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Help Me Appreciate Chilean Chardonnay

Can someone help me understand the mystique of Chilean wines?

We just returned from a week away, and I asked my wife to pick up a few Chards, as all of my white Burgs were buried in my cellar, and we were out of our normal house whites. We were having a baked chicken dish, with light cream sauce, and I though that a Chard would fit the bill nicely. She came in with three Chards that were highly recommended by the cellar-master at a local boutique grocery/wine shop. One was an ‘05 Veramonte Casablanca Valley “Reserve” Chardonnay. The cellar-master stated that this had just gotten a big writeup in WS and was a “fabulous” Chard. If I heard correctly, it was priced at US$12.99, but I could have confused it with one of the other two.

Now, I have had the Veramonte Chard, though am not sure if any have been their “Reserve” bottlings. Back “when” they were part of the Franciscan portfolio (may still be), we attended several wine dinners featuring this wine, though maybe not the “Reserve.” This wine was as unimpressive as all of the previous iterations.

I realize that to many a geographer, the Casablanca Valley is considered to be the South American version of Sonoma. However, I cannot imagine any wino rating it so. I’ve had dozens of examples of Chilean Chardonnays, and most have come from this area. They have ALL left me flat. Now, I am probably a wine snob, as I would rather pay US$40 for a really good wine, than US$13 for a poor one. I also have to admit that I enjoy Chardonnay – from a steely, flinty Chablis to a honeyed, full-bodied Montrachet, to a big, CA fruit-bomb. We probably do as many white Burgs, as Cal-Chards, but then it depends on the food we’re having. The bigger Cal-Chards go better by themselves, or with a more finely delimited menu. Burgs seem to be more universally food-friendly. I also enjoy Cal-Chards that are more Burgundian in character, so long as they are complete and good wines. Jim Clendenin’s Au Bon Climat Chards come to mind here, plus a few dozen other producers.

The Veramonte “Reserve” Chardonnay was typical of what I have encountered with all Chilean Chards. It was horribly angular with nothing but sharp edges everywhere. Nothing could be said to be “finished.” It was thin, but had sharpness everywhere. I’d liken it to putting a piece of A`a (a type of rough Hawaiian volcanic rock) into my mouth. The Chards that I like are more like well polished river rocks – smooth, round and finished. Typical of most Chilean Chards, this one also had a strange, metallic finish, though 90% was fermented in French oak barrels. It was such, that I’d really call it an “aftertaste,” rather than the finish. Any Chardonnay fruit was minimal and overwhelmed by the edginess and that aftertaste.

This particular site has been producing Chardonnay since 1990. In that time, someone should have brought a bottle of well-crafted Chard from FR, or CA, for the winemakers to taste.

Still, most of the wine-drinking world embraces these wines and sing their praises. Usually, the word “value,” comes into play. For me, “value” is about the pleasure that one derives from a wine, predicated on the price. In the case of this wine, I’d gladly pay US$1.25 for a bottle, if there was nothing else available and I was nearly broke. I need to say a special prayer of thanks, that I do not have to drink this swill, and then a prayer of support for anyone, who does.

Hunt, kneeling to pray

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  1. Not I, said the little red hen . . .

    1 Reply
    1. re: zin1953

      Me either....

    2. Sorry, I can't oblige you either.

      But, as I'm sure you know, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc can be quite good.

      6 Replies
      1. re: vinosnob

        I do not recall ever trying and SB, but could have forgotten. My explorations have been into Chards and various reds and red blends.

        So far, with the exception of Santa Rita Casa Real, I have yet to find any, that I would buy, and this includes some very expensive Cabs and blends. Luckily, most of my forays have been at some retailer's, or distributor's, expense. Most, locally, keep trying to convince me that "their" wine is the one. Not yet, except for that Santa Rita.

        Still, there is hoping, since most of the world loves 'em.

        Thanks for the pointer. I'll make sure I give a few a try. Any particular recs.?

