow," Fernandez said.

Despite those successes, however, I wonder whether a move toward the modern "international" style is a welcome trend. That style of wine, praised by critics and prized by collectors, is difficult and expensive to pull off, and the market is saturated with clumsy, over-concentrated, high-alcohol imitations. Chile is not immune to this, and with few exceptions luxury wines from Chile remain a risky purchase.

Chile remains strongest in the bargain and mid-price categories, where for decades it has consistently beaten California in quality and bang for the buck. And no longer is it limited to merlot and cabernet sauvignon from the Maipo and Colchagua valleys. New regions such as Casablanca, Leyda, Limari, Elqui and Malleco are appearing on bottles of sauvignon blanc, Riesling, pinot noir and syrah.

"We are on the verge of finding the greatest terroirs of Chile," Fernandez said. "We have potential for great diversity, with Riesling and Gewuerztraminer in the south to Mediterranean grapes like syrah and tempranillo in the center and north."

Chile consistently ranks fourth in U.S. wine imports, behind Italy, Australia and France, according to the trade association Wines of Chile. In 2007, Chilean wine imports to the United States grew by 13 percent in quantity and 24 percent in value, indicating that American consumers may be trading up from the inexpensive table wine Chile became known for 20 years ago.

Despite the popularity of Chilean wines among American consumers, Fernandez has little regard for U.S. wine publications, particularly Wine Spectator magazine. He says the "experts" dismiss Chilean wines and their ability to age. "They always say drink within five years. Why set such limits?" he asked.

To prove his point, a few months ago he hosted several journalists for a dinner that featured eight vintages of Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon, dating from 1992 back to 1960. When this wine was first sold in the United States, during the 1980s, it cost about $7. Today at full retail the 2006 costs $16. The wines were outstanding, and my notes on the 1960 raved about the "fantastic nose . . . wood, earth and stone, the basic elements," and hints of mint, cocoa and caramel on the palate.

Cousino-Macul, established in 1856, is still owned by the Cousino family. Fernandez called it "a fair friend," noting that he still has bottles from the early 1950s in his 3,000-bottle collection back home in Chile. He clearly misses that collection, which includes Bordeaux back to 1945, the year he was born.

"I haven't lived there in eight years," he said ruefully. "The last time I went home, I pulled out a few bottles, and, ahh, they were magnificent!"

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.

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