The Chilean Connection

Despite what many wine experts say will be a phenomenal 2005 vintage in Bordeaux, the region's marketing challenges may be summed up by top wine critic Robert Parker. "One of the great wines I tasted in Bordeaux," he wrote recently after sampling some 2005s, "was from Chile...the 2003 Almaviva."

Ouch. But it turns out that Almaviva, created through a joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Viña Concha y Toro, priced around $60, is one of the French wine producer's Chilean successes. Another is Escudo Rojo, a $12 blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, and the Chilean native grape carmenère that generally scores well among wine ratings.

The French have long tinkered in Chile, attracted to the cheap land, the climate, and the soil -- terroir -- that remind them of home. And they have long appreciated a natural barrier, the Andes Mountains, to phylloxera, a plague of vine lice that periodically wipes out the roots of vineyards in Europe. Now the New World terrain has become a sort of hedge for Rothschild against weak sales of its Old World Bordeaux. In fact, Escudo Rojo ("red shield," or Rothschild, in Spanish) sold about 100,000 cases last year, about 12,000 in the U.S., with scant marketing. Xavier de Eizaguirre, president of Rothschild's management board, sees potential sales of 250,000 cases worldwide and 100,000 in the U.S., especially with Constellation Brands Inc. behind the label. That could certainly put a dent in the 300,000 cases a year of lost Mouton Cadet sales in the U.S. since 1992.

At 5.8 million cases of wine sold in the U.S. in 2004, Chilean wines are off their high from 1998, according to wine and spirits journal Impact, but they're gaining overall since they first showed up in volume on U.S. shelves in the late 1980s. "We view Chile as one of the hottest growth markets ripe for new marketing and more sophisticated assemblages [of grapes]," says Eizaguirre. Indeed, even casual wine enthusiasts eagerly seek new discoveries from Chile, much the way they used to feel about the output of Bordeaux.

By David Kiley

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