        Hunt

        1. re: Bill Hunt

          Bill,
          I have been drinking more than my fair share of the 2007 Veremonte Sauvignon Blanc from Chile...quite green, racy, grapefruit and pretty high in acid, for $10.00 it is quite tasty. Other than that I am with you...no love for Chile

          1. re: bubbles4me

            Bubbles4me,

            Is their SB from the Casablanca Valley too? I'll look around, and try to not have a negative bias. Thanks for the tip.

            Hunt

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              Bill,
              It is from Casablanca..try not to hold that against it. I am a Loire Valley girl and drink Sancerre, Quincy and Muscadet on a weekly basis but when I want something with just a touch more plump fruit but still has great acidity...Veremonte has been hitting the sweet spot.

            2. re: bubbles4me

              Agreed, the Veramonte Reserve SB is a good one to try and generally speaking, the Casablanca Valley is one of the premiere regions for SB.

              I'd also suggest trying SB from Montes, Vina Casa Silva and Cono Sur & Terrunyo (labels from Concho y Toro).

            3. re: Bill Hunt

              hmmm I was about to say Santa Rita, but you already did...

          2. The one's I've had were barely recognizable as belonging to the varietal. I've had better luck with the reds, but in S. Fla there's a surplus of Chilean and Argentinian wines.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Icantread

              Ah, Argentinian wines, especially Malbec! I have had very few Mendoza Malbecs, that I did not enjoy. Still, Chile is another story.

              Hunt

              1. re: Bill Hunt

                Hunt, I agree with your entire post. You have hit the nail on the head and said things I've thought many times over the years! I share your taste in Chardonnays.

            2. Actually, I'd like to ask a related question - though related more to Chilean reds than whites. All of the Chilean wines I have had personally (which is not a tremendous selection, but more than one or two) have a strange and unpleasant aroma that I find totally overpowering. I want to say it is a sort of petrol or chemical smell. It has not been limited to any particular producer or varietal, and as far as I can tell, while it is worst in the very inexpensive bottles, I have had midrange bottles that had it, too. Even when the wines have been pleasant to the palate, whatever this scent is that I pick up is really overpowering. Is it just me, or is there something to this?

              12 Replies
              1. re: jonasblank

                The two aspects that I often find in Chilean reds are:

                1.) a styrene/plastic taste - sharper than petrol, which I find pleasent in GR Rieslings, in proper balance

                2.) a heavy vegtal aspect, similar to what I encountered in the '70s & '80s from Monterey (and nearby) AVA. Several folk tried to do Bdx. varietals in this area, and failed. Still have some bottles of Chalone's A-Frame Cab. One day I'll do a retro-tasting, to see if these have improved. I doubt it. Aging a red wine can do some great things, but covering major flaws, is usually not part of the outcome.

                I'm sure that there are some good, to great, Chilean reds, but I have tried many (probably 75+) and have yet to find more than one. I'm sure that part of this is distribution, but still with some US$100+ btls., I expect to find more than ONE!

                I get a bottle per month from a retailer, or distributor, with the note: "I'm SURE that you'll love this one... " So far, only a sommelier in Mayfair, has convinced me that not all were poor wines.

                Maybe I need to find a Scottsdale Dr, who specializes in palate augmentation, or something, as I cannot find wines, that I'd buy.

                The above mentioned Chard was the first Chilean wine, that we actually paid for, in the last 10 years, though I get more than a mixed case every year - for free! Hey, how can I turn my palate up to free wine? Easy, as it's not good free wine. Gotta' be good, for me to enjoy it.

                Hunt

                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  Hi Bill:

                  Sounds like you've tried MANY Chilean wines, so I doubt that you'll find any that you really like.

                  I find that quite a few Chilean reds do have a vegetal taste; many lack balance and are, if I dare say, crass. There is a glut of poor Chilean wines on the North American market.

                  However, I have certainly found more than one that pleased my palate. Here are a few that have impressed me:

                  Concha y Toro 'Don Melchor' (their flagship wine). I'd be surprised if you hadn't tasted this wine. It is a fruit forward cabernet-dominated blend that certainly needs time in the cellar to 'settle down.' I have bottles from the 2002, 2003, and 2004 vintages, and I'll get the 2005 when I see it.

