I'm sure we've all ventured down the import isle at our favorite retailer and perused the South American selections. The first thing you'll notice about these wines is that most of them are really, really cheap, which may lead one to believe that they also really, really suck. Fortunately for the "light-in-the-pocket" wine enthusiast, this is not the case.
Though it may surprise you, Chile is one of the biggest producers of wine in the world. It is currently enjoying sudden popularity, which is a little strange considering that Chile has been making wine since the 16th century.
For a while, Pais was the most widely grown grape varietal in Chile, and though you might never, ever see any of it around here, it still makes up about half of their total wine production. Pais is an obscure varietal very closely related to the Mission grape, which was the first varietal to be planted in California. In the 1850s, a band of French wine experts went to Chile, bringing with them vine cuttings of varietals we all know like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. (Sounds a little Bordeaux-ish, huh?) This original rootstock is still being planted in Chile because, much to the envy of the French and Californians, their vines are unaffected by Phylloxera, which devastated wine production in the late 19th century. Talk about some old vines.
One Chilean producer I think we all know is Concha Y Toro. Their "Frontera" line is great wine at incredibly low prices. The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is a "can't go wrong" wine. The addition of 25 percent Merlot softens the wine, making it very smooth and fruit-forward, but with rich chocolaty plum flavors we Cabernet-lovers desire. Imagine all that for around $6.
Another thing to love about Chile is that quite often you can get your hands on a reserve wine without laying down a whole bunch of dough. One of my favorite Chilean producers, Aresti, really delivers in this department. Admittedly, Merlot is not my personal most sought-after wine to drink, but this Reserve Merlot (around $13) is darn good. What makes it unique to me is the little touch of raisiny fruit flavor, along with ripe blackberry and firm-but-silky tannins, unlike the wimpy cherry bombs coming from a lot of the other guys.
Established in the 1880s, Santa Rita is one of the oldest and most successful wineries in Chile. Made as an homage to 120 soldiers who sought refuge in Santa Rita Hacienda during the war for Chilean independence from Spain, the "120" line is among the best-selling Chilean wines in America. The 120 Sauvignon Blanc (around $10) is fresh and floral, with crisp citrus and herbal notes. But don't stop at just the Sauvignon Blanc: All of the "120" wines are amazing.
Here's another hint: Don't stop at Chile. While in the south-of-the-border isle, don't be scared to try something from Argentina, too. Linger a bit longer in this section of your favorite shop, and you'll get a lot of good wine for your buck.