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Sticker Shock in Chile

Thomas Matthews
Posted: February 3, 2000

Sticker Shock in Chile
By Thomas Matthews, New York bureau chief

Would you pay $50 for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon...from Chile?

Wine prices are soaring all over the world. Newly-released Bordeaux are priced over $500 per bottle, California Cabs have reached $250, Australian Shiraz has topped $100. Now Chile--whose booming export business is built almost entirely on good value wines that retail for less than $10 per bottle--wants to play with the big boys.

Two $50 Chilean Cabs are already on the market. Robert Mondavi has teamed up with Vina Errazuriz to produce Sena, which debuted in January with the 1995 vintage. Montes Winery answered with Montes Alpha "M"; the 1996 vintage, released in March, is priced at $54. At least two more of these luxury cuvees are on the way. Casa Lapostolle has made--but not yet bottled or named--a 1997 Merlot that will be released in autumn 1999 and priced "at around $50," according to winery owner Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. And Chateau Mouton-Rothschild is working with Chile's largest winery, Concha y Toro, on a Cabernet Sauvignon which will undoubtedly join this exalted club.

None of these wines has yet been rated in blind tastings by Wine Spectator, but I have tasted three of them--all but the Mouton-Concha project. In my opinion, all three are very good to outstanding, and each has a distinctive character that reflects both their vineyard sites and their winemaking philosophies.

Sena is the most powerful. Deeply colored, it shows rich aromas of chocolate and plum, with plenty of ripe fruit and toasty flavors on the palate, backed by very firm tannins. It's made from fruit grown in the original vineyards of Vina Errazuriz in the Aconcagua Valley, the most northerly--and therefore hottest--of Chile's main grape-growing regions, and bears a close family resemblance to other Errazuriz reds. The winery's flagship until now has been the Don Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon, named for the winery's founder, which retails for $15, or $25 for the Reserva Especial, released only in selected vintages. Don Maximiano consistently scores in the high 80s, or very good, in Wine Spectator blind tastings.

Alpha "M" is the most elegant. It's firm but silky on the palate, with understated flavors of black cherry, eucalyptus and smoke, nicely balanced with ripe tannins and crisp acidity. The wine comes from a single vineyard called La Finca de Apalta in the Colchagua sub-region, south of Santiago and cooler than Aconcagua. Owner-winemaker Aurelio Montes found the site 30 years ago, but only acquired and planted it in 1990. Like Sena, "M" shares a stylistic profile with Montes' top Cabernets, released under the "Alpha" label; recent vintages have scored 87 to 89 points, and cost $15 to $17 per bottle.

The new Merlot from Casa Lapostolle is the most voluptuous. I recently tasted a barrel sample of the wine with Marnier-Lapostolle and her consulting winemaker, Michel Rolland from Pomerol. The wine is like thick velvet on the palate, with extremely ripe, concentrated fruit flavors of plum and cassis, ripe, soft, tannins and plenty of toasty, chocolate-accented oak notes. This, too, is made from fruit grown in the Apalta region, but from very old, dry-farmed vineyards with very low yields. It tastes remarkably like the winery's Merlot Cuvee Alexandre, which has twice earned outstanding ratings from Wine Spectator (90 points for the 1995 and '94 vintages), and which sells for $15.

The last member of this quartet is the new wine from Concha y Toro and Mouton-Rothschild, which will debut with either the 1996 or '97 vintage. According to sources at the winery, the fruit will come from Concha's premier vineyard, called Puente Alto, which is on hot, flat ground just south of Santiago in Chile's oldest wine-growing region. Puente Alto also produces Concha's top Cabernet, called Don Melchor. It has achieved Chile's highest rating to date (91 points for the 1993 vintage), and consistently scores in the upper 80s; its price has crept up from $16 to nearly $25 over the past four vintages.

Notice a trend here? What's really new about these wines, compared with the wineries' other top cuvees? The vineyards, the winemaking techniques and the wine styles remain more or less constant. But the price suddenly doubles.

These four wineries are clearly among Chile's elite. They have already proven their ability to produce very good to outstanding reds. In addition--and, to my mind, just as important--they have established distinctive house styles in much the same way as, say, the first growths of Bordeaux. These styles are based both on terroir--the specific characteristics of their vineyard sites--and on winemaking philosophy. The wineries have earned the right to charge premium prices for their wines and, up until now, the wine-consuming public has gone along.

But it's one thing to climb the ladder from $8 to $10 per bottle to around $20. Doubling the price again to $50 is a leap into the unknown. There are plenty of fair to middling $20 bottles around--village Burgundies, Loire whites from average vintages, Bordeaux cru bourgeois. But when was the last time you paid $50 for any bottle in a wine shop? Sure, these wines are made in small quantities--generally two to three thousand cases. But scarcity is only an important factor in pricing when there's strong demand. And so far as I can judge, collectors are not yet standing in line waiting for the next shipment from Chile.

I suppose it was inevitable that someone would test the upper end of the Chilean market. I remember my shock when the first vintage of Opus One was released at the unprecedented price of $50 per bottle. Well, there are plenty of $50 Cabs from California now, and compared with the top 1996 Bordeaux, they look like good values. Maybe some day these Chilean trailblazers will look like bargains.

But maybe not. It's just as possible that wine drinkers fed up with hype and fancy bottles will simply reject these "prestige" wines and, perhaps, the wineries that are pushing them into the market. It's one thing to raise the price for a well-established wine in the face of steadily increasing demand. It's quite another approach to decide on a price point and then try to create a wine, and a package, that will justify it.

I have no doubt that Chilean vintners can and will make red wines on a par with the world's best. When they do, those wines will sell at prices that reflect their quality. For now, I'm afraid, these four wineries have put the cart before the horse. I look forward to trying these new wines in blind tastings, and I'm ready to change my tune if they can truly sing like angels. But I'll admit right now that I'm skeptical. And I don't think I'm alone.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from New York bureau chief Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.

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