A Taste of Honesty

The white wines of Chile are cheap and ready to go.

In college, my friend Matt was a wild-haired drummer with a tricked-out van and a vast CD collection alphabetized and subdivided by genre. After college he moved to Chile and fell in love — first with Magdalena, and then with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and a lesser-known Chilean grape called Carmen√®re. Now Matt, who could never afford decent wines in California, is an unabashed Wineau blissfully living in a land of plenty. And that anal-retentive gusto previously reserved for his music collection has found another outlet.

Each year, upon publication of Chile’s highly regarded annual Guia de Vinos de Chile, Matt buys every wine priced under $12 that’s earned a top-ten ranking by varietal. Those wines get cellared in the basement of his apartment building, in a custom-built rack that holds eighty bottles. He lets his newly acquired wines age for three or four years, pulling out the oldest bottles in the rack for immediate drinking. Matt and Magdalena prefer Chilean reds, but Chile’s whites — especially Chardonnays — earn praise as well. They’re cheap by US standards, and you can drink them now.

The best bargain of our tasting comes from the Maipo Valley. The favorite of our token winemaker, Santa Alicia’s 2002 Chardonnay ($4.99), has a nice clean aroma that only one taster didn’t love (he found it too sharp, but still raved about the taste). The fruit seemed just shy of ripe, and we differed on whether the resulting taste was overly bitter. If your chief complaint about whites is their sweetness, give this one a try.

My favorite was the 2004 Calina Reserva Chardonnay ($7.99), from the coastal Casablanca Valley. Calina is owned by Kendall-Jackson, which may explain the familiar buttery scent. Thankfully, this wine lacks what often accompanies that aroma: the telltale flavor of added oak, so prevalent in what my mother calls “reception Chardonnay.” If you like the flavors of a cheap Cali Chard but want to go a notch up, try the Calina.

Finally, the 2005 Anakena Chardonnay, also from the Casablanca Valley, has the scent of ripe pears soaked in alcohol and a light, inoffensive taste. The 2006 Guia de Vinos de Chile ranked this second in its price range for Chardonnays, and we all found it very drinkable and a decent bargain at $6.99. I’ve seen this wine described as “wonderfully honest,” and while I’m not sure I’m tasting the honesty here, it does bring to mind Matt’s wonderfully honest musings about the collections closest to his heart.

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