The Chilean wine industry continues to develop with startling speed, and the sheer scale of the investments is breathtaking. When I visited in 1997, producers such as San Pedro thought nothing of planting another 1,000 hectares and adding millions of extra litres of fermentation capacity. I am sure if I were to visit today it would look a lot different.
One aspect that has altered is the mix of grape varieties. In 1985 there were 29,384 hectares of the ill-reputed Pais, 8,143 of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1,000 of Merlot and just 245 of Chardonnay. By 1998 there were 15,442 of Pais, 21,094 of Cabernet Sauvignon, 8,414 of Merlot and 6,705 of Chardonnay.
It has now been recognised that much of the vines that were previously thought to be Merlot are, in fact, Carmenäre, an old variety from Bordeaux that lost favour at the time of phylloxera. How it came to be called Merlot in Chile is a mystery.
Whatever the history, Carmenäre is now being marketed as a separate grape variety and is available in the UK. The grape has some of the Merlot softness and mouthfeel but has sooty and leafy characteristics, too. The Vi¤a Gracia Carmenäre Reserva Especial Callejero 1999, £62.74 (Patriarche Wine Agencies, 020 7381 4016) is an in-your-face version. More subtle is Niebla Carmenäre 1998 from Vistamar, £64.25 (Vinoceros UK, 01209 314711). William Fävre Carmenäre Reserva La Mision 1999 is complex with good concentration and, although a little more pricey, at £80.50, is worth the extra (Vin Ecosse, 01368 864800/Heyman Barwell Jones, 01473 232322).
The move to planting vines on hillsides rather than the fertile plains is another development. Just visible in 1997, it is now gathering speed and it is highly likely that these vineyards will provide Chile's best wines.
Over the past couple of years some producers, such as Err zuriz-Mondavi, Montes and Casa Lapostelle, have been trying to establish a super-premium category, with prices to match. At a recent tasting nine of the red wines were priced at £16 to £34.99 retail.
Pricing appears to be at the stage of guessing what the market will stand. Se¤a, the most expensive, showed well, but was by no means twice as good as the Casa Real 1997 from Santa Rita, £159 (Berkmann, 020 7609 4711). The best of the cheaper super-premiums offer similar pleasure to the expensive, but at much better value.
I also liked: Carmen Gold Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, £93.61 for six bottles (Stevens Garnier, 01865 263300); D'Donoso 1997 from Domaine Oriental, £65.94 for six bottles (Phillips Newman & Co, 01322 272711); and the more expensive Cabo de Hornas Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, £107.10 for six bottles (Roberson, 020 7371 2121). n
by Jim Budd