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Chilean value cabernets finally living up to the decades-old hype

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Valley values: Chilean wines have grown increasingly sophisticated, with terroir notes that capture the nation’s Central Valley.
  • Valley values: Chilean wines have grown increasingly sophisticated, with terroir notes that capture the nation’s Central Valley.

There was a time when Chile was touted as the best place to go for inexpensive cabernet sauvignon — the Nordstrom Rack or Loehmann’s of the wine world. I, however, have had a hard time getting on board with Chilean cabernet as a whole, as it has often left me feeling “meh.”

The wines that were being called “values” were often slightly better than cough syrup. Also, certain houses thought they could get away with charging more than $40 for wines that were supposed to compete with similarly priced Bordeaux. But they were, and still are, incredibly oaky, homogenous and lacking character.

Over the years, there have been a few here and there that stuck out from the rest, such as the wines made by Ignacio Recabarren at Domus Aurea and the Terrunyo line from Concha Y Toro, but they  seemed like an anomaly.

Lately though, I’ve tried some reasonably priced Chilean cabs that are not only well-made, but also have a sense of terroir and personality. Perhaps, after nearly three decades of hype and chatter, Chilean cabernet sauvignon has finally hit its stride.

Chilean wines in general are becoming better and more diverse. The coast has been on fire, with some good pinot noir and really terrific sauvignon blancs that seem to have more in common with the Loire Valley of France than Chile’s Maipo Valley.

Chile’s Central Valley — which includes the Maipo, Rapel, Curico and Maule valleys — is still cabernet territory, but the wines are not as monotonous as they were even a decade ago and some are true values. Here are three:

Emiliana Cabernet Sauvignon, Gran Reserva Novas, 2009 (Maipo Valley):

When Rafael and Jose Guilisasti embarked on this ecologically minded wine journey more than a decade ago, they brought on Alvaro Espinoza, one of the few winemakers in Chile at the time who was familiar with organic and biodynamic viticulture. The Novas line is made from organic grapes. With black olives, a hint of eucalyptus and big black-currant fruit, this is a juicy wine that has mineral purity and finesse.
Suggested retail: $15

William Cole Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbine Reserve, 2010 (Colchagua Valley):
Located in the Casablanca Valley, William Cole emphasizes wines from cool-climate grapes, so they had to stretch their hand to the Colchagua Valley, which is part of the Rapel Valley, to get the fruit for this cab. This wine smells like pizza topped with pepperoni, green peppers and fresh oregano — in a very good way. Not too green, it has a healthy dose of huckleberries and cocoa, held together by gripping, but not astringent, tannins.
Suggested retail: $17

Ventisquero Cabernet Sauvignon, Grey, 2009 (Maipo Valley):
The 21st century has ushered in a host of new wineries in Chile committed to sustainability. Ventisquero is one of them. In addition to mindful growing practices, the winery is completely carbon neutral. Composed of fruit from Ventisquero’s original vineyard in Maipo, this wine has a good deal of tannin, with fleshy blackberry fruit, After Eight Thin Mints candy and herbal undertones.
Suggested retail: $17

Some of these wines can be found through K&L Wine Merchants, Solano Cellars and The Wine Club S.F.

Pamela Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.