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Tannic Panic! Issue #18: Chile Ain't Chilly
Pyrazines, Toasted Wood, and a Wholesome Dose of Quaffable Sauce
¡ATENCIÓN WINOS! Strap on your microscopic Safari hats because we’re forging ahead on our WONDERFUL little expedition through the Southern Hemisphere in search of great value wines.
Enter Chile, stage left — a country that is long and skinny (LIKE ME), known for its big earthquakes (LIKE ME), the Andes Mountains, dusty deserts (the Atacama), and literary luminaries like Pablo Neruda (who was known to enjoy a little Zeus juice in his day). OH YEAH — and wine, so might as well curl your trembling little meat hooks around a tasting glass and start pouring.
THE CLIMATE OF CHILE
Chile's diverse geography allows for vines to be grown at a range of altitudes, from the mountainous coastal areas, to high-altitude vineyards in the Andes foothills, and the lower lying regions in between, enabling the cultivation of a range of grape varieties. This climatic diversity has enabled Chilean winemakers to produce a wide spectrum of wines, from crisp Sauvignon Blancs to robust Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. And, of course, in some areas, higher yield production of lower quality fruit dominates.
The warm climate in central Chile provides optimal conditions for grape ripening and the production of high-quality red wines. The cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean, combined with altitude in the foothills and the rain shadow created by the Andes Mountains to the east, helps regulate temperatures and prevent extreme weather events. The warm daytime temperatures are complemented by cool nights, allowing varietals like Cabernet Sauvignons and Carménère to retain acidity and accumulate pyrazines (compounds that are naturally high in these grape varieties, especially in the old ungrafted vines planted in Chile’s Central Valley.)
DID YOU KNOW… Due to its natural geographic barriers and careful regulation, Chile is the only major wine-producing country that has remained unaffected by the destructive phylloxera pest. As a result, many vineyards have ungrafted vines (European vine species have been widely grafted onto Phylloxera resistant American rootstocks), which can lead to more authentic expressions of grape varieties and better quality grapes.
Labor costs in Chile are lower than in some other wine-producing regions, which allows wineries to offer competitive prices. Chile has actively pursued international markets, like the U.S., as key export destinations. This global outlook has driven wineries to maintain consistent quality standards to be competitive on the international stage (and on grocery store shelves). In terms of quality, you will be better served picking a $15 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon over a comparably priced California Cabernet any day (unless you are one of those knuckleheads who enjoys guzzling uncharismatic confectionary oak chip juice with hints of microwaved plastic).
A LITTLE HISTORY OF CARMÉNÈRE - CHILE’S SIGNATURE BLACK GRAPE:
Carménère (also affectionately known as the “lost” sixth grape of Bordeaux) was brought to Chile by French immigrants in the 19th century, along with other Bordeaux grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was often mistaken for Merlot because of its similar appearance and growth habits (early ripening). In fact, for over 150 years, Chilean wine growers thought that their Carménère vines were under-ripe Merlot, until genetic testing in the 1990s revealed that many of Chile's “merlot” vines were in fact Carménère. Chilean Carménère varietal wines and Bordeaux style blends are typified by CHARMING little aromas/flavors of green bell pepper (also prominent in Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon) and herbs/spices (green peppercorn, cardamom, mint) on a backdrop of juicy black and red fruits, often accompanied by prominent oak-driven flavors of toast, woodsmoke, coffee and chocolate.
This week we’ve tried a number of bottles, including a full spread of value offerings from a producer neither of us had much familiarity with, Carmen, which are all selling at around the same price point ($18) at Total Wine. Established in 1850, Carmen was the first winery in Chile and has been producing wines for over 160 years (read more about Carmen's deep history in the region here).
Without further adon’t, let’s dive headfirst into a shallow tank of the proverbial juice.
… AND NOW FOR THE REVIEWS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2021 Carmen Cabernet Franc Gran Reserva, Colchagua / 90+ Points / $18 (VALUE PICK!!)
Profile: Ripe bramble fruit (blackberries, raspberries), black cherry, plum, red licorice, wet stone, green pepper, tobacco, hint of woodsmoke
This bottle really delivered with pronounced black and red fruit flavors, supported by spicy notes of red licorice and tobacco, and a hint of green pepper and wood smoke that allude to the distinctive terroir. It was well balanced and well structured, with lively acidity and smooth tannins. A strong value find at $18.
Of the Carmen Gran Reserva bottles we tasted (all of which were aged for at least a year in French oak barrels) this one was definitely the favorite, offering unpretentious complexity and subtly integrated oak to present a real drinkable wine.
2021 Carmen Carménère Gran Reserva, Colchagua / 89 Points / $18
Profile: Blackberry, black raspberry, green pepper, cardamom, mocha, toast, campfire smoke.
Medium+ body, medium+ acidity, medium+ tannins, medium finish. Classic Chiliean Carménère character, but the toasted oak influence overpowers the fruit a bit. Nevertheless, a decent entry level Chilean Carménère for the price.
2021 Carmen Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc Gran Reserva, Maipo / 87 Points / $18
Profile: Blackcurrant, red raspberry, green pepper, vanilla, woodsmoke.
Medium body, high acidity, medium tannin, medium finish. A good wine with some typical Chilean character, but once again the smoked wood flavors are too harsh for the level of fruit in this wine for me to score this higher.
2022 Carmen Carignan Gran Reserva, Maule / 87+ Points / $18
Profile: Strawberry, raspberry, kirsch, mocha, toast, hint of tar bubble.
Great fresh red and black fruit flavors, nicely structured. Oak is well integrated and not overpowering. I would surely rate this higher if not for a slight tar bubble flavor that leaves a subtle lingering bitterness. Overall, IT DRINKS, so go ahead and give ‘er a guzzle.
2019 Clos Apalta “Le Petit Clos” Maipo / 93+ Points / $59
Profile: Blackcurrant paste, blueberry preserves, black plum, chocolate orange peel, a hint of roasted green pepper, vanilla and mocha.
Full bodied and rich with a plush, dense mouth feel and ripe tannins. Medium acidity, medium+ tannins, long finish. This is a very good to outstanding Chilean Bordeaux blend, but I would hope for a bit more complexity/elegance and a bit less new oak prominence at this price point. I absolutely recommend trying this if you want to experience a great premium Chilean red wine made in a very modern and plush style, but being completely honest, I would be more inclined to recommend this if it were under $40.
Ten years back, I'd have bet my last bucket of lemur juice that the true treasure map to affordable red wines in the under $20 price category had "Chilean reds" written all over it. Chile has earned its status as a global benchmark for value in the world of red wines. Chilean wines made a splash on the U.S. market in the early 2000s, gaining popularity and recognition for their high quality to price ratio. For the better (OR PERHAPS WORSE) part of the past 20 years, Chilean red wines (particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chile's signature grape, Carménère), have been vanishing from supermarket shelves faster than my last few brain cells.
With the demand for these wines soaring, it's no surprise that some wineries have cranked up their production in response, leading to a palpable dip in quality among many of the more budget friendly offerings (we unfortunately tried quite a few bottles that we could not justify recommending for this week), and an increase in cost for the good-er ones. That said, if you pull out your coke bottle monocle and squint hard enough, there’s still value to be found.
BUBUBUDEE BUBUBUDA BUT THAT’S ALL FOLKS.
Chile is as Chile does.
Until next time, HAPPY DRINKING, PEOPLE.
Isaac & Zach
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