New Releases from Chile and Argentina

If you're familiar with the wines of Chile, you've no doubt read that this is a near-Edenic region featuring wall-to-wall sunshine and boringly clement harvests. But not in 1998, the year of El Nino, when persistent rains during the harvest prevented grapes in most sites from achieving even moderate concentration and ripeness of flavor. In Argentina's vast Mendoza Valley, the vintage was even worse-according to some insiders, the most pitiful in at least 20 years. Humidity, rains and hailstorms, with short hot, sunny spells in between, triggered widespread mildew and rot, and most of the fruit never approached decent ripeness. Unfortunately, wines from the 1998 vintage figured prominently in my extensive recent tastings of current releases from Chile and Argentina. While some of the more quality-conscious producers from both countries declassified a good portion of their '98 crop or bottled no wine at all, most of what was ultimately bottled should not have been foisted on wine drinkers in export markets. Happily, the early word is that 1999 is a far better vintage for both Chile and Argentina, with low yields in the former country ensuring better-than-average grape sugars and concentration.

I recently sampled upwards of 150 current bottles and came up with 53 meriting 84 points or higher-not an impressive percentage. (Due to space constraints, my notes are limited to these higher scorers; except for Altos Las Hormigos, from whom I tasted just one wine, I sampled multiple mediocre wines from all of the wineries for whom there is just a single tasting note.) Still, the wines featured below offer good to excellent value, and at the top levels there are a handful of concentrated, characterful wines that will shock cosmopolitan wine drinkers with their quality and personality. Few of these latter bottles, though, are cheap. Among the stars of my recent tastings are the malbec-based wines of Argentina, as dense and deep as ever but a bit less rustic in the hands of today's more internationally oriented winemakers.

In Chile, wines with true concentration are the exceptions to the rule. In most cases, flavors are clean as far as they go, but they don't go far enough. Very high yields are still ubiquitous in Chile. Many of Chile's winemakers are in the habit of using new barrels the way tax-and-spend politicians dole out cash: throw some oak at the problem and hope it will go away. I tasted dozens of wines whose already dilute flavors were dried and ultimately overwhelmed by too much oak. As in numerous other New World regions, "reserve" on a label often means more new oak and more extraction; it does not necessarily signify a better balanced or more enjoyable bottle. Among the grimmest group of wines in my recent tastings were merlots from both Chile and Argentina. Merlot from overcropped young vines in a rainy year like 1998: now there's a formula for disaster.