Tue 29 Jan 2013

Chilean Cabernet Takes On The World


On a windswept January night in London, Chile’s cabernets took on the world in a boldly imagined and thoroughly enjoyable tasting. The event was hosted by Santa Rita Estates, determined as they are to spread the gospel of the country’s premium wines.

‘Premium’ is the operative word: no doubt conscious that Chile is the place more UK consumers look to for a good-value glug rather than a sophisticated splash, the organisers placed four top-end Chilean cabernets in among a 12-wine line-up (all 100% cabernet or cabernet-dominant blends) for us to taste under blind conditions. No prizes for guessing, we were assured: just a chance to see what we thought.

Of course, this didn’t stop the assembled tasters trying to guess the wines, and debate was lively throughout, predictable when considering the clientele. The great and the good of the UK wine trade were out in force, with Steven Spurrier – who, of course, knows a thing or two about these international blind tastings – Jancis Robinson MW, Tim Atkin MW, Oz Clarke, Anthony Rose, Alex Hunt MW and Tom Cannavan all in spirited symposium when it came to relative merits and possible identities.

The wines
Ranging between about £10 and over £100 per bottle, this diverse line-up hailed from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages. While some revelled in their youthful charm, others inevitably were a little surlier. I certainly felt this to be true of the first wine, which turned out to be the Te Mata, Coleraine, 2009, Hawkes Bay (New Zealand, c.£40 per bottle; 52% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot, 5% cabernet franc). This is a difficult wine to taste young, but it ages magnificently. For its obviously high quality, then, on the night the 2009 struggled to free itself from its formidable wall of tannins sufficiently to wow the tasters. It will be lovely, but it needs time.

On the other hand, the Petaluma Cabernet-Merlot, 2008, Coonawarra (Australia, c.£28 per bottle; 60% cabernet sauvignon, 31% merlot, 9% shiraz) was intense and exuberant – perhaps even a little aggressively so. So too was the Carmen Gold Reserve, Alto Jahuel, Maipo, 2010 (Chile, c.£50 per bottle; 100% cabernet sauvignon), whose almost implausibly dark fruit flavours were conspicuous and gratifying; however, I suspect those who prize complexity above curvaceousness may not enjoy this wine as much as others.

The wines

Next was Sassicaia, 2009 (Italy, c.£105 per bottle; 85% cabernet sauvignon, 15% cabernet franc). Noticeably lighter in colour than the first three wines, its cedary, leathery and complex aromas seemed to scream ‘claret’ at first. The palate, however, ended Bordelais suspicions, balancing the weight of this warm vintage with delightful, refreshing acidity and red-fruit flavours, all with mesmerising intensity.

From the same vintage, Domaine de Chevalier, Pessac-Léognan, 2009 (France, c.£60 per bottle; 66% cabernet sauvignon, 28% merlot, 6% petit verdot) needed a few swirls of the glass to compose itself and reveal some very fine fruit from under the (currently rather dominant) oak. This wine had an interesting mixture of flavours, feeling at once polished but rather rugged too. Tasting it blind, it was obviously of very high quality, but I found it hard to love at this young stage. It would be fair to say that the least favourite wine of the night for most was the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch, 2008 (South Africa, c.£10 per bottle; 100% cabernet sauvignon), critiqued for being rather ‘hot’ and coffee-like. Then again, this was by far the cheapest candidate and with that in mind, it certainly did not embarrass itself.

Jancis Robinson MW

The second half of the tasting commenced with what turned out to be the Santa Rita Casa Real, Alto Jahuel, Maipo, 2010 (Chile, c.£23 per bottle; 100% cabernet sauvignon). Pure and satisfying with lovely lifted fruit, complexity and a finish just on the right side of ‘oaky’, both its overall quality and Chilean qualities were rightly singled out by the tasters. An excellent performance, all the more so when one considers that, along with the 2008 vintage shown later in the tasting, it was the second-least expensive of the wines.

Far less straightforward for the panel was the beautiful, atypical Cullen ‘Diana Madeleine’, 2009, Margaret River (Australia, c.£60 per bottle; 88% cabernet sauvignon, 6% cabernet franc, 4% merlot, 2% malbec). Markedly subtler than the other wines, this was not a ‘blockbuster’ at all, eschewing oaky brawn in favour of gorgeous, soft red-fruit flavours and invigorating freshness. Most were conspicuously insecure when trying to identify what it might be, but it was deservedly popular and several singled it out as their favourite wine on the table.

