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.
Multiple styles: dry and aromatic, light and sparkling, and rich and sweet
Asparagus and artichokes
One of the more versatile white wine grapes, Muscat is grown around the world for use in use in light and dry wines, low-alcohol sparkling wines, and sweet, late-harvest wines. Its proliferation around the world (and especially around the Mediterranean) leads us to conclude that Muscat was one of the first domesticated grapes. Indeed, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed pots excavated from King Midas's burial mound to conclude that Muscat was a major component of the alcoholic beverage served at his funeral feast.
Even if Muscat is cultivated across the Mediterranean basin and in some New World locales, we find that the best dry expressions of the wine come from Alsace. When vinified dry, to eliminate all residual sugars, Muscat makes a pungently aromatic wine that can handle the two wine killers, asparagus and artichokes. Gewürztraminer may be Alsace's standard-bearer with regard to intensely aromatic wines, but Muscat is no wimp, even if it is a little tamer and more refined. Expect to find notes of ripe peach and apricot, flowers, and fresh herbs. We like wines from Domaine Barmes Buecher and Domaine Ernest Burn.
Many may remember the ubiquitous advertisements for Asti Spumante, the sweet sparkling wine from Piedmont in Italy. This wine is also made from Muscat grapes. We prefer its cousin, Moscato d'Asti, which is bottled within months of the harvest at an even lower alcohol level- sometimes below five percent. This light, sweet, bubbly wine shows exuberant flavors of peach, apricot and pear, and is an outstanding apertif. Its low alcohol is also refreshing at the end of a meal, paired with fresh fruit desserts. Look for wines from Saracco and La Spinetta.
Muscat also makes traditionally-styled, carbonation-free sweet wines in many parts of the world. Some of these are consumed almost entirely within the country of origin, while others do make it onto the international market. Australia has a long history of fortified wine production, especially in the Rutherglen region of northeast Victoria. Here, old stocks of Muscat are blended to produce a non-vintage fortified wine that is typically between 18 and 20 percent alcohol. These bottlings are marked by flavors of caramel, toffee, and exotic spices. Try wines from R. L. Buller and Sons as well as Chambers Rosewood.