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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Glass Ceiling for Chile?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 14, 2008 4:16pm ET

Wines are like friends. I particularly like wines that are like those friends you bump into after you haven’t seen them for a while. Sometimes they’ve lost weight and look great. Others show the wear and tear of life and you remember why you lost touch with them in the first place.

I was in the cellar on Saturday night, looking for something to go with the rack of lamb, broccoli rabe and fava beans that Nancy and I had prepared for dinner. I was trying to force myself to pick something other than a Rhône wine, never any easy task for me, and even harder to do with the aroma of the roasted lamb filling the kitchen.

But there they were: five bottles of the 2001 Concha y Toro Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Don Melchor. I’d bought a six-pack on release, tasted one right away to make sure all was well with my official prediction for the wine, and then I promptly forgot about the rest. I’ve tasted the wine here and there over the years in formal tastings, but hadn’t sat down for a meal with a full bottle since it was released. Now it was time to get caught up with this old friend.

Happily, the wine didn’t disappoint. It’s put on weight since the last time I saw it, but it’s all muscle. It shows the classic layers of loam, black currant, fig and cocoa powder of a young Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon, along with the sleek and refined structure you get from cellaring a great wine. It also didn’t lose a beat on the second day. It’s clearly classic in quality, and for me it remains one of the benchmark wines to come out of Chile so far. For contrast, I opened up a bottle of 2000 Château Montrose St.-Estèphe along side the Don Melchor, and the DM was with it every qualitative step of the way.

Drinking the two wines reminded me of an e-mail exchange I’d had earlier in the week with a Chilean winery owner, who felt that my reviews of Chile indicated the country's wines had a glass ceiling of sorts—that even though I reviewed the wines based on blind tastings, I was predisposed to hold down their scores since they were Chilean, and not say, Napa Cabernet or Bordeaux.

Obviously I disagree with his assessment. I think Chile clearly has the potential to produce great wines and the Don Melchor is a case in point. No, I don't think there's a glass ceiling for Chile in my book. Just too few wines at the elite level ...

Robert Commero
January 14, 2008 10:03pm ET
I agree that Chile has wonderful potential, all though it has not produced the numbers that other areas known for cabernet, it still is a great producer of the varietal. The true beauty of Chile is that because the "important" people do not hold it on the same plain as say a Napa, it is a great area for value wine! I own a small historical tavern in south central Pa and have a great Chilean Cab that is quite popular. Strong, balanced and well priced.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  January 14, 2008 11:10pm ET
I don't know James. Even though you're tasting blind, I don't see how you can't let the fact that you're tasting wine from the same country all at once affect your judgment. It's like when Suckling tastes Bordeaux. He knows the year, the weather, and most of all...the expectation. Say what you want, and I'm certainly not saying there are a lot of great wines from Chile, but I don't see how what you know in terms of origin while tasting doesn't creep in to how you're scoring. Your statement would have more credibility if you tasted Chile alongside the South African, Rhone, etc. at a neutral location.
Kevin J Luber
Atlanta, GA —  January 15, 2008 3:22am ET
I have always been under the impression that WS under-rates S. American wines. I'm not talking at the 92+ category, although I have tasted wines that merit these scores, but more at the good value category. Case in point: a certain syrah gets category wine of the year from decanter, a competitor,and 84 pts from WS??? Love the wine, more like 88-90. Love the input from the WS editors, but I truly think that S America gets a bad rap, maybe WS needs to be less hesistant to recognize true quality -- heck, I love to buy from S. America, why spend more when the quality is there. JL
Tom Homan
Cinci Ohio —  January 15, 2008 7:47am ET
I just had a bottle of the '01 before Christmas and was completely disappointed. I thought it was better over the last couple years. I hope it was just a bad bottle. I found it dull, and bland. I've got 4 more bottles so I can only hope at this point. Have not had any of my '03 since the first couple bottles, but have always enjoyed Chilean Wines.
James Molesworth
January 15, 2008 9:37am ET
James: I believe in our tasting m.o. - wines in blind flights grouped by region. As discussed here before, when I taste a wine, I judge it on the merits of its varietal, vintage and origin as well as vis a vis all the other wines I've ever tasted from that region and elsewhere.

In the end, I guess I'd rather be considered being too tough a grader, than too easy.

Tom: Did you decant the wine? The DM typically needs quite a bit of air - a good 30 minutes or so - before drinking.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  January 15, 2008 3:20pm ET
James, do you think the '01 DM would benefit from additional time in the bottle, or do you think the wine will continue to improve? I also have the same question for the '99 DM. Thanks in advance for your opinions.Whit Thompson
James Molesworth
January 15, 2008 3:39pm ET
Whit: I'd drink the '99 now and over the next few years, while holding the '01 a bit more...
Roberto A Rojas
Costa Rica —  January 21, 2008 5:08pm ET
Hi James,Still pondering this... don't you think that deep down the fact that a blind tasting from say Bordeaux in a great year makes for higher scoring altogether? I mean I do think that the starting point (points wise) would be higher for this scenario, than it would be for any S. American one... maybe not. (if only sub-consciously) Don't know, but it just seems logical that this be the case.... what do you think?
James Molesworth
January 23, 2008 10:23am ET
Roberto: This is where I disagree. The context - i.e. a great vintage for classified growth Bordeaux vs. a weak vintage for Maipo Cabernet - might change. But the intrinsic quality of each particular wine doesn't. A 90 point wine is a 90 point wine across the board - regardless of where it's from, what the vintage is, what the grapes are, etc.
Giancarlo Ortega
Washington DC —  January 25, 2008 6:15pm ET
James: How do you think Don Melchor stands up to the Napa Cabernets of similar price range or even higher priced ones? In the autumn of 2006, my family and I decided to compare a 5 bottle vertical of DM (1999-2003) which I provided with 4 Joseph Phelps Cabernet from 1999-2002 that my cousin Aldo who lives in Fremont, CA provided. The overall vote was tight but the DM won 5 votes to 4. We also agreed that the 01DM was the best bottle of the 9.
James Molesworth
January 26, 2008 8:28am ET
Giancarlo: I can't make that exact comparison since a 95 point Chilean Cab is just as good as a 95 point Napa Cabernet or Bordeaux. However, things change when you factor in price and availability. The DM has 18,000 cases a year and you can get it for under 50 bucks. In my opinion, Napa and Bordeaux don't deliver in that price range and availability much anymore. And how many triple digit priced Napa Cabs are there now that can't even break 90 points...?

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