After sharing this column space with my colleague Ben Giliberti for more than 10 years without a single public disagreement, I've recently fallen into a dispute with him. On Sept. 1, Ben published an article entitled, "Argentina Beats Chile," and I replied two weeks ago with "Chile Versus Argentina, Round 2."
It is always upsetting to argue with friends. But whenever I'm in a situation like this, I think back to what my dear mother used to say: "Son, when your opponent is also your friend, you must always take the high road, which offers the best position from which to crush him like a bug."
She has mellowed a bit over the years, but in the Ladies Bridge League they still call her "Margaret the Merciless," and I still follow her advice.
So, let me offer a couple of concessions before reviewing some fantastic reds that will crush the notion that Chile is slipping. I've tasted more than 100 Chilean reds since this dispute broke out, and I'll admit that I have hit a few that showed evidence of the excessive grape yields that Ben lamented on Sept. 1. I'll also grant that I encountered some wines that were lacking in distinctiveness and character, lending some credence to Ben's charge of "robotic winemaking."
However, these findings simply don't justify a general indictment of winemaking in Chile. I found these shortcomings in relatively few of the wines I tasted, found them almost exclusively in Merlots, and more specifically in Merlots priced under $12. This is probably a result of the current Merlot fad among consumers (especially American ones), which has encouraged new plantings worldwide. Since producers can sell almost anything that bears the Merlot name, they are lavishing these young vines with water and fertilizers and then vinifying the grapes in the most cost-efficient manner possible.
I'll grant that an unacceptably large proportion of cheap Chilean Merlots are diluted and boring. But I'll also assert that this is no less true of cheap Merlot from Argentina, Australia, South Africa, southern France or California. The problem is global, not Chilean, and it is largely limited to Merlot. And when focus shifts to Cabernet Sauvignon and blends based on Cabernet, Chile looks like a leader rather than a slacker. In my experience, Chile's Cabs and Blends are just as concentrated as those we're seeing from any competing country, while consistently offering greater complexity and individual distinctiveness.
Of course, the most telling way to judge Chilean winemaking and to determine how it stacks up against Argentina is to taste for yourself, so here are a bunch of delicious, high-value blends and Cabs. I'll provide fuller tasting notes and reviews of top Merlots in today's Live Online at noon.
Recommended wines appear in order of preference within product categories, with approximate prices and importers indicated in parentheses:
Almaviva (Baron Philippe de Rothschild & Vina Concha y Toro) (Puente Alto, Maipo Valley) 2000 ($70, Excelsior): A $70 wine is only a "high-value" product if it tastes like $100, and this one does, with fabulous notes of blackberries, black currants, cocoa, smoke and wild mushrooms. Wow!
Casa Lapostolle (Apalta Vineyard, Colchagua Valley) "Clos Apalta" 2001 ($38, Marnier-Lapostolle): This blend of Carmenere, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is slow to open but is terrific once it does, with robust, intense flavors, superb integration and balance.
Viu Manent (Colchagua Valley) "Viu 1" 2001 ($50, Margron Skoglund): Black as ink and massively concentrated, with commensurately powerful oak.
Santa Rita (Maipo Valley) "Triple C" 1999 ($45, Vineyard Brands): Mature and complex but still fresh and vibrant, this is a sublime blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere.
Alto de Terra Andina (Maipo Valley) Reserve Shiraz 75% Cabernet Sauvignon 25% 2002 ($16, Terra Andina USA): Big, intense and packed with character, this requires lamb or game and nothing less.
Veramonte (Casablanca) "Primus" 2001 ($16, Franciscan Estate Selections): A fantastic wine that tastes close to a varietal Carmenere, with intense notes of blackberries, licorice and wood smoke.
MontGras (Colchagua Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah Reserva 2002 ($11, National): At this price, I guarantee that this absolutely demolishes every comparably priced Shiraz-Cab blend from Australia.
2 Brothers (Colchagua Valley) "Big Tattoo Red" 2003 ($10, Billington): A 50-50 blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this shows lovely berry fruit with light oak edging.
Concha y Toro (Puente Alto, Maipo Valley) "Don Melchor" 2000 ($45, Excelsior): Consistently one of the world's best high-end Cabernet values, this shows great complexity and perfect balance among the many flavor nuances.
Santa Rita (Maipo Valley) Alto Santa Rita Old Vines Vineyard "Casa Real" 1999 ($65, Vineyard Brands): Marvelously complex and intriguing, with lightly earthy aromas accenting gorgeous black fruit notes.
Carmen (Maipo Valley) Single Vineyard Gold Reserve 1999 ($70 whole; W. J. Deutsch): Arguably overpriced but indisputably delicious, this is soft, sweet, complex and well balanced.
Haras (Maipo Valley) "Elegance" 2000 ($40, Remy Amerique): A gorgeous wine with great concentration and depth of flavor, finishing with marvelous softness and length.
Alto de Terra Andina (Maipo Valley) Reserve 2002 ($14, Terra Andina USA): Pure, juicy black currant fruit with just the right touch of smoky oak.
Marques de Casa Concha (Puente Alto) 2002 ($15, Excelsior): A fantastic value, this features blackberries, cocoa, smoke and fresh meat, with impeccable balance and structural symmetry.
OTHER RECOMMENDED CABERNETS: Gran Araucano (Jacques & Francois Lurton) (Colchagua Valley) 2001 ($35, Winesellers, Ltd.); Vina Aquitania (Maipo Valley) "Lazuli" 2002 ($30, Ex Cellars); Haras (Maipo Valley) "Character" 2000 ($20, Remy Amerique); Santa Rita (Maipo Valley) Medalla Real "Special Reserve" 2001 ($18, Vineyard Brands); MontGras (Colchagua Valley) Reserva 2002 ($11, Palm Bay); Errazuriz (Aconcagua Valley) Estate 2002 ($10, RM Imports); Santa Rita (Maipo Valley) Reserva 2002 ($12, Vineyard Brands); Cousino-Macul (Maipo Valley) Antiguas Reservas 2002 ($14, Billington); Casa Lapostolle (Rapel Valley) 2001 ($8, Marnier-Lapostolle); Viu Manent (Colchagua Valley) La Capilla Vineyard Special Selection 2001 ($18, Margron Skoglund); Haras (Maipo Valley) 2001 ($11, Remy Amerique); Casillero del Diablo (Concha y Toro) (Central Valley) 2003 ($10, Excelsior).
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.