New Releases from Chile

Slogging through a couple hundred new releases from Chile this winter was hard work with relatively paltry pay-off. But then you pay for this journal so that you won't have to uncork tart, short cabernets and chardonnays that smell of canned asparagus. With all due respect to the handful of producers who are making consistently acceptable to good wine, and to those growers who are sharply reducing crop levels from the industrial yields widely produced in Chile, the majority of the bottles that came my way this winter are of little interest to serious enophiles. Obviously, a cabernet with clear varietal character and ripe, reasonably concentrated fruit selling for under $10 would deserve space in this journal. But I found far too few of these in my recent tastings; the passable cabernets have escalated in price.

Many of the reds in the market are from the dreadful El Nino year of '98, when persistent rains during the harvest prevented grapes in most sites from achieving even moderate concentration and ripeness of flavor, and resulted in widespread rot. Although I've tasted a number of decent wines from this vintage, and a few that are legitimately good, 1998 would rank as a washout on a vintage chart.

Nineteen ninety-nine, in contrast, is considered a highly successful year in Chile. The crop level was low from the outset by Chilean standards, the summer was hot and dry, and the harvest took place over an extended period under excellent conditions. From all reports, many of Chile premium-priced wines, some of them joint ventures involving European or American partners, are better than ever before in '99 (wines like Almaviva, Casa Lapostolle's Cuvee Alexandre merlot and cabernet bottlings, Domus Aurea and Concha y Toro's Don Melchor), but few of these bottlings come close to justifying their high price tags in '98. Casa Lapostolle will not offer its special Clos Apalta vineyard-designated wine in '98, and it's a shame more wineries did not similarly declassify their top vineyard holdings into less expensive bottlings. The year 2000 also brought ripe fruit and good harvest conditions, although production levels tended to be huge.

Except for Domus Aurea and Se?a, which offer just one high-end bottling, I tasted one or more less successful releases (and in many cases several) from all of the wineries covered below. In addition to the following producers, I also tasted but could not recommend wines from Alto de Casablanca, Carta Vieja, Hickory Ridge, La Palma, Santa Marvista, Stony Hollow, Vina San Esteban, Vina Santa Carolina and Walnut Crest.