Chile, a slender sliver of a country, captured international attention about 20 years ago when it sent out to the world friendly, agreeable wines that sold for under $10. So good were they for their modest price that Chilean imports into the United States leaped from 11 million liters in 1986 to 184 million by 1996.
The high quality of its grapes, soils and microclimates made it clear that Chile had the potential to climb far up the status scale. And since the mid-‘90s, it has done just that.
In this short time, Chile has developed a class of top-echelon wines called Ultra Premium. Based primarily on the varietals that make Bordeaux reds-Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carmenère, an old Bordeaux grape-these wines are produced in relatively small quantities (4,000 to 14,000 cases per wine rather than 50,000 to 1 million cases for inexpensive wines). Made from grapes grown only in Chile’s prime vineyards, they mature slowly in small French oak barrels for 13 to 20 months with all the care that such aristocratic wines deserve.
Care, however, costs. As these upper-class reds have soared up the quality ladder, so have their prices. Most of them now cost five, six and seven times more than those earlier, simpler exports.
Among the most exceptional Ultra Premiums are Montes Alpha M 1999 ($78), an elegant, concentrated wine, beautifully balanced, with deep fruit flavors and a hint of chocolate in the aroma; and Montes Alpha M 2000 ($78), an exuberant wine brimming with personality and varietal character, satiny in the mouth, delicious in taste. Equally impressive is Almaviva 1999 ($92), a rich, luscious, well-structured wine with intense fruit and a full and textured body.
Other fine examples include Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve 1999 ($60), a wine with a distinctive perfume in its aroma and a silky mouth feel; Concha y Toro Don Melchor 1999 ($42), a full-bodied, deep-flavored wine, all satin and finesse ($42); and Seña 1999 ($70), a supple, spicy wine with an aroma reminiscent of mint and eucalyptus.
Chile is indeed fulfilling the promise of its potential. And this is only the beginning.
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