Bottled Bargains From Chile

When was the last time you bought a decent bottle of wine for less than $10? Bargain hunters put off by prices of California or French varietals are discovering unbeatable values in wines from Chile. At $4 to $10 a bottle, they're often half the price of their cousins from Napa or Bordeaux.

In the U. S., Chile has rocketed from a blip to No. 3 among imported wines, after Italy and France, surpassing Germany. The gains follow big improvements in quality since the late 1980s. For years, Chile's wines were rough, tough clunkers, practically in the jug-wine category. Now, Chilean wineries are adopting modern production techniques, jettisoning cement vats and antiquated Chilean oak casks for stainless-steel tanks and barrels made of the preferable French and American oak. The result: fruitier, crisper white wines and smoother, more refined reds.

HALLMARK. Chile's potential is now so promising that Chateau Lafite-Rothschild bought 50% of Chile's Los Vascos winery in 1988. And Franciscan Vineyards of Napa Valley invested in Errazuriz Panquehue, creating the Caliterra export label.

Restaurants are noticing. Biba, a Boston eatery that features "equatorial" cuisine, has served Chilean cabernets and will feature a Chilean wine as its $ 5-a-glass house chardonnay next spring. "I'm surprised by the quality," says Craig Gandolf, Biba's wine buyer. "They have worked very hard to make their wines of a more international style."

The country's hallmark has been red wines. "They haven't mastered the whites yet," contends Fred Robbins, manager of The Wine Shop in San Francisco. Indeed, Chilean whites seem less fruity and lively than their California counterparts. Even the reds often lack the generous flavor of a California cabernet.

Still, there are credible contenders. Among the Chilean cabernets, Cousino-Macul's Antiguas Reservas is a robust $10 selection with well-defined woody flavor. It tastes substantially better than Cousino-Macul's regular $7 cabernet. Also worth trying is a $6 Los Vascos cabernet. In merlots, Biba's Gandolf favors Santa Rita or Concha y Toro.

Among its white wines, sauvignon blanc has been Chile's strength, while chardonnay is a newer endeavor. Santa Rita's $7.50 sauvignon is crisp and very dry while retaining substance and character. Caliterra's $5 sauvignon is a pleasing bargain. For chardonnay lovers, Gandolf recommends Santa Rita's $10 Medalla Real.

Chile has been making wine since Spanish conquistadors brought vines in the 16th century. Now, the Old World transplants are gaining New World acclaim.

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