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Chile's ultra-premium wines

by Tom Cannavan, 11/2010

Chile has long been a source of extremely good value, relatively inexpensive wines. The reputation carved by Chilean wines over the past couple of decades has been all about the QPR - quality to price ratio - with a common perception that in the £5 to £10 range Chile really over-delivered on quality.

almaviva A few much more expensive 'icon' wines emerged over recent years, like the Almaviva joint project between Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux and Concha y Toro, or the joint project of Errazuriz and Mondavi of California, called Seña (now wholly owned by Errazuriz). Clos Apalta was another icon, from the French-owned Lapostolle, where Michel Rolland consults.

Completely home-grown icons existed too, from Errazuriz, Montes and other estates, but these were relatively few and far between. The gulf between the £4.99 wines that sold in huge volumes and the £50 icons that attempted to play on a world stage was a real one: the fine wine middle ground from £10 to £25 was relatively under-represented. If such wines were being made in Chile, they were difficult to find in the UK. My guess is that supermarkets found the price points too high, whilst traditional wine merchants doubted the wines ability to compete with established New and Old World brands.

But recently I have noticed more and more 'ultra premium' wines, in the £10+ bracket appearing from Chile, and from a broader range of producers. I assembled a number for tasting from a handful of Chilean producers best known for their more modestly-priced wines. Included is a small range from the Santa Carolina company which has just been imported into the UK by Percy Fox Ltd. Topping the range is an extraordinary wine, Herencia, with a recommended retail price of £100. Whether this proves too rich for the UK market will be interesting to observe, but it certainly speaks of confidence amongst Chile's producers that glass ceilings are there to be broken.

white wines

Casa Silva, Angostura Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2008, Chile
From Angostura in Colchagua, this Chardonnay has a fine, appealing nutty Cox's Pippin character with traces of almond and a teasing glimpse of more tropical fruit. The oak is orangy and toasty and not overdone. On the palate it is a pretty big wine, with an oiliness to the texture and great concentration on the mid-palate where the very sweet, ripe fruit plays against some buttery brazil nut flavour before pithy citrus acidity kicks in. It is a trace hot in the finish perhaps with 14% alcohol, but nevertheless is a very nice, serious rendition of Chardonnay. 89/100. £11.95, D. Byrne, Everywine.co.uk

Casa Silva, Lolol Viognier 2009, Chile
From Lolol, another cool, Pacific-influenced area of coastal Colchagua, this spends three months in French oak. Terrific nose: essence of apricot with a fresh pear tang too, just a faint nuttiness in the background. On the palate this has very nice fruity precision. It has a concentrated, powerful edge to it with 14.5% alcohol and real fruit intensity, perhaps verging on being a little to intense. I like the lack of flabbiness and orangey crispness and clarity of the finish. 88/100. £11.95, Frank Stainton Wines.

Casa Silva, Paredones Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Chile
From Paredones, another part of 'coastal Colchagua', this Sauvignon has a sense a minerality about it from first sniff: there's a salty, stony, slightly flinty aspect, and beneath some understated notes of tropical fruit and touches of herbal, leafy qualities. On the palate it retains that focus and dry minerality, though a deal of ripe, sweet fruit fills out the mid-palate, and a big, pith, zesty grapefruit tang brings the finish to a fine point. Classy stuff. 90/100. £12.99, Averys.

Santa Carolina, 'Specialities' Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Chile
From specially selected vineyards in San Antonio, the coastal area next to Leyda that specialises in cooler-climate varieties. It's a surprise to find such a wine bottled under natural cork in many ways, but on opening it was brilliantly and clearly aromatic, with a really intense elderflower and nectarine fruit and background punch of pea-pod vibrancy. On the palate there is a lot of concentration in this wine, the palate grippy and powerful (it has 14% alcohol) and a big, slicing core of grapefruit and some minerality pushing through. A very interesting wine that marries lots of Sauvignon styles together - herbaceous and tropical, intense and mineral, crisp and tangy - quite successfully. 90/100. £13.99.

red wines

bottle Viña Ventisquero, 'Yali' Three Lagoons Carmenère 2008, Chile
Very firm-edged, liquorice and blackcurrant nose with tight, glossy fruit character and hints of tobacco and smoke. On the palate the oak is quite obvious, giving an ever so slightly resinous quality, though there is plenty of spicy black fruit too. Though a highish 14.5% alcohol this is well-balanced, with a rounding of chocolate sneaking into the finish. Not enormously complex, though on its offer price it is good value. 87/100. £9.99, Sainsbury's, on offer at £7.99 until December 14th 2010.

Cousiño-Macul, Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Chile
Stalwart stuff that seems to have been around forever. Aged in French oak of different ages and cooperages for a 12 months and in 233 branches of Waitrose, this has a big, super-ripe nose, flooded with fruit and an apple skin lift of sweet fruity appeal. The palate has good fruit and tannins, cassis and blackcurrant filling the mouth and the balance of tannins and acidity giving elegant, charming support. 88/100. £9.99, Waitrose.

