Chile — Style over Substance?

I was invited to the Taste of Chile event last weekend at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel and thoroughly enjoyed both the venue and hospitality. But as I tasted my way through both white and red wines from a dozen or more producers, I was left wondering whether Chile had figured out yet what it wanted to be when it grew up from a wine perspective.

When I first started getting into wine over 20 years ago, the ones from Chile were my day to day “go to” wines. And not just because they were cheap — lots were under $10 — but because the reds, in particular, were really ripe and fruit forward. Not necessarily complex, but really good value.

Since that time, though, things seem to have changed. And whether it is a case of a style that isn’t for my taste buds, or a different philosophy in wine making, I walked away from that tasting disappointed.

For whites, Chile offers mostly Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays, with a vew Viogniers thrown in for good measure. With respect to the former — mostly 2010’s — I was a bit shocked by how lean, acidic and un-fruity most of them were. Now I know that Sauvignon Blanc isn’t supposed to be a wine with lots of obvious fruit, but my favourites (from Graves in Bordeaux, for example) have nice citrus fruit, a touch of vanilla (from oak barrels) and a crisp, clean finish. That certainly wasn’t what I tasted last week. A colleague of mine there — a sommelier at one of the better French restaurants in town — said they were trying to become the “appetizer wine” with shellfish. Even if that is the case, I would have a hard time getting through more than a glass.

The Chardonnays I tasted were better, with some made in the stainless steel Chablis style, and some more California/Burgundy-like (i.e. buttery from some oak). The standout was the ’08 from Concha y Toro — it was lush and creamy, medium bodied with ripe citrus fruit. A good value at under $20.

Red wines were a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and the ubiquitous Carmenere. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t much more impressed with their style either.

Starting with the last varietal first, Carmenere has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Similar in a lot of ways to Cabernet Franc, it is almost always a bit green, vegetal and herbal. It can certainly make big, tannic wines, but where is the fruit? I couldn’t find it in most of them. The exception again came from Concha y Toro, whose 2008 Winemaker’s Lot was as ripe a Carmenere as I have ever tasted, and a great deal at $18.99.

A couple of the Pinot Noirs were also very good, although expensive. Specifically, the ’08 20 Barrels by Cono Sur and ’08 by Amayna were very tasty, but at close to or over $30, pretty steep in price.

For Syrahs, I was impressed with the Koyle wines, both the Reserva and Royale. Although tannic, they were really ripe and had classic peppery black fruit flavours. At $18 and $26 respectively, they were well worth the price.

That left the Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and blends. Unfortunately, that was what i wanted to do — leave them! I didn’t find one with enough fruit in it for my tastes, as all were made in that herbaceous/woody, tannic style. To be fair, none of the big guns — like the Don Melchor — were there. But, still, I was expecting more.

So what’s my verdict? Well, it could simply be all about style — winemakers aiming for a demographic and market different from me and my taste buds. But with all the ripe, well priced offerings out there right now from Australia, Argentina, the U.S. and even B.C., you have to wonder how well these latest Chilean wines are going to sell even to those how like their style.



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