                  Errazuriz 'Max Reserva' Cabernet Sauvignon. An inexpensive wine that I find actually delivers pretty good bang for the buck. One would be hard-pressed to find a $10-15 California cabernet that delivered this degree of complexity and concentrated flavour. A widely distributed wine, I bet you've tried this one too! (despite being inexpensive, it really benefits from a couple of years in the cellar).

                  'Almaviva.' One of Chile's elite wines, I had this at a tasting last year and remember being impressed (it is primarily a cab sauv-carmenere blend, I believe, though there may be some other Bordeaux varietals in the blend). Must say, though, that I won't be seeking it out in the stores for $100 or whatever it costs.

                  Errazuriz 'Wild Ferment' Chardonnay (the label informs me that it was made with 'natural yeasts'). I had the 2007 last night. It had bright lemon-lime and pineapple notes. The oak was a bit overdone but I've encountered much more heinous 'oak crimes' in several more expensive California chardonnays. I'd definitely give this one a whirl again. Not a great wine, but it offered decent value and it certainly bested most other Chilean chardonnays I have tried.

                  Casa Lapostolle-Clos Apalta: Another wine with a $100 blockbuster price tag. I wouldn't pay that much, if only because I rarely pay that much for any wine, but it was at a Chilean tasting I attended last year, and it was certainly one of the standouts (I bet you've tried this one, too).

                  Viu Manent Malbec, Single Vineyard (San Carlos Estate). I had this wine two weeks ago with a grilled ribeye steak and enjoyed it a great deal. This is the first Chilean malbec that I've tasted that shows real finesse and restraint. It is a wine that needs time in the cellar. I had the 2006 and could tell that it was way before its prime (and that was with 2 hours of decanting). Still, there was a lot going on in this wine, and I look forward to tasting it a few years from now.

                  Concha Y Toro 'Terrunyo' Sauvignon Blanc. This was the first South American sauvignon blanc I tasted that I really enjoyed. It reminded me more of Sonoma sauvignon blanc, like Kenwood, than of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It was a little softer than NZ Sauvignon Blanc, which, as Jason has noted on this board, has almost 'laser-like' flavours.

                  Montgras Antu Ninquen Syrah. Not a great wine, but a decent wine for the price (around $20) Some nice suppleness.

                  Amayna Pinot Noir. I tried the 2003 and 2004, and both really impressed me. This is the only South American pinot noir I have tried that I enjoyed. It is comparable to quality Willamette Valley pinot IMO. Amayna also makes a very good sauvignon blanc. Their chardonnay is well-reviewed, but I have yet to try it.

                  Overall, I think the Chilean wine industry has a long way to go, even to catch up to the Argentinian industry. But Chilean plonk has a lot of fans, much as cheap, cheerful, fruit- and oak-bomb Aussie shiraz has a large fanbase, so I think that oenophiles will have to continue wading through a lot of garbage to find the good stuff.

                  Cheers!

                  1. re: anewton

                    I'm familiar with some, but will sit down with the list and go over the recs. I get hit with a lot of different ones, and sometimes it's hard to keep up, unless I get wow'ed.

                    I do agree 100%, with your comment on Argentinean wines. Almost everything from the Mendoza Region (Malbecs, mostly) have caught my attention, and in a good way.

                    When I've done the homework, I'll get back. Hopefully, there will be some that I can call gems. Considering the popularity, I hate that I can find so few (one), that really does anything for me. Even wife, who purchased the above wine, looked at me, and asked, "what the heck went wrong? This wine got such favorable reviews!" Still, the masses love 'em. Shoot, maybe I AM becoming a wine snob...

                    Hunt

                    1. re: anewton

                      What about Escudo Rojo, the Bordeaux blend that's made by the Mouton Rothschild folks? I haven't had it for several years, but recall it tasting more like a $40 wine than the $17 it cost.

                      1. re: ChefJune

                        Do not recall having tried this one. Seems that Costco had this wine, but I cannot be sure. I'll look for it, as I have a bottle of Duero red to return this week - corked!

                        Thanks for the rec.

