On Sept. 1, my friend and colleague Ben Giliberti published a column in this space entitled "Argentina Beats Chile." Today, I'd like to respond: "No, It Doesn't."
Ben and I agreed some time ago that it could be healthy for us to air our (relatively rare) disagreements here. Ben noted that we should be sure to keep the exchanges civil, which seems wise, even though this precluded my preferred response of, "No, It Doesn't, You Big Doofus."
In all seriousness, we've got an issue here on which reasonable observers can disagree, since these two wine-producing countries are evenly matched despite important differences. Both have great potential, but, in my view, it is Chile that is currently ahead by a small but noteworthy margin.
Ben's column acknowledges that Chile has a "natural bounty of fine soil and climate," and that it was once ahead of Argentina as an exporter. Yet he contends that "Chile has blundered into second place largely on its own. Its promise has been undercut by a haphazard combination of excessive grape yields, robotic winemaking and awesomely nasty grape varieties -- in particular, the red Carmenere, which should be renamed the Ben-Gay for its noxious, mentholated scent."
Those are pretty strong words, but I believe the words are stronger than the points behind them. Excessive grape yields (resulting in diluted wines) and excessive mechanization (resulting in technically correct but soulless wines) pose dangerous temptations not only in Chile, but also in Argentina, Australia and in any other country strategically geared toward exporting value-oriented wines. The strategy for these countries is not to make cheap wines, but rather to compete by selling wines that offer more quality for less money (whether priced at $7 or $70) than wines from competitor countries with longer traditions and greater prestige.
Do some Chilean producers botch the strategy by tilting toward lower costs at the expense of higher value? Sure they do. But so do some Argentine producers. The real issue is this: Do we see a higher percentage of diluted, soulless wines from Chile than from Argentina? In my experience, the answer is no. In terms of concentration, Chilean wines at every price point are generally comparable. And in terms of character and individuation, they are generally superior to what we're getting from Argentina.
In my tastings, Argentina's wines tend to be more overtly fruity, more like one another, and more easily pegged as New World wines than Chile's. The flip side of this is that Chile's wines are marginally more complex, with more restrained fruit, a broader range of aromas and flavors, greater regional differences, and a general profile that leans into an interesting gray area between New and Old World flavor patterns.
Although I see Chile out in front of Argentina for the moment, I am happy to acknowledge that this is a close call. But to term Carmenere "awesomely nasty" and "noxious," well, them's fightin' words. I find Carmenere fascinating and delicious, and regard its identification in Chile in 1994 as the single most important discovery (or rediscovery) in the entire wine world during the past decade.
Carmenere was an important grape in Bordeaux before being effectively lost in the phylloxera blight late in the 19th century. It survived only because cuttings were transported to establish vineyards in Chile between 1850 and 1870, but its identity as a distinct variety was lost over time, and it came to be mistaken for a mutation of Merlot. It was identified in Chile by Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a grapevine expert from France, in 1994, and has been studied rigorously since then. Now vinified in a manner appropriate to its peculiarities, it is making dark, intense wines of great depth and seriousness.
I detailed all of this in a column here on May 21, 2003, and thus shouldn't repeat the specifics now. Surprised by Ben's sharp criticisms about menthol aromas, I've recently tasted 17 varietal Carmeneres to assess the current crop of wines. My conclusion: Ben has been sniffing something. And it isn't what showed up in my glasses.
I encountered only one wine that had a hint anything like a minty, menthol note (the Yelcho). I found the wines extremely impressive as a group, especially considering their low prices. I don't doubt that Ben actually tried a menthol-scented Carmenere, but I suspect it was from a vineyard located near a eucalyptus grove, because I can find no evidence of any intrinsically minty character in the variety.
Notes on currently available Carmeneres appear here in order of preference, with approximate prices and importers in parentheses. I'll be back with reviews of other Chilean reds in two weeks. And Ben, before you come back with a crack about me being the guy who put the "butt" in rebuttal -- I saw it first.
Terrunyo (Concha y Toro) (Cachapoal Valley) 2002 ($30, Excelsior): This is the world standard for this grape, with wonderful blackberry fruit accented with notes of cocoa, licorice and wood smoke.
Hacienda Araucano (Jacques & Francois Lurton) (Colchagua Valley) "Alka" 2002 ($60, Winesellers, Ltd.): Dark and deep, with intense fruit balanced by sweet, spicy oak.
Casa Silva (Colchagua Valley) Reserve 2002 ($12, Vin Divino): Massively concentrated and full of gutsy fruit, with backing from lots of ripe, fine-grained tannin.
MontGras (Colchagua Valley) Reserva 2001 ($11, Palm Bay): Dark and dense, with blackberry fruit that is intense but very pure, with well-balanced bracing from oak.
Arboleda (Colchagua Valley) 2001 ($12, RM Imports): Earthy and exotic, with aromas of black fruits, smoke, wild mushrooms and fresh meat.
Araucano (Jacques & Francois Lurton) (Colchagua Valley) 2003 ($9, Winesellers): Whereas this producer's "Alka" bottling is conspicuously pricey, this wine is a stunning value, with loads of sweet, pure fruit and soft, silky tannins.
Luis Felipe Edwards (Colchagua Valley) Gran Reserva 2002 ($13, William Grant): Powerful but also refined, with complex aromas and superb integration of flavor components.
Yelcho (Maipo Valley) Reserve ($12.50, Metafoods): Very complex aromas include a subtle minty note along with notes of crushed blackberries, cocoa, dried herbs, coffee and spices. Dark, dense and fascinating.
Casillero del Diablo (Concha y Toro) Rapel Valley 2003 ($10, Excelsior): Widely available, true to the variety, and very well made, this shows the whole spectrum of Carmenere's charms at a very attractive price.
Santa Rita (Rapel Valley) Reserva 2002 ($12, Vineyard Brands): A big, meaty wine packed with fruit and sweet, smoky oak.
ALSO RECOMMENDED: Baron Philippe de Rothschild (Rapel Valley) Reserva 2002 ($11, Caravelle); Gracia de Chile (Maipo Valley) Reserva 2003 ($11, Great Wines Corpora); Vina Santa Carolina (Rapel Valley) "Barrica Selection" 2002 ($13, Medalla Wine Imports); Terra Andina (Central Valley) 2001 ($8, Terra Andina); Viu Manent (Colchagua Valley) "Oak Aged Reserve" 2002 ($12, Margron Skoglund); Frontera (Concha y Toro) (Valle Central) 2003 ($5, Excelsior); Santa Rita (Rapel Valley) "120" 2003 ($9, Vineyard Brands).
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.