Wine Blogging Wednesday 48: Catching Up with Chilean Cab

I had a moment of hesitation, when I read Lenn Thompson’s announcement for the 4-year anniversary edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday. As he called upon us to go back to our roots, to taste back wines we particularly favored early in our wine guzzling tasting days, I immediately thought of Robert Mondavi’s 1987 Napa Valley Reserve Pinot Noir, which had been my first revelation of the potential of wine to enlighten life. But with the man himself gone and his own brand name disposessed from him and his family, it just didn’t seem right. Sometimes, you just can’t go back.

So instead, I turned my eyes south. Way south.

Back when I started to be truly interested in wine – i.e. not just drinking it, but exploring the diversity of the world of wine – a new player was coming on the scene. In Canada at least, at the turn of the 1990s, Chile’s cabernet sauvignons – tasty, consistent, well-defined, at very reasonable prices – were rising stars, a clear harbinger of the tide of New World wines that was getting ready to reshape the international market.

I drank a lot of the stuff. By which I mean I drank it frequently with friends and family. And as some of my first group tastings showed, not only were the wines good to drink now, but they could also age quite nicely.  One of the prime examples of this very low cost-to-aging ratio was Cousiño-Macul‘s Antiguas Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, grown from ungrafted old vines brought to Chile from Bordeaux by the family’s founding father, Luis, well before phylloxera had swept through and almost destroyed European vineyards. Deep, subtle, reasonably complex, it became, with time, a beautiful expression of what cabernet sauvignon is all about. I remember drinking a bottle of 1986, about ten years ago, and sympathizing with the very good friend who had brought it to the table and noted with an audible sigh that it was his last bottle. Many a Médoc would have had trouble competing.

I’ve kept a few bottles of Antiguas Reserva and other interesting cabs from Chile in the cellar, here and there, over the years, and have never been disappointed. But for various reasons, I haven’t been cellaring any over the last six or seven years. Tastes change, focus shifts, budgets change. And Chile, after moving to market highly expensive, highly concentrated super cuvées that just didn’t allow it to move from supplier of good, inexpensive wines to a dominant force at the high end of the market, didn’t seem quite as exciting as it was fifteen years earlier.

When I tipped my glass of Antiguas Reserva, yesterday, and took a deep breath, some reasons for which I’ve stopped drinking Chilean cabs regularly quickly appeared. Compared to the elegant berry and tobacco I remembered from years back, the 2005 projected vanilla, coffee grounds, a bit of burnt toast from which prune and blackberry aromas struggled to emerge. Oak, oak oak. And little room for the wine to breathe.

Sipping it was better. Fine tannins, good (if not great) length, with the fruit coming out more, especially in the finale. Nice spicy touches, medium body, lovely garnet color. The elegance I remembered about this particular wine is still there to be found. But not quite as before.

Five years ago, I interviewed Ronald Grasty, then Director of Exports for Cousiño-Macul, and saw that the company was at a crossroads. It was opening a modern new winery, and clearly pointed out that it wanted to modernize its wines as well, in tune with market trends for bigger, fruitier wines. All that while keeping with tradition. Of course.

Well, I checked back on a bottle of the 1998 Antiguas Reserva, in my cellar, and one clear sign of this shift could be seen. Alcohol level in the 1998: 12.4%. Alcohol level in the 2005: 14%. And I’ll bet the oak is newer, too. It’s from the same place, the same vines. But it’s more caught in the trappings of today’s global winemaking trends.

A couple of months ago, I opened a bottle of 1995 Prima de Martino Cabernet Sauvignon, purchased for barely 15$, over ten years ago. Lovely stuff. Balanced, with a wide range of aromas and flavors (humus, mushrooms, tomato, prune, pepper, blackberry… I could go on). And alcohol below 13% as well. I’m not sure more alcohol would have helped it in any way.

Which is why I’m unsure about the more recent Antiguas Reserva. It’s still a good wine, at a fair price (19$), and I think it still has good aging potential. But I’m not sure how the more oaky and higher-alcohol (and, somewhere behind that, riper) style will work out in the future. It’s changed, but I’m not sure it’s improved.

But hey. What can you do. Sometimes, you just can’t go back.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey Remy,
    I’ll readily admit that I drink next to no Chilean wine. Heck, it’s rare that I drink anything from the southern hemisphere. But it’s noteworthy, though hardly surprising, how closely much of your commentary tracks with the way things have moved in California (yep, I wrote up a Cali Cab) over the same period, with respect to style, alcohol, etc.

    BTW, I had a small taste of an ’87 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (no, not the Pinot) just a couple of nights ago. A very good bottle.


  2. Thanks for the very nice comment, David. Indeed, the evolution of Chilean wines is hardly an exception, but it’s hardly an improvement, as I wrote in the post.

    The other day, my father told me how sherry used to be considered strong stuff at 15-16% alcohol, a percentage which is now almost ordinary in red wines from some regions. Should we be reconsidering sherry, or calming down “regular” wines?

    I do envy you for tasting the 87 Mondavi Cab. A very nice year, and a bottleful of nice memories, I’m sure.



  3. […] Wine Blogging Wednesday #52: an inexpensive organic red from Chile When I heard about the theme for Wine Blogging Wednesday number 52, Value Reds From Chile, proposed by Tim of the Cheap Wine Ratings blog, I knew that it was right up my alley. After all, for Wine Blogging Wednesday #48, when Lenn Thompson asked us to go back to our roots, to the first wines we liked to drink, I went straight back to Chilean cabernets. […]

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