Back in the bad old days, around a decade ago, most of Chile’s cabernet sauvignon-based wines were best known for being cheap. There’s no question that Chile has the climate, soil, winemaking know-how and capital to make serious wines, but the industry, as a rule, tended to play it safe until just a few years ago. More emphasis was placed on making mass-market wines than bottles with real character, much less regional identity. And even the best wines tended to incite shrugs of indifference from demanding, spoiled-for-choice American buyers who had easy access to wines from Bordeaux, California, Washington and Australia.
Plenty of “correct” wines were and still are being made, no question. But until recently, if you wanted fireworks in a Chilean bottle of red you had to be prepared to fork out upwards of $50 for the pleasure. Most of those wines were made by joint ventures of foreign winemakers or producers and their Chilean counterparts, which usually gave top priority to the marquee name of the foreigner, with the Chileans taking a back seat. That made for good, quick press, but the market for such high-end wines was small then and may be smaller today. What needed to happen, and finally has, was for the wineries to prove that they could crank out a critical mass of internationally competitive wines that still offer the value wine-lovers had grown to associate with Chile.
My tastings for the International Wine Cellar’s annual coverage of Chile brought out a greater number of high-quality cabernets and cabernet-based wines than ever before, and these wines don’t need to use a bargain-basement price hook to make their case. Right now Chile is one of the best cabernet sources in the $12 to $20 price range. Most California renditions that change hands for prices this low are lean, green and mean, but a huge number of like-priced Chilean versions are spicy, sweet and balanced, with character that belies their price.
For sheer value it’s hard to beat the 2009 Casas del Bosque Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Rapel Valley ($12; Vinocopia), a cab that offers an array of red fruit and floral qualities, with excellent structure and focus and a refreshingly brisk finish.
Also look for the 2008 Viña Casablanca Cabernet Sauvignon Nimbus Estate Single Vineyard Maipo Valley ($17; Carolina Wine Brands), which shows the type of fruity, spicy complexity that one might find in a Napa cabernet that costs two or even three times as much. This one benefits from air so decant it for an hour or so.
I was also impressed by the power and depth of the 2009 Chilensis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Colchagua Valley ($13; Vici Imports). I’m not in the habit of aging wines that are targeted at a large audience, like this one is, but I have little doubt that it will gain complexity with another couple of years in the cellar. It’s delicious now, though, so drink it or stash it.
The 2009 O. Fournier Urban Red Wine Maipo Valley ($15; Fine Estates from Spain), a Bordeaux blend based on 50% cabernet sauvignon, would stand up to versions of the real (French) thing that sell for double the price. It’s a spicy, rich, energetic wine that would be great with grilled steaks or burgers this summer.
I also recommend seeking out the 2008 Viña Peñalolen Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley ($20; T. Edward Wines; Global Vineyard Importers) for its rich, spicy character and youthfully intense fruit. This is another wine that would benefit from decanting, or even a few years of bottle aging.
Viña Santa Helena makes some of Chile’s most serious, ageworthy wines, with prices to match, but their entry-level offerings deliver outstanding value, as well as much of the character of their higher-priced siblings. Check out the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Selección del Directorio Gran Reserva Colchagua Valley (Misa Imports), which has a suggested retail price of only $12. Its sexy, oak-spiced cherry and dark berry flavors could easily fool you and your guests into thinking that you weren’t actually spending your money wisely.