South America: South America’s New Chilean Wild West

I don’t know what I thought, but I thought it would be different. My recent exploration down south in Chile opened my eyes to a culture that produces wine for the rest of the world, but not for themselves. Chilean wine country, a burgeoning tourist destination that eerily resembles Sonoma Valley, is bursting with vineyards that flank either side of the highway far up into the hills. But exorbitant wine prices in restaurants told me that the Chileans weren’t drinking the fruits of these vines. It turns out that 95 percent of Chilean wine is exported to places like the U.S. and the U.K, even though Chile has a culture of wine dating back several hundred years. Since I’m not a sociologist, I’ve no idea why the wine culture dissipated, but at least the wineries are benefiting nicely – wine is now the second largest export after produce.

However, a passion for wine shows in the glass.

With state-of-the-art equipment and organic farming techniques, Chile has risen to child-prodigy status in the wine world. I’ve heard about Chile being a frontier, where winemakers practice carefree techniques to sell their wares for cheap. But it’s not true – at least not the carefree part. Chileans are serious about their wine, especially the newcomers to the game.

Driving in the Casablanca Valley, west of Santiago, I soaked in the verdant avocado and cherry trees. Then an enormous, incongruously modernist building emerges through the green: House of Morandé. A huge winery that exports 18,000 cases to over 35 countries, Morandé emerged late in the winery boom during the 1980s. Similar to Bien Nacido in California, Casablanca Valley is prime real estate for two difficult-to-master grapes – chardonnay and pinot noir. If you see Casablanca Valley written on a label, lay down the cash – the fruit is that good. Morandé also sources fruit from other areas, under eight different labels, so it’s kinda hard to keep up with them, but their quality has consistently improved over the years. Their best are sauvignon blancs from the Central Valley (including the late harvest) and Grand Reserve chardonnays from Casablanca.

South of Santiago in the Colchagua Valley, there lies another mecca for wineries. The French discovered this area in the early 1990s when the famed Marnier Lapostolle family of France’s Loire Valley moved in. They wanted to create old world style wines with new world grapes, so they established the ultra-modern, well-funded Casa Lapostolle winery. They succeeded with the help of Michel Rolland, a winemaker-demigod that wine snobs worship. Call me pedestrian, but I’ve never understood the attraction. “Where’s the fruit, Michel?”

Carmen Winery in the Maipo Valley, the star of the trip, has it all going on. Modest and unflashy, the winery is impossible to find and isn’t open to the public. The unassuming winemaker, Matias Lecaros, likes it that way. He quietly farms his grapes organically with ducks, chickens and alpacas (a llama-like animal) roaming the grounds. From this extra effort comes affordable, fruit-driven wine, designed for right-now consumption. Carmen uses the warmer climate to produce ripe merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. Try them all – you won’t be disappointed.

Although Chile might not drink their fill, we can take up the slack and reap the benefits of great climate, flavors and value. Next week: Argentina and its possibilities.

Wine Recommendations

Morandé 2003 Vitisterra Grand Reserve Chardonnay Casablanca Valley (CH) Loaded with citrus, vanilla and bit of coconut, this refreshing wine will capture your heart. Sweetness=3. $15.

Carmen 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Curico Valley (CH) Fresh and approachable with green apple, wet slate and citrus. Soft on the tongue. Sw=2. $8.

Carmen 2001 Nativa Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley (CH) On the nose, eucalyptus and chocolate float up, with mint, more chocolate and dark cherries following on the tongue. Soft, elegant tannins don’t offend. Sw=1. $15.

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