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Chilean wines deliver at a discounted price

Wed., March 25, 2009

The damaged economy has not stopped people from buying, drinking and enjoying wine – far from it. But it has made everyone more price-sensitive, as my friends in the retail business confirm. And the big beneficiaries are countries that can offer delicious wines at bargain prices.

Chile is one of those countries.

The last five or six Chilean vintages have been very good, with 2005 and 2007 just about perfect. The country has been cited by one industry analyst as the best-located country in the world to combat climate change, given its geography, sustainable water supply and seemingly endless coast.

The modern era has brought massive investment to Chile from multinational wine companies. Count me as one who does not decry such enterprise as inherently anti-terroir. In order to find terroir in an emerging wine country, it is necessary to have quality control in the vineyards, modern winemaking equipment, and expertise at the helm.

Two large Chilean wineries with all of the above in play are Veramonte and Cono Sur.

Veramonte is part of a small group of wineries owned by Agustin Huneeus, a native Chilean who also owns the Quintessa winery in Napa. Huneeus has a passion for Chile’s Casablanca Valley. This pristine region had almost no vineyards when he first explored it in the early 1990s. It quickly developed an international reputation for its racy, crystalline and refreshing white wines, especially sauvignon blancs.

Veramonte is headquartered there, with 1,100 acres of sustainably farmed grapes. The winery makes a dizzying array of wines in several price tiers. While the specific vintages indicated here may be passing from the market as this column appears, there is little need for concern. The newest vintages for all these wines should be just as good as, if not better than, those listed.

•Veramonte 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Reserva ($10). Ultra-fresh, crisp, grassy, and closest in style to New Zealand sauv blancs, but generally less expensive. A great appetizer wine.

•Veramonte 2006 Chardonnay Reserva ($10). Juicy, spicy and fruit-driven, this chardonnay has a little kick to the melon and banana flavors, adding lemon peel and juniper berry.

•Veramonte 2006 Pinot Noir Reserva ($15). Somewhat surprisingly, Chilean winemakers are doing very well making inexpensive pinot noir. American winemaker Paul Hobbs consulted on this stylish but delicate effort, which is lightly scented with rose petals and chocolate.

•Veramonte 2006 Merlot ($10). Merlot is difficult to make well at this price, so don’t look for Washington-style meat and muscle here. Flavors of leaf and moist earth abound, but the balance is good, and this would be fine with a burger and fries.

•Veramonte 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Also in the blend are cabernet franc, carmenère and syrah. It’s bright and spicy, with tangy berry flavors set against mouth-drying tannins.

A second big producer worth seeking out is Cono Sur. Just 15 years old, the company motto reads “No family trees, no dusty bottles, just quality wine.” They have embraced green, sustainable and organic farming practices, and pioneered the cultivation of viognier and pinot noir.

Cono Sur makes something for everyone: sparkling wines, white wines, red wines and rosés. As with Veramonte, these are offered at several different price points.

The most affordable Cono Sur wines, referred to as the bicycle wines, sell for $8 to $10. The bottles are sealed with screwcaps, so no worries about getting an off, or “corked,” wine. The bicycle series includes five whites, five reds and a rosé.

The white wines are especially good. They capture the Chilean strengths: freshness, bracing acidity and pleasing minerality. Stainless steel fermented, these wines are moderate in alcohol (almost always in the 13 percent range), which keeps them extremely food-friendly. These are not broadly fruity wines loaded with lush tropical flavors, and you won’t find flavors of oak, toast, vanilla, etc. Their fruit sings of green berries, citrus fruits and stone.

I especially like Cono Sur’s spritzy riesling, racy viognier and lightly grassy sauvignon blanc. The current vintage of all these wines is 2008, and it’s always best to drink them as young as possible.

As with Veramonte, pinot noir is something of an obsession for Cono Sur, and they do a nice job with it. The bicycle bottling is a fine example – silky and bright, with red fruits and a sweet cherry core.

For a taste of something a bit more expensive, try this highly rated Montes Alpha 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. John Allen’s Vino! wine shop (222 S. Washington St.) is featuring it for $23, and for the extra bucks you get a solid red that is one of Chile’s best cabernets. The new oak flavors enhance the dark fruits, and there are accents of mint and marshmallow. Good juice at a good price.

Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Seattle. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at Visit for Gregutt’s blog and his latest tasting notes.

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