Invasion Of The Vintners

When French winemaker Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle began buying up vineyards in Chile's Rapel Valley in the mid-1990s, the vines were bursting with grapes. So she took a pair of pruners and walked up and down the rows, methodically lopping off and discarding the crimson bunches. "The Chilean workers were aghast," says Marnier-Lapostolle, a fourth-generation descendant of the Grand Marnier family. "They couldn't understand why we'd be wasteful and throw away grapes." But it was the first of many lessons they got in making a better bottle of wine: too much fruit on the vine dilutes the flavors. Marnier-Lapostolle drastically reduced each vine's yield, from nearly 60 bunches of grapes to about eight.

It paid off. Six years and $20 million later, Casa Lapostolle is turning out some of South America's--and the world's--best wines. The powerful but elegant Clos Apalta, for instance, now goes for $50 a bottle, and is coveted by oenophiles the world over. Exports from the 750-acre winery have jumped from 60,000 cases in 1996 to 150,000 cases last year. "I can now say that we are thrilled with the quality of this wine," says Marnier-Lapostolle. "We have made a wine that is Chilean by nature but French by design," she adds, quoting the slogan that appears on every bottle.

Chilean wines have reached the top shelf. The country is already renowned for its cheaper offerings, known as plonk; for the first time this year, a dry wine by Chile's Concha y Toro beat out Italy's syrupy Riunite as the top U.S. wine import. But now Chile, and to a lesser extent, Argentina, is starting to turn out wines of much higher quality--and price. Known as the super-Chileans, these wines are made mostly in conjunction with star vintners from California and France, who have been taking over prime grape-growing land. Baron Philippe de Rothchild's name, for instance, appears on an ultra-premium bottle of Concha y Toro's Almaviva, which goes for $85, and California's Robert Mondavi vineyard has teamed up with a local Chilean family to produce CaliTerra. "We kept looking around the world's wine-growing regions to see where we'd set up shop, and Chile kept appearing on our radar screen," says Robert Mondavi's son Tim, who is running CaliTerra. "What you see happening in Chile now, in terms of quality and price, is what was happening in northern California a decade or two ago."

Foreign winemakers had been eying Chile for years. The Spaniards first planted grapevines there in the 16th century, and the region's dry climate, abundant sunshine and cool ocean breezes helped them flourish. Soil and labor were cheap, and wine-makers didn't have to pay costly taxes or abide by national appellation regulations, as they do in the Bordeaux region of France or Chianti in Italy. But as long as Gen. Augusto Pinochet was in power, foreign winemakers were shut out. So when the dictator was ousted in 1988, vintners started to make their move into Chile. By the mid-1990s, dozens of international winemakers had snatched up tens of thousands of acres and began to transform them.

In addition to pruning back the vines, they updated the technology. Marnier-Lapostolle imported precision German harvesting and pruning equipment, as well as stainless-steel vats and high-tech crushers and stemmers. She also brought in tractors to take the place of horses (though the equines are still used to survey the vines). "The vineyard workers were a little shocked at first," she says. "They weren't sure about driving these things but then I think they began to really enjoy it. It makes the work so much easier and less time-consuming. It cost us quite a lot of money to ship these tractors over, but they are the Porsches of the farming world."

As far as the Chileans are concerned, the best thing about their new partners is the marketing savvy they bring. Eduardo Chadwick's family had been making wine in central Chile for seven generations. Though Chadwick thought their product was as good as anything he'd tasted in France, he didn't know how to go about building an international following. Then in 1996, Mondavi came calling. A year later the partners started turning out CaliTerra, including the robust $75-a-bottle Sena. "I think our wines had always been this good, but we had no worldwide recognition," says Chadwick. "Because we had the Mondavi name on our bottles, it brought a lot of attention to our wine." Indeed, CaliTerra exported just 2,000 cases in its first year, and will ship 8,000 cases this year. Chadwick expects that within a few more years, the number will rise as high as 25,000 cases.

Most will end up in the United States--especially on the Eastern Seaboard, where there aren't many local brands. Americans guzzle about 45 percent of South America's wine exports, with an additional 35 percent going to Europe, chiefly England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and, lastly, France. Ten percent is shipped to Asia. The exports are likely to grow; even topflight bottles are still a bargain. "With Napa wines going for $150 and the French wines out of sight, where can you go for good value?" says Wine Spectator editor Tom Matthews. "Increasingly, it's Chile." Some of New York's top restaurants have added the super-Chileans to their wine lists; restaurant Daniel now offers eight premium Chilean wines, averaging about $100 a bottle, with eight more coming soon, says sommelier Jean Luc Le Du. Wine sellers are catching on, too; merchants accustomed to proffering only the finest from France, Napa and Tuscany have been astonished by the quality coming out of Chile. "The wine is so elegant," says Dennis Overstreet, owner of the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills, Calif., sipping a glass of the velvety Almaviva. "It's like Antonio Banderas wearing an Armani suit." Latin or not, any winemaker would be overjoyed to get a recommendation like that.