Virtually every wine region in Chile benefits from proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the cooling Humboldt Current that flows up from the South Pole. Although Chile extends more than 2,000 miles from north to south, its grape-growing regions are clustered in the center of the country, where rainfall is concentrated during the winter months, and where an absence of fungal diseases makes for relatively carefree grape-farming. The towering Andes Mountains that run down Chile's eastern border block wind and rain from the east, but, more important, trap cool air from the Pacific, with the result that nighttime temperatures even in most of Chile's warmest vineyards typically descend into the 50s. This diurnal variation enables Chile's vineyards to produce grapes with healthy acidity, strong aromatic character and intense varietal flavors.
For decades, Chile has been an excellent source of user-friendly, fruit-driven wines, often at bargain-basement prices. Due to a stable political environment, Chile's wine growing regions have steadily attracted foreign interest and investment since the 1970s; and, at the same time, Chile has benefited from association with large and established trading companies with powerful networks that have helped to raise the profile and expand distribution of Chilean wines in major export markets.
Chile is a solid source of wonderful-if largely commercial-grade-wines made from familiar varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Recently, Chile has faced growing competition in the under-$15 range from Argentina, as well as from Spain, Portugal, Australia, and South Africa. At the same time, a growing number of producers are attempting to capitalize on the country's idyllic growing conditions by cutting vine yields and attempting to make more serious and concentrated Chilean wines that can bear comparison to the best of the New World.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.