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Chilean Wine

From: andrew cooke <andrew@...>

Date: Sun, 6 Nov 2011 13:26:19 -0300

I was at a wedding last night; curiously, several months ago, I was asked to
suggest what wine they should serve.  What follows isn't the exact answer I
gave, but a longer version of my general thoughts...

Note that this is specifically about the domestic Chilean market.  And it's
just my viewpoint, which is from a particular customer position.  I say that
because the two most important aspects of wine - the technical and the
psychological - need to be considered together.  The latter dominates (hence
my disclaimer), but derives some justification from the former.

OK; if you walk into a Chilean supermarket you can, with a little practice,
divide wine into three separate segments.  At the bottom are wines that are
usually packed in boxes (tetra-packes) or plastic bottles.  These are the
lowest price.  These are the cheapest wines and tend to be sweet.  They are
very "drinkable" and are what you will find as the house wine, even in some
"good" restaurants (the excellent Casa Vieja used Clos CS when I was last
there, for example; this is becoming less popular not because the wine is bad,
but because restaurants can make a lot more money selling you something from a
fancy bottle).

To extend that parenthetical remark - I should say here that almost all wine
is good wine.  It's an industry where, once you get the basics right, you can
mass produce decent quality product.  There's simply no reason to produce bad

In the lowest price bracket, wine is produced and sold in large volumes, as
quickly as possible.  That means that, by definition, it is "young" which that
gives it a certain style.  Again, it's not necessarily a "bad" style -
Americans pay decent money for "Beaujolais Nouveau" which you might consider
nothing more than very young wine plus very good marketing.

But the wine industry is an industry.  It exists to make money.  It's not good
for business if everyone buys the cheapest wine.  So, understandably, they
would rather that people like me didn't (and, of course, I often don't).  One
way to do this is to signal that this is cheap (and, implicitly, low quality)
via the packaging.  Hence the tetra-packs.  Of course, this also helps reduce
the price - it's a win-win situation.

Note that you can get some of the lowest price wine in bottles - this is aimed
at people who can't afford "better" but want something "special".  Again, this
makes sense (everything here makes sense!  I am not criticising markets or
capitalism - in a very real way, the wine economy is giving each segment what
it desires...).

Moving "up" the scale, the middle range of wines tends to be less sweet.  I
must admit that I don't know why (I guess the yeast and process aim for a
longer fermentation, producing a slightly higher level of alcohol and a
correspondingly lower level of sugar; if it were simply that the cheapest had
extra juice added to sweeten I think you would get further fermentation in the
package, which would be a disaster).  They are often aged a little in the
bottle and, with the reds, the tannin is much more apparent.  They have a more
"complex" taste (you might say - indeed, you are expected to say - that they
taste more like "real wine" and less like "alcoholic fruit juice").

There's really not that much for me to say about this wine.  It's the least
interesting because (from my point of view) it's neither aspirational not
taboo - it's simply the default.  But it wouldn't surprise me if this were the
most competitive sector of the market (and perhaps the least profitable -
recently many bottles have been reduced in size from 75 to 70cl which seems a
little desperate).

But it is interesting to look at the labels.  Unlike the cheapest wines (which
tend to favour bold, modern designs and striking colours), labels here are
traditional, with a white background and serif lettering.  A typical "wine
label".  This emphasises the idea that this is "real wine" to the market
segment for which this product is aspirational (the cheaper labels emphasise
value, enjoyment and accessibility - bold colours and sans-serif fonts).

Finally, you have "reserve" wines.  By law these require some special
treatment which usually means that they are aged in oak barrels.  This changes
the taste in two ways - it takes the "edge" off the tannins and adds a "woody"
flavour.  This makes reds more "palatable", compared to the mid-price wines
(the whites don't change much, IMHO).

These wines typically have more expensive packaging - unusual bottle shapes,
textured and special cut (shaped) labels, with more colours (perhaps gold
highlights), outer boxes, lead foil, etc.  All this emphasises the "luxury"
aspect of this wine, helping define the segment.

You also find, at this level, additional details aimed at the "connoisseur" -