Out of isolation, Chilean wines prosper


Chile is the source of some of the world’s best wine values. The country boasts more than a dozen distinctive wine-producing regions that extend hundreds of miles from the northern Copiapo Valley to the Austral region, the southernmost location where grapes can grow.

Chile has a long history of winemaking that began soon after Spanish explorers landed more than 400 years ago, and the predominant grapes were understandably Spanish as well. The mid-19th century saw a shift toward varietals more associated with France, including merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, sauvignon blanc and semillon.

Chile’s wine industry faltered, like so many others, during the years between World Wars I and II, and Chile’s ensuing isolationism and political struggles further devastated the industry.

Indeed, wine quality was an issue until the mid-1980s when, after Chile’s policy of isolationism was reversed and its commitment to state ownership of property was reformed by dictator Augusto Pinochet, the suddenly favorable political and economic conditions lead to a revitalization of the region’s wine industry. Chilean wines are now considered among the world’s best values for both price and quality and the country is the fourth leading exporter of wines to the U.S.


As Chilean winemakers gain more experience with their country’s terroir, their wines are becoming more distinctive. And yet many have remained very affordable, especially their sauvignon blanc. These are largely clean and refreshing and not overly grassy wines with moderate alcohol levels. Of the kosher Chilean sauvignon blanc wines, one of our favorites is the Lanzur Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($9). The wine exhibits mostly peach and floral aromas with hints of straw. It is a medium-bodied, well-balanced wine that is ideal for warm-weather enjoyment; it has grapefruit, peach and gooseberry flavors and a lengthy, mineral-accented and refreshing finish.

Spirits-wise, we thought we’d head back to familiar ground and consider the whiskies of the Macallan Distillery.

We’ve tended to have a love-hate relationship with Macallan – or, rather, “The Macallan” (the brand name) – which is widely considered one of the very best single-malt Scotch whiskies, and very heavily promoted as such by its owners.

The whisky used to be known as a 100 percent sherry cask-aged whisky (meaning that only casks that previously stored sherry wine – or really that had been seasoned with sherry wine – were used for whisky destined to be sold officially as The Macallan; the distillery routinely used other casks for whisky being produced for other drinks companies, principally for blending or the occasional independent-label bottling of single malt).

Then, one day, owner Edrington Group decided that exclusive sherry-cask maturation was simply too limiting, even though it would mean releasing very different whisky. So in an instant, decades of marketing about the superiority and centrality of sherry-cask maturation was revealed as little more than so much marketing claptrap. The company determined that a “brand expansion” was required if they were to really make the most of the growing global demand, hence the introduction of the “Fine Oak” range in 2004 (which allows for the official use of non-sherry casks in the maturation process). It wasn’t and isn’t bad whisky, but it certainly wasn’t The Macallan to legions of fans – except that it was.

Even still, The Macallan accounts for something like 65 percent of all the sherry casks imported into Scotland for maturing Scotch whisky, and the Edrington Group accounts for more than 90 percent of all sherry casks entering the system.

The regular, or sherry-cask, range is still 100 percent matured in sherry-seasoned Spanish oak casks; and sherry casks still make up about half of all the whisky that goes toward the Fine Oak range.

But the magic and mystique were spent. These days The Macallan is also slowly air-brushing its (vaguely more affordable) age-statement whiskies out of the portfolio to make way for non-age statement whiskies that can be more readily (and cheaply and speedily) produced.

So while The Macallan has become one of the greatest “luxury” brand success stories of Scotland, it is also a mixed bag for many whisky purists. At its best, Macallan is sublime whisky; at its worst it is still generally very drinkable if uninteresting. At all times, however, it is thought by purists to be overpriced, overhyped and way over-marketed whisky that seems to have long since sold its soul – and yet it is delicious whisky. As we contemplate all this, we do so over a dram of the way-too-expensive but oh-so-drinkable:

The Macallan 18 year old (1996 vintage) Single Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent ABV; $200): a superbly balanced, velvety whisky with a rich and heavily fruited nose of fruit cake, raisins, moist gingerbread, cinnamon, vanilla and maple syrup, followed on the opulent yet balanced palate with plump dried fruits, toffee, clove and citrus peel, a smooth oily mouth feel and integrated oak tannins. The overall effect is sweet, balanced and complex – with a lingering finish that includes a touch of burnt oak. Simply mesmerizing, but, oy, so expensive. L’Chaim!

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