Red hot Chile

Despite the vagaries of the 1996 vintage, Chile remains the rising star of New World wine
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The Independent Culture
"Which is your best vintage?" "The most recent, of course." The wine producer's time-honoured response comes to mind in the preamble to Chile's 1996 vintage tasting: " The dramatic changes in vinification and ageing techniques seen in Chile over the past few years ensure that the most recent wines from a given winery almost always surpass those of previous vintages". Nice summary, but one which conveniently glosses over the fact that, even in the southern hemisphere, nature still likes to have the last laugh.

1995 was dodgy in New Zealand and bordered on the disastrous in Australia, while 1996 has been miserably cool and wet in South Africa. Not that 1996 has been a disaster in Chile, but neither was it quite all the sunshine and light its proponents would have us believe. First sightings of the 1996 vintage suggest that adverse conditions have stunted some of the sauvignon's aromatic intensity, although the Casablanca Valley, which has the most exciting potential of Chile's cool climates, appears to have got off lightly.

Since 1994, sauvignon has overtaken moscatel as Chile's most widely planted, premium white grape. New plantings concentrate on sauvignon blanc in place of the more widespread, but inferior, sauvignon vert. It would be a setback if sauvignon has suffered just when it had New Zealand in its sights. But since New Zealand's benchmark sauvignon from Montana has crept over the pounds 5 mark, Chilean sauvignon remains good value.

Among 1996 names to watch out for: Canepa, Casablanca White Label, Concha y Toro, Palo Alto, Santa Carolina Reserve, Torreon de Paredes and Miguel Torres Santa Digna. One of the better 1996s starting to filter onto shelves, the Caliterra Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.49, Somerfield, is an aromatic dry white with full-bodied, varietal character.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of excellent 1995s around. For instance, the 1995 Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc, La Escultura Estate, pounds 4.49, from Oddbins and Fuller's, is typically green, grassy Chilean sauvignon with ripe grapefruit- zesty fruitiness. The1995 Santa Rita Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 4.99, Majestic, is also typical of the Chile style, a tropically fruity sauvignon with an inviting citrusy tang.

If sauvignon is growing in importance, the rate at which chardonnay is filling holes in the ground in Chile's viticultural Eden easily outstrips all other white varieties. The1996 chardonnays look fuller and riper than the sauvignons, with promising examples from Carmen, Vina Casablanca White Label, Isla Negra, Errazuriz, Palo Alto, Montes, Torreon de Paredes, Miguel Torres and Valdivieso. For sheer value, try the 1996 Casa Leona Chardonnay, pounds 3.99, Marks & Spencer, a softly ripe, Rapel Valley dry white from La Rosa with refreshing tropical fruitiness.

From the previous vintage, Concha y Toro's project with Ignacio Recabarren has borne superb fruit in the1995 Trio Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley, pounds 4.99, Thresher, a rich, spicily oaked, complex dry white. Also from Casablanca, the 1995 Caliterra Casablanca Chardonnay, Co-op, Victoria Wine, Fullers, is a crisp, grapefruity, subtly oaked style with melon-like fruitiness and a cool climate tang, while the1995 Errazuriz Reserva Chardonnay, La Escultura Estate, pounds 6.99, Oddbins, is a stylish, creamy-textured barrel- fermented Casablanca/Maipo valley blend.

The late-ripening cabernet sauvignon, Chile's most widely planted premium red variety, was badly affected by heavy rains in 1996 in the southern Curico and Lontue Valleys. It was hit, too, by torrential harvest rains in Chile's classic wine region, the Maipo Valley. But according to Ed Flaherty, Errazuriz' winemaker, the hot spell in December was excellent for cabernet in the central Colchagua Valley.

From 1995, the1995 Errazuriz Cabernet Sauvignon, El Descanso Estate, Curico, pounds 4.99, Oddbins, with its sweetly ripe mint-flecked aromas, delivers richly concentrated cassis flavours, while the 1995 Casablanca Cabernet Sauvignon, Miraflores Estate, San Fernando Valley, (pounds 4.99, Victoria Wine), is a youthful cabernet with sweet American oak spice and plenty of intense blackcurrant fruitiness.

Merlot, which ripens earlier than cabernet, may well suit Chile's climate even better than its Medoc counterpart. According to Ignacio Recabarren, 1996 will be an even better vintage for merlot than in 1995, and there were some stunning 1995s, including Recabarren's own 1995 Trio Merlot, (pounds 4.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up), a Peumo Valley blend with intense fruit, subtle oak and silky-smooth tannins.

Sainsbury's Chilean Merlot, pounds 4.29, stands out from the crowd for its succulently fresh, green-pepper fruitiness, while for greater complexity, the 1995 Vina Porta Merlot, (pounds 6.49, Oddbins), a deep-hued, aromatic red, is suffused with concentrated, blackberryish fruit beneath a chocolatey, oak-influenced veneer.

Despite the vagaries of the 1996 vintage, Chile is still the new world's hottest piece of real estate. In Britain, the pace of demand is such that Chile, with nearly 90 per cent of sales in the pounds 3-pounds 5 price bracket, is on track to sell two million cases of wine by the end of this year. With stocks rapidly running out, producers' minds are already turning anxiously towards next year's grape prices