                        Hunt

                    2. re: Bill Hunt

                      Bill,

                      Related to your "styrene/plastic taste - sharper than petrol, which I find pleasent in GR Rieslings, in proper balance" comment --

                      Would you say this is more like plastic (in which case it's a strain of Brett) or more like fusel, as in the Alsatian/German/Austrian white wines?

                      1. re: maria lorraine

                        For me, it's definitely plastic. If you have experienced styrene up close, it's sharper than most other polys. I'd liken it more towards styrene and acetone solvent, though light on the acetone. As a child, building plastic models, and using various solvents and glues to assemble these, I encountered many olfacotry combos. While I cannot be sure, that I'm hitting all of the points, it reminds me of the process of glueing the plastic parts. No petrol (obviously, both the polys and acetone are derived from oil, but this is not what I would term "petrol.").

                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          My guess is that the plastic smell is a specific strain of Brett. Not to get all chemistry geeky on you but *vinyl* phenols being converted into ethyl phenols is the basic process by which Brett is born. Plastic, burnt plastic and vinyl are common Brett aromas. (There are others of course: barnyard, sweaty leather saddle, smoky-saccharine, Band-Aid/medicinal, and on and on.)

                          So once Brett's in play at a winery, a whole lot of other smells can develop as other bacteria join the party. VA/ethyl acetate. A vegetal aroma/taste component can result when Brett combines with lactobacillus -- it may not be due to unripe fruit.

                          From a distance, I can't tell you whether the vegetal aroma comes from this, or from unripe fruit. But if it is the Brett/lacto combo -- and I'm no germophobe -- that the wine is "dirty" -- it comes Brett- and lactobacillus-infected hoses, ferm tanks, etc.

                          I've tasted Brett at too high a level in many Chilean wines, or I've tasted non-contributory wacky strains of Brett (contributory would be like that found in Rhone wines).

                          You're terribly noble to make such attempts to like something that doesn't really appeal to you. Is there some large streak of Calvinist suffering in you? I mean you have given Chilean wines a fair shot. But perhaps you wish to leave no stone unturned, no bottle atried.

                          1. re: maria lorraine

                            I'd be surprised if the problem was unripe fruit. Chile supposedly has some of the best, most consistent grape-growing conditions on the planet. Long, dry, sunny summers with optimal "hang-time" for the fruit.

                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              ML, (or should it be ml?), you could be correct on this. I experience Brett in a lot of Old World Syrahs (and some Grenaches), and in a lot of cooler-clime, New World PN's. To me, I get notes of burnt sugar (carmalized sugars, like the bottom of flan), with a hint of sulphur, but only a hint.

                              The phenols aspect is in keeping with the styrene aspect. Having grown up in a petro-chemical plant, with a phenol unit, I remember these aromas from it, though there were more "sickly sweet" aromas there.

                              I normally think Brett in reds, but maybe the Chilean whites are exhibiting this, as well.

                              When it comes to organic chemistry - well, I barely passed. I'd go with your call any day.

                              Thanks,

                              Hunt

                              1. re: Bill Hunt

                                ML or ml, either one...M is best... Brett is more commonly found in white wines simply because they have more acid than reds. Even so, Brett has been showing up in more white wines than in the past, according to the labs I talk to. As far as the sharp angular taste in Chilean whites, that sounds awful, and I can't tell for certain what is it, especially from a distance, only that you should stay away from it and drink what you like. Perhaps even put dent into that huge cellar of yours! Life's too short and you've got a big job ahead. Best, M.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  When I am purchasing (something that I should not be doing, except for "house whites"), I do stay far away. Poor wife was woo'ed by a local cellar-master, and she felt the same, as I, except that she had paid $ for this wine. I often find a "free" bottle of Chilean in my basket, at the insistance that I'll love this one. So far, not so good.

                                  We need to get together and do a single bottle, just to experience it, and dissect it, then probably throw the rest away.

                                  Most often, I have found them (including most reds) to be horribly angular, while I find all too many domestic (US) Chards to be too "round," rather like holding a water-balloon. That is why I do more FR Chards (except for the house whites), than domestic Chards. I want some hint of character.

                                  Thanks for the Brett update,

                                  Hunt