The best of Chile

Danny co-owns Innovative Beverages, is an importer of fine wines and is a CAPSAC-certified sommelier. Photo: Tammy Fancy

Whenever I am looking for great wine on a mid-week budget, I invariably find myself in the Chilean section of my local Halifax wine store. It’s very hard to think of another country that offers so many tasty wines for less than $25. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Carmenere, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Chile makes great examples of all, and at many different price points. The country is blessed with almost perfect wine-growing conditions.
While Chile has been known as a great value wine destination for many years, many people don’t realize that their ultra-premium offerings are also amazing values compared to many more famous wine regions of the world. One of my earliest “I love wine” moments in the early 2000s was with a bottle of Don Melchor from Conch y Toro. It had luscious dark berry fruit and a finish that went on forever. Although this particular wine has more than doubled in price since those days, Chile still offers an astounding collection of other great wines from $25 to $100. Both NSLC Port of Wines and the private stores carry a good selection.
The geography of Chile makes it unique in many ways. It is long and narrow, bordered on one side by the Pacific Ocean, and the other by the Andes Mountains. Its dizzying diversity includes both the driest desert in the world, in the north, and the ice fields of the wild Patagonia region of the far south. This vast array of climatic conditions makes a perfect backdrop for growing world-class grapes with the cooling effect of the Pacific to the west, and the elevation and natural irrigation from melting spring ice of the Andes to the east.
Chile was the only country to never suffer the destroying effects of the louse Phylloxera, which has destroyed many of the great vineyards of the world since the mid-19th century. Its isolation is such that it is almost  free of many of the pests that many other grape-growing countries deal with. Its major wine regions are blessed with a Mediterranean-type climate with long and sunny summers with cool evenings and a short rainy winter.
The wine-growing history of Chile dates back to the 16th century with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and missionaries, who planted the first vines. French vines arrived later, but until the last 30 years most production was for bulk wine and alcohol. The renaissance happened after the brutal Pinochet regime ended in 1990, and visionaries like Aurelio Montes from Montes wines started using modern wine techniques and foreign investment to make Chile into an international wine powerhouse that now exports 60 per cent of its production. Chile is the fifth largest exporter of wine in the world.
The majority of grapes are grown within several hundred kilometres of Santiago, the capital and largest city. This makes a visit to wine country a breeze for tourists and locals alike.
So, what to drink? Cabernet Sauvignon remains the king of grapes in Chile, and in fact a third of the wine production is from this one grape. It’s the red wine that seems to always deliver at a more affordable price than any other. Rich dark berries, tobacco, licorice and coffee are all signatures. If you want a Cabernet Sauvignon with great value, then Chile is the place to start.
Many of us know Carmenere as the signature grape of Chile. It was actually thought to be Merlot until the mid-1980s, when it was discovered to be the long lost French varietal. It has had mixed results and mixed popularity, as it takes a long time to ripen. Also, many bottles contain green characteristics that take away from the signature dark fruit and spice. When it’s made well (see Purple Angel from Montes) it can be a fantastic wine. Trial and error are necessary (and fun) to find affordable and good examples of Carmenere in Halifax, but it is worth the effort.
Other tasty reds from Chile include Merlot, and Pinot Noir, both exhibiting great flavours and value. Pinot Noir especially is starting to show up in more of our stores. Some of the best examples are from Patagonia.
The white wines of Chile are dominated by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The better Chardonnays tend be more restrained, with elegance and not an overkill of buttery oak. Good examples come from many different regions, with Casablanca as great place to start. Sauvignon Blanc has recently hit its stride and has a lot of potential for those seeking a softer, Old World style, versus the extremely zesty and usually more expensive New Zealand versions.

The under-$25 wine review

Novas Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2014, Organic wine, Chile, NSLC, $15.99
A few months ago, I reviewed a red from this winery, and it was an outstanding value, so I was hoping for the same result for the white. This Chardonnay is definitely New World in style with tropical flavours of pineapple and mango backed by vanilla notes. Bigger flavours than expected for both the price and the country. Spicy oak notes dominate the finish. Some nice zesty acidity in the mid-palate would
have added to the profile. If you like a weightier Chardonnay, this one offers some value. Pair with a cheese stuffed manicotti. 88/100
Errazuriz Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Chile, NSLC, $18.99
Now this is a tasty Cabernet Sauvignon and illustrates what I say about the wine on the previous page. It starts with a nice plummy and cherry nose. Rich berry cassis flavours hit the palate right away, and the delicious notes continue right through to the finish. There are some nice dusty tannins and a spine of acidity to balance all the flavours. Dark and delicious. If you are looking for a great Cabernet for under $20, start here. Pair with grilled pork ribs. 91/100
80–84: A great sipper, good value. 85–89: Won’t last long, great value.
90–94: Brag to your friends and buy a case—fantastic. 95–100: A classic, run to the store, extremely rare.

Recent reviews

Les Charmes de Magnol 2011, Medoc, France, NSLC, $23.99
A classic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Crushed red berries and violets are complemented by a touch of vanilla from the oak, and smooth tannins. 91/100
Juan Gil Petit Verdot 2012, Jumilla, Spain, $18.75, Bishop’s Cellar
Rich and briary fruit fills the nose. Smoke and pepper and velvety tannins. Gobs of juicy dark berries. 92/100

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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