Casa Silva, Los Lingues Carmenère Gran Reserva 2008, Chile
From the Los Lingues vineyard close to the Andes in Colchagua, this has abundantly ripe, creamy, but nicely lifted and elegant black fruit on the nose with a touch of violet and pepper. The mouth is flooded with elegant, quite taut and racy fruit, edged with cherry and staying beautifully focused and harmonious. A stunner. 92/100. £10.50, Michael Jobling and see all stockists on wine-searcher.com

Anakena, 'Ona' Pinot Noir 2008, Chile
This has tiny proportions of Viognier, Merlot and Syrah in the blend too, though the nose is classic, earthy Pinot, with a touch of mushroom and truffle, soft red berry fruit and something quite sappy. On the palate there is a nicely rounded fruit quality, but that green-tinged, sappy character continues with some savoury, cedary notes and plenty of crisp tannin and acid to give it real bite through the finish. A nicely-pitched style, with a bit of complexity. 88/100. £10.99, Oddbins

Santa Rita, Medalla Real Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Chile From the Maipo Valley this is minty and ripe, with lots of sweet fruit, lots of cassis freshness and ripeness, just a touch of underpinning meatiness. Lovely fleshy density on the palate, with a lip-smacking acidity and grip. Good stuff at a relatively modest price. 89/100. £10.99, Majestic (currently 20% off Chilean wines).

Carmen, Gran Reserva Carmenère 2008, Chile
From the top Apalta area, source of so many high-end wines from Bordeaux varieties, this is meaty and fleshy, with quite a chocolaty and dense fruit character, just a little herbal note of olive adding a nice dimension. The palate has lots of silky flesh and texture, a slick of bittersweet chocolaty fruit and tannin and plenty of bite giving this concentration and a certain sweet, fleshy presence. Lovely. 89/90. £12.49, Majestic (currently 20% off Chilean wines).

maipo Viña Maipo, Gran Devoción Carmenère / Syrah 2008, Chile
An independent winery marketed by Concha y Toro in the UK, where former CyT winemaker Max Weinlaub is in charge. This is 75% Carmenère, and has a very tight, focused, blackcurrant and graphite nose with teasing glimpses of chocolate and slightly earthy, herby notes. On the palate it is a big wine (14.5%) with a full attack of super-sweet, undiluted cassis fruit and firm, spicy and juicy tannins, It is perhaps a touch too oaky and extracted in the finish for my taste, lacking just a little dimension, but it is impressive, decisive stuff. 88/100. £12.99, Gondola Wines.

Viña Maipo, Gran Devoción Syrah / Petite Sirah 2008, Chile
The second wine from Viña Maipo is a fairly unusual blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah, weighing in with 14.5% alcohol. There's an authentic Syrah whiff of Smokey bacon on the nose, the charry barrel and the meaty, spicy fruit melding nicely. On the palate this is very concentrated and intense with a firm backbone of tannin and plum skin, bittersweet fruit. It is probably a bit too big for its own boots in a way, those slightly aggressive tannins, big oak and the firmness unrelenting, so just lacking a touch of charm. There's great fruit and a potentially terrific wine in there, but it just needs to pull back 20% or 30% on everything basically. 87/100. £12.99, Gondola Wines.

Santa Carolina, 'Specialities' Dry Farming Carignan 2008, Chile
In my report from Chile published earlier this year, I stated that I'd found the few Carignan wines around to be hugely impressive, so I was intrigued to see this in the Santa Carolina line-up. It comes from 80-year-old vines in Cauquenes in Maule, and has a beautiful nose, with a creaminess to the plush blueberry and damson fruit, an exotic lift of incense and a touch of violet. On the palate this has beautiful structure and elegance: it is a crisply-delineated wine, the fruit confident and focused, the tannin and acid balance juicy and taut, and the wine finishing with juicy depth but real elegance too. 92/100. £13.99. Imported by Percy Fox.

Santa Carolina, 'Specialities' West Andes Malbec 2008, Chile
Whisper it, but Chile's neighbours across the Andes need to know that they don't have it all their own way with their signature grape. There are some fine Chilean Malbecs about. This comes from Cachapoal and has a certain meatiness on the nose, with baked plum fruit and quite a solid character. The palate delivers a flood of sweet and spicy black fruit, the chewy, grainy tannins, acidity and plum-skin bite of the fruit making a robust and full-throttle impact, though not without a little light and shade. A warming, spicy and authentic wine. 89/100. £13.99. Imported by Percy Fox.

herencia Casa Silva, Quinta Generacion 2007, Chile
This wine is a Carmenère-dominated blend also featuring Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, aged for a year in new French oak. The wine shrugs off that oak with east aromatically, displaying a tight, muscular blue-black fruit density and just cedar and spices in the background, a little hint of black pepper. On the palate this has very firm fruit and great focus. The tannins are tight and sinewy, the acidity is good, and the depth of the black fruit fills the mid-palate. On the finish more spice, and a rounding out of glossy, plum and chocolate weight. Modern, plush and some would say a little too showy, but really very delicious and structured too. 91/100. £15.28, Good Wine Online

Santa Carolina, Herencia 2007, Chile
This budget-busting wine from Santa Carolina comes in an absolutely enormous bottle that could easily be mistaken for a magnum. It is made from 100% Carmenère from Puemo in the Cachapoal Valley. It is interesting to note just how focused on Carmenère Chile's top red wines are, either as varietals or playing a large part in the blend. That certainly sets Carmenère apart from other 'flagship' varieties like Zinfandel in the US or Pinotage in South Africa: the Chileans are serious about Carmenère not only as their 'own' signature grape, but as the one that will make their greatest wines. Herencia has a sensational nose, wreathed in woodsmoke and graphite minerality, with cedarwood and refined, elegantly spiced black fruit and little glimpses of more delicate. more floral aromatics. On the palate this has, rather like the 'Specialities' Carignan, a terrific tension between the sweet, dense and ultimately fleshy blue-black fruit and a genuine sense of finesse and precision. That mineral, almost ashy quality comes through again, giving this a peppery, dry, but beautifully harmonious finish. Whether or not the UK will bite on the prospect of a £100 Chilean wine - even one as good as this - remains to be seen, but it is terrific stuff. 94/100. £100.00. Enquiries to Percy Fox.