Next came perhaps the polar opposite of this style, in the form of the Seña, Aconcagua, 2008 (Chile, c.£75 per bottle; 57% cabernet sauvignon, 20% carmenère, 10% merlot, 8% petit verdot, 5% cabernet franc). Intense, extroverted and sweet, this was crying out for hearty food to anyone who might listen. On the other hand, the quietness and classicism of the Château Pontet-Canet, Pauillac, 2008 (France, c.£80 per bottle; 65% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 4% cabernet franc, 1% petit verdot) made it quite a difficult wine to pin down, and rather like the Te Mata I felt it was not happy to have been disturbed at this age, with quite a lot of oak yet to integrate with the rest of the (excellent) wine.

Tim Atkin MW

The 2008 vintage of Santa Rita Casa Real (Chile, £23 per bottle; 100% cabernet sauvignon) followed, with a nose I’d describe as ‘Bordeaux on steroids’. With a delicate touch of sweetness to the fruit and some delicious menthol and tobacco notes, this was full-bodied and certainly very serious, but also really rather good fun too (I should note that this is not meant pejoratively: wine is supposed to be fun, after all!). An excellent wine and again, it is worth bearing in mind its price within this line-up.

‘Backward’ is a word that wine tasters bandy about rather a lot when it comes to young wines, but those seeking the apotheosis of this term should try the last of the flight, Ridge Monte Bello, 2009 (USA, c.£90 per bottle; 72% cabernet sauvignon, 22% merlot, 6% petit verdot). Actually, don’t: it would be a terrible shame to broach this before it’s ready. Indeed, this wine was so ‘backward’, it was almost as though the stuff wanted to board a plane to California and reattach itself to the vines. Society buyer Pierre Mansour has said in the past that the elegant greatness of Monte Bello can often be missed in teeth-staining blind tastings, and I’m inclined to agree: compared to many of its peers it is a lover, not a fighter. Peppery, full-bodied and rather smudged by oak at the moment, it nonetheless showed plenty of finesse. Its best is undoubtedly a way off and when that time comes, I can only cross as many appendages as possible that I might get the chance to try it.

So, how did Chile do?

World-renowned wine consultant Brian Croser (left) leads the discussion

When it came to the Chilean wines, the general consensus was that they were among the easiest to spot, and generally in a good way. They seemed to be the ‘friendliest’ of the wines, particularly considering how young most of the bottles in the tasting were. For those weary of or unwilling to negotiate drinking windows and chance ‘dumb stages’ in their wines, this is an advantage that should be taken very seriously.

In all four of the wines, the fruit was a little sweeter, the tannins were soft and the secondary flavours erred more on the satisfyingly peppery side of things than the challenging rusticity found in some of the other wines. Perhaps one or two were a little too exuberant for their own good. Society buyer Toby Morrhall has rightly noted elsewhere that, save a few isolated exceptions, Chile only reached international standard around 20 years ago. Pitted against regions such as Bordeaux then, the greatness of whose wines has been extolled for centuries, this was an impressive performance.

Particularly, it must be said, for Casa Real. The two vintages of this cabernet were noticeably more restrained than the other two Chilean wines on show, and considering they made up two of only four wines in this tasting priced at under £30, their ability to stimulate the intellect as much as the palate was all the more striking. Indeed, the 2010 vintage was certainly among my personal ‘top 3’, alongside the far more expensive wines from Sassicaia and Cullen.

It is a testament to Toby’s efforts that Casa Real has occupied a place in The Society’s multi-award winning Chilean range for some time now.

To this end, the tasting fulfilled its objectives and proved that Chilean cabernets are capable of being delicious, distinctive and attractive at a very high level; not to be sniffed at, but sniffed, swirled, imbibed and enjoyed.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

Categories : Chile, Wine Tastings


  1. Alan Ford says:

    Extremely interesting! The number of variables to take into consideration, especially with pretty pricey and young wines, was illuminating. More of such ‘Grapevines’ would be appreciated!

  2. David Copp says:

    Congratulations not only on the report of the tasting but your consistent performance in selecting fine Chilean wines for the wine list. My own comments pick up on some of the points made by others. Firstly Chile has proved, in a relatively short space of time, that it can make very fine wines indeed. Secondly, it’s wine growing area is one of the most natural that I have seen, and many vineyards still have relatively young vines.They will get even better. Thirdly I am so pleased to see the right vines in the right locations, particularly in the coastal areas. Fourthly, I personally love the freshness of fruit and the fruit flavours. You are right ! Wine is for our mutual enjoyment and it pleases me that Chilean wines also please people who enjoy wine but do not pretend to be sophisticated trade experts. I look forward to a similar tasting involving Chilean white wines! Well done all concerned.

  3. stewart cusworth says:

    Interesting article as it highlights one of the conundrums for new afficianados of so called fine wine as myself, namely is it worth paying £100 if a £20 wine is just as good. I am a great fan of Chilean Cab Sauv as it seems to fill the gap between pure fruit bombs and the more tannic left bank Bordeauxs. What would be equally intriguing would be a blind tasting of more mature wines since the conceived wisdom is that top end Bordeaux benefits more than new world from aging.

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