My Round: Richard Ehrlich sips and salutes as Chile expands its horizons

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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you're a regular reader of this column, I can only tender sincere apologies for saying something I've said many times. But it's something that can't be said too often, so my apologies are tempered by a sense of necessary tendentiousness. The something in question: in the wine market, just about everything depends on the crucial price bracket between £5 and £10.

This range is crucial because it represents the points between cost-driven buying and status-craving buying. Needless to say, there are good wines selling for less than a fiver and many outstanding bits of value for over £10. But that £5 to £10 range houses most of the wine most people should be aiming to drink regularly. Any region that can't do it has a problem, and needs to fix it ASAP.

Chile is one country that has recognised the need. It's long done well in the under-£5 region, with excellent growing conditions and fairly low production costs making it possible to sell some eminently serviceable wines at low prices. But all over the country, producers have recognised the need to expand their portfolio - and their image - beyond the cheap-and-cheerful category.

As part of that enterprise they have busily and intelligently expanded their geographical horizons. The warmer vineyard areas forming the core of the nation's production - Curico, Rapel and Maule - have been joined by more marginal areas, and wines from the newer areas, in many people's view, are often more interesting and exciting. Prime examples are the Limari Valley in the north of country, the Bio Bio Valley in the south, which is producing aromatic whites and lush Pinot Noir of tremendous distinction; and the Leyda Valley west of Santiago, planted with vines less than a decade ago but now producing some fantastic wine, both red and white. And as these areas mature, with winemaking experts learning how to exploit them fully, the picture can only get better.

Its current happiness was abundantly illustrated by the many happy surprises at a recent tasting in London, which showed just how well the country is coming along in a broad spectrum of vinous offerings. Three of the best are highlighted on the right, all red. I could easily have picked out a slew of others, including the sweet and succulent Tabali Shiraz Reserva 2003 (£8.99, Sainsbury's) and the supple and smoky Case Leona Secano Estate Pinot Noir 2005 (£6.99, M&S). Among whites, there was plenty of good Sauvignon Blanc at friendly prices, such as the crisp and restrained Misiones de Rengo Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (£4.99, Morrisons), and the lemony-fresh Tesco Finest Tapiwey Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (£7.99).

But some of the nicest surprises came in grape varieties and blends that one doesn't usually associate with Chile. Oddbins sells a blend of real class, Anakena Ona Riesling Viognier Chardonnay 2005 (£8.99), whose beguiling complexity and crisp acidity will put a big smile on anyone's face. Vintage Roots (tel: 0118 976 1999, www.vintageroots. co.uk) has small quantities of Coyam 2003 (£10.50), a blend of five grapes put to excellent use. Among single-variety wines, the shock was a cluster of good Gewürztraminer, ranging in style from lychee-syrup richness to an almost austere restraint. Concha y Toro Winemaker's Lot 17 Gewürztraminer 2004 (£7.49, Oddbins) was a star of the first type, Cono Sur Single Vineyard "El Marco" Gewürztraminer 2005 (£7.99, Majestic) a favourite in the second. More shocking still: a Petite Syrah, Carmen Reserve 2003 (£11.99, Threshers and Wine Rack) proves that the wild, brambly flavours of this sometimes unmemorable grape can work beautifully on their own.

I'm still reeling from all those surprises, and I look forward to the surprises still to come.

Three hot Chiles

Viña Leyda Las Brisas Pinot Noir Reserva 2004 (£8.99, Co-op and Sainsbury's) Full, smoky flavours in a very pure, textbook-correct package. Serious stuff at the price.

Echeverría Carmenère 2004 (£5.95, Averys, 01275 811 100, www.averys.com)

Really pungent spiciness and savoury flavours of baked fruit. From an outstanding producer in the Curico Valley.

Fundación Carmenère Syrah 2004 (£6.49, Laithwaites, 0870 444 8383, www.laithwaites.co.uk) A 50-50 blend, with the Syrah fleshing out the attractively plummy character of the Carmenère.

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