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April 13, 2014

GRAPE SENSE: Down South America way, Andes ripe for fine wines

South American wines played a key role in revolutionizing the concept of value wines in recent years. Argentina has had great success with its seductive Malbec, earthy Bonarda and even the white difference of Torrontos.

Chile has been around longer but may be viewed more skeptically for growing mostly Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot wines. Early on, much of the Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was quite tasty. But the reds were marred with a green pepper or vegetal flavor that was a little more than unappealing to many palates.

The Chilean wines I’ve tasted in the past year are increasingly of higher quality and interest. Chilean winemakers are also experimenting with Pinot Noir and even Rhone blends. The unique and different growing regions could make Chile a real wine star in coming years.

A little background goes all the way back to the 16th century and Spanish conquistadors introducing vines to the coastal nation. In the 1800s the French introduced Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc and, a somewhat obscure grape, Carmenere.

Keep in mind, when thinking about the environment for grape growing, the unique terroir. The Andes and the Pacific Ocean sandwich the grape growing regions. That would be latitudes similar to Spain.

There are five major wine regions, but arguably the Central Coast produces the best wines, or at least the wines most often found on U.S. shelves. The Central Valley includes the three Maipo regions, along with the best known Colchagua Valley area.

Some important folks and winemakers have taken notice of Chile’s potential in recent years through partnerships and investment. Robert Mondavi, Miguel Torres, Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Mouton Rothschild have all partnered to make wines.

Great Britain imports a lot of Chilean wines, even the higher end bottles. In the U.S., Chilean wine normally means value – more frankly, cheap red wine.

Where Chile may have a long-term advantage is the diversity of its wine industry. The Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot wines are certainly a bit different from pulling one off the shelf from California. That little-known French blender Carmenere has been adopted by Chile as its signature grape. Carmenere is a big, inky, deep purple wine that can be over-powering to silky and alluring.

The bottle line in affordable Chilean wine wasn’t all that good just a few years ago, but it’s improving fast. It’s time to revisit the South America section of your wine store, move past Argentina for now, and try the improving Chilean wines.

Some names I can recommend: Montes, Errazuriz, Casa Silva, Miguel Torres, Terra Andina, Santa Ema, Carmen and Ventisquero.

Ventisquero recently adopted a little smart marketing and made a line of wines labeled Grey, inspired by Christian Grey and the popular “Shades of Grey” saga. While the wines were at a slightly higher price point than many, they were really knockout wines. I received them as a trade sample.

Grey Single Block Carmenere – Blueberries, blackberries, smoke and spice make this a seductive glass of wine. It spends 18 months in new oak and is the kind of big wine that pairs really well with big food.

Grey Single Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – The 96 percent Cab, 4 percent Petit Verdot wine was a wonderfully bold Cabernet with beautiful balance.

Grey Glacial 2011 – This was the surprise of the lot for me. I had not had Rhone varietals from Chile, and this wine blend of Garnacha, Mourvedre and Carignan showed tremendous potential.

This label is widely available, with all three wines at a suggested retail price of $23.99.

Howard W. Hewitt, Crawfordsville, Ind.,, writes every other week for more than 20 Midwestern newspapers. Read his wine blog at: www.howardhewitt.net.

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