Best New Releases from Chile

The two vintages that make up the bulk of the wines I tasted for our annual report on Chile's wines, 2011 and 2010, posed a number of challenges for the country's growers and winemakers--chiefly, how to make attractive wine from mostly underripe fruit.  Coming on the heels of the strong run of recent vintages, this will be a tricky duo of years to navigate, especially at the middle and upper end, where consumers are able to choose from a multitude of options from around the world.

I didn't find as much character in many of this year's set of wines as I have from the last three vintages and I place that fact squarely--and hopefully--on the weather difficulties that Chile has suffered.  Making silk purses from sows' ears is a fantasy so I wasn't surprised that this year's examples provides me with fewer thrills than I experienced last year with the '09s.  Incidentally, indications are that the drought conditions of the 2012 growing season will result in wines with far more concentration and power than we're seeing from '10 and '11, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Two thousand eleven got off to a slow start, with a cold spring followed by a cool, drawn-out growing season.  Because of the rough start to the flowering there was a low fruit set and yields were generally off by 20% to 25% across all varieties.  Unfortunately, I did not detect any noticeable uptick in concentration due to low yields from the sampling of the 2011s that I tasted this spring.  I've heard reports that the more important cabernets, which mostly won't be released for another year or two, can be very good if the fruit was allowed to hang and enjoy an extended harvest. 

A large number of the young 2011 reds that I tasted in recent months were on the shrill side and lacked depth of flavor.  That may be attributable to the fact that these are all wines that are rushed into the market (clearly, since the grapes had been harvested only a matter of months before I tasted them) and were mostly the product of young, heavily irrigated vines planted for maximum yield and harvested on the early side.  I found the white wines from '11 to be somewhat more interesting, but, again, these were mostly early-release sauvignon blancs that are expected to be tangy, tight and citrus fruit-dominated.  I'm curious to see how the higher-end bottlings shape up when they're released later this year.

As for 2010, it was also plagued by a slow start, thanks to a cold, rainy winter and spring, and red grapes struggled to get up to speed.  Based on many of the wines that I tried, a number of them never made it, even with a drawn-out harvest.  Some reports say that flowering was almost a month behind schedule, and barring a torrid growing season that's just too much ground to make up.  It did stay dry until May, which is extremely late for harvesting (May in the Southern Hemisphere equals November in the North), and there's hope that fruit picked then will raise the quality of at least some of the final red blends from this vintage.  On a positive note, wines that rely on lively acidity for their personality, like sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot noir, can be bright and nervy in 2010. They won't be the most concentrated wines, though, and most should be drunk up on the young side.