Chile: It's What Will Be Hot Tomorrows

Making wine in the 1990s requires much high-tech equipment that didn't exist 100 years ago, and for a few passionate men, one of these gleaming gadgets is the jet plane.

It is used to open new horizons after the old ones have been played out. Most fine wine regions of the world have been fully planted; the cost of tilling another acre in Bordeaux and Barolo is prohibitive.

Creative winemakers now look to lands that have no track record. Good examples are such visionary wine men as Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery, Bruno Prats of Chateau Cosd'Estournel and Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux, all of whom are convinced that Chile is the next wine center.

Their idea is simple: In an emerging region like Chile--which already makes tasty wine at fair prices--experts can fly in, use improved methods for growing grapes and making wine and produce wine that is more like what people expect from great areas.

The problems are obvious: Although Cabernet Sauvignon grapes look pretty much the same whether grown in Napa or in Santiago, flavors can vary widely, so years of experimentation often are needed before truly great wine can be made. Moreover, winery facilities in far-flung lands can be chambers of horrors to work in.

Jackson, Prats and Pontallier have new Chilean red wines that will be available in major U.S. markets within the next two weeks.

The 1994 Paul Bruno Cabernet Sauvignon is a joint venture between Prats and Pontallier, using the first name of each man. The wine is one of the most intriguing cabernets I have tasted. It offers a complex array of flavors and aromas, including fresh plums, cassis, coffee and black pepper. The wine even seems a bit Rhonish, with a trace of pomegranate, fresh tomato and herbs as well as a fat, broad texture. And, at $15, it's fairly priced.

It comes from 62 acres just east of Santiago. "We first started looking for the right areas to grow great grapes in 1984," says Prats. "We tried to find a location that would give us wine with a special style."

Such a region exists, he says, in the Andean foothills near Santiago. And it was appropriate to join with Margaux' fame because Prats is a descendant of the famed 19th-Century owner of that chataeu, Fernand Ginestet.

Pontallier is crucial to the project, too, because "he studied oak aging in 1978 at the Institute of Bordeaux, and we knew it was possible to give a wine too much oak, and we wanted a wine that showed the fruit of the area," said Prats. So oak use was minimal.

What comes through is dense fruit from the rock-strewn vineyard high on a plateau between 2,200 and 2,365 feet above Santiago. About 13,000 cases are made each year.

The other new Chilean wines of note are called Vina Calina. This wine was first made as part of a Kendall-Jackson project in 1993 and was excellent right from the start.

The Sonoma County wine company went to Chile under its project called Artisans and Estates, which Jackson uses to identify specific regions of the world that make exceptional wine. He then appoints a talented winemaker to make the wines in whichever way the winemaker sees fit.

Jackson, who has an uncanny knack for finding talent in both grapes and winemakers, has already developed half a dozen top estates in California. He also has bought a property in Tuscany, where he's making Chianti.

Now Artisans and Estates is in Chile. Although the project is still in a test mode, the results are striking. A 1993 Cabernet Sauvignon called Seleccion de Las Lomas (selection from the hills) is a charmer, with perfect herbal-cherry varietal intensity, traces of tarragon and thyme and a sweetish finish. This delicious wine retails for $14.

Also wonderful is a 1994 Merlot ($14), loaded with jammy fruit. And there is a small amount of 1994 Cabernet Franc ($20), with red currant aromas and sweet aftertaste.

All these wines, the most expensive to come out of Chile to date, are candidates to stump your local wine snob; Chile has never before made wines of this depth or intensity.

The secret is in the winemaking Randy Ullom made exceptional wines for De Loach Vineyards in Sonoma County for a decade before joining Jackson. He now works the September-October harvest in Sonoma, then flies to South America for the March-April crush there.

The first man to explore this dual hemisphere concept was Agustin Huneeus, a former Chilean winery executive who runs Franciscan Vineyards in the Napa Valley. A decade ago, Huneeus formed an alliance with a Chilean winery, Errazuriz Panquehue, developed the brand Caliterra and in 1988 sent Franciscan's winemaker, Greg Upton, to Chile to make the first wines. (The partnership with Errazuriz was terminated recently.)

These aren't the only newcomers from existing wine powerhouses to discover Chile. Miguel Torres of the respected Spanish wine company now owns substantial land and a winery here. Eric de Rothschild has affiliated his Chateau Lafite-Rothschild with the old Chilean firm Los Vascos. And several smaller French companies are testing the grapes here too.

The Caliterra project soon will release its first wines from a new grape plantation called Casablanca Valley in an area north of Santiago, on the road to Valparaiso.

Upton is no longer making the wines there (he left Franciscan to work for another of Jackson's projects), but Huneeus, using different clones and winemaking techniques, has made Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

No brand name has yet been settled upon; the name of the winery is Alto Casablanca. It sits in an area as cool as California's Carneros, and Huneeus promises, "We'll come out with wines that are quite different from what you saw from Chile in the past."


Wine of the Week

1994 River Falls Cabernet Sauvignon ($6) --Chilean red wines have improved every year for the last decade, culminating in a superb harvest in 1994. However, prices for good Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have risen rapidly since Kendall-Jackson entered the bidding war for grapes. Some producers still have their sources of supply, though, and this wine is one great value.

The label design and name of this wine make it appear to be from California, but the grapes came from Colchagua, 200 miles south of Santiago in rocky mountain plateaus noted for yielding very small tonnages of grapes per acre. The River Falls brand is made by European Beverage Co. of Chatsworth. The wine was crafted by winemaker Steve Dooley, who formerly was winemaker for Edna Valley Vineyards.

The Cabernet Sauvignon flavors are fairly deep for a wine of this price: black cherry and anise, a trace of oak and a lovely clean, fruity and balanced aftertaste.

With wines of this quality entering the market, California producers ought to be hearing footsteps.

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