Chile has the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, Mt. Aconcagua, over 22,000 feet.
Similarly, Chile, not California, looked like it would be the leading winegrower in the New World. Spanish missionaries brought the Mission or Pais grape to central Chile 250 years before they brought the same European grape to California.
The Rest of the Story
But Chilean winemaking settled on a simple formula that satisfied the domestic market. Only a few years ago, a German-born enologist working in Chile said, "All the cellars [wineries] in Chile were built about 100 years ago, and until a few years ago it was static—no change for 100 years." (June 1992 Wine Spectator)
Example of Stagnation: Only 17 years ago the vineyards in the shadow of Mt. Aconcagua still were over 50% Pais. That was nearly three times the acreage of the second most widely-planted grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. Not so in California, where over a century ago, the Zinfandel began to displace the Mission.
But wait a minute:
California's wine districts are over 30 degrees latitude from the equator. So is Mt. Aconcagua.
California's coastal wine districts are cooled by Pacific Ocean marine breezes. So are the vineyards at the foot of Mt. Aconcagua.
Hence, French, Spanish and American vintners saw the potential and dove in with facilities and know-how. The first effect was to raise the quality of those under-$lO reds. They became among the best buys of the 1990s in the U.S.A. Now we are entering phase two, production of world-class wines, at
world class prices. My panel just tasted one; it's the best South American
wine we've ever sipped! Here it is.
Today's Best Bottle
1997 Seña (84% Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon) By Families of Robert Mondavi and Eduardo Chadwick Appellation—Aconcagua Valle, Chile The Name, Seña—The short definition is "signature," and the Mondavi and Chadwick signatures appear on every bottle. My Panel's Reaction—S.F. State U. wine teacher Edgar Vogt says, "Finally, a great South American Cab." The panel gave it a 91. I checked back to 1992 and this is six points higher than they've ever given a bottle from South America previously. Winemakers—Tim Mondavi and Chadwick-Errazuriz's Irene Paiva Contact—Nancy Light, phone (707) 251-4483, FX (707) 251-4386 Price—$60 range.
With all this interest in the wines of Chile, the country is scheduled to have something like 50,000 acres of new vines ready to harvest in the next few years. That sounds like 15 million more cases of wine a year to process, store and sell. By the year 2003, there may be a problem...(and some very good buys!)
About the Writer
Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.