During the past two decades, the wine business has become extremely competitive and truly global. Countries that could recently have been dismissed as winemaking upstarts have become worldwide contenders, and today the most elite regions face stiff competition from many quarters. This was perhaps demonstrated most strikingly when Australia surpassed France in wine exports to the United States in 2003. Since then, competition for shares in world markets has increased, and even an export powerhouse like Australia must now worry about the challenges posed by Argentina and Chile.
These two countries enjoy a powerful combination: very low production costs and superb conditions for growing grapes. Widely regarded as good sources for low-priced bottlings, both have recently proved that they can produce reds that rival the world's best in terms of quality while undercutting them in price.
This has led naturally to accelerated development of the industries in both countries, with the delightful result that new wines seem to arrive here almost weekly from either Argentina or Chile. I've recently been scrutinizing them to learn whether they will diminish or enhance the two countries' stature as wine producers.
As you may have seen in my columns of June 29 and July 13, I've found the newcomers from Argentina extremely impressive. I can now report that Chile's newest exports are likewise remarkably strong.
As in the case of Argentina, the best wine flowing our way from Chile remains red. Cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux-style blends are the best of the best, but impressive improvements are also being made with carmenere. This grape was virtually lost in France during the famous Phyloxerra blight of the late 19th century but was rediscovered just over a decade ago in Chile. Chilean vintners are learning how to deal with carmenere's late-ripening peculiarities, and lower-priced bottlings are becoming more consistent even as high-end renditions are attaining indisputable greatness.
You'll see that some whites also have earned recommendations below, and there's good reason to believe that Chile has edged ahead of Argentina where whites are concerned. To the best of my knowledge, the wines reviewed here are all the first or second vintage available in our area. They are reviewed in order of preference, with parenthetical indications of growing regions, approximate prices, importers and local distributors:
Purple Angel (by Montes) (Colchagua Valley) 2003 ($48, TGIC Importers/available in August from F.P. Winner in Maryland): This is the new state of the art in carmenere. Dark, densely concentrated and packed with powerful flavors, it is nevertheless as impressive in complexity as power. Notes of licorice, cocoa, wood smoke and minerals lend interesting accents to the core of blackberry fruit. Carmenere has its detractors both within and beyond Chile, but this wine should reduce their ranks.
MontGras (Colchagua Valley) Minquen Mountain Vineyard 2002 ($32, Palm Bay/National): This blend of 95 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent malbec shows marvelous complexity in a restrained, sophisticated mode that places it in a league with wines costing over $50. Lovely notes of cedar, dark cherries and blackberries, dried herbs, tobacco leaves and leather are detailed and expressive.
Casa Lapostolle (Requinoa Vineyard, Rapel Valley) Syrah "Cuvee Alexandre" 2003 ($23, Marnier-Lapostolle/ Washington Wholesale): Massively concentrated but marvelously lush and soft, this is already beautifully integrated and will continue to develop for years to come.
Sincerity (Colchagua Valley) Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($17, Royal Imports/National): This delicious wine deserves your attention even if you weren't looking for one that was crafted from organically grown grapes. A blend of 55 percent merlot and 45 percent cabernet sauvignon, it is packed with ripe, rich, vivid fruit, and it also offers a softness that seems unusual in a wine packing such deep flavors. Most wines costing $30 should seek cover when this one enters a room.
Morande (Maipo Valley) Carmenere "Edicion Limitada" 2002 ($20, TGIC/Country Vintner): Exotic and interesting, this features a solid core of blackberry fruit with accents of licorice, dried herbs, roasted meat and spices. Also excellent is Morande (Maipo Valley) "Edicion Limitada" Cabernet Franc 2003 ($25).
MontGras (Colchagua Valley) "Quatro" Reserva 2004 ($15, Palm Bay/National): This internationally styled wine packs a wallop of fruit that is framed with a dose of spicy oak. Made from 35 percent cabernet sauvignon, 28 percent malbec, 22 percent merlot and 15 percent carmenere, it offers excellent value for the price.
Also recommended: Morande (Maipo Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon "Vitisterra Grand Reserve" 2002 ($16, Morande USA/Country Vintner), Morande (Maipo Valley) Carmenere "Terrarum Reserve" 2003 ($13, Morande USA/Country Vintner) and 2 Brothers Winery (Colchagua Valley) Syrah 2003 ($12, Billington/Winebow).
Montes (Leyda Valley) Leyda Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc "Limited Selection" 2004 ($16, TGIC/F.P. Winner in Maryland and Country Vintner in D.C. and Virginia): With flashy aromas and flavors of grapefruit and freshly cut grass, this beautifully balanced sauvignon joins Terrunyo Sauvignon Blanc in the sweepstakes for South America's finest white wine.
Sincerity (Casablanca Valley) Chardonnay 2004 ($17, Royal Imports/National): Fleshy and full of flavor, this chardonnay is substantial and satisfying but so well balanced with subtle oak and fresh acidity that it never seems heavy or tiring to drink.
Cousino-Macul (Maipo Valley) Sauvignon Gris 2004 ($11, Billington/Winebow): Sauvignon Gris is a very rare variety thought to have originated in the Graves district of Bordeaux. This rendition is medium-bodied and capable of holding its own with relatively rich dishes, but the citrus-flavored fruit is so fresh and well-braced by acidity that it can also be enjoyed as a simple sipper or partner for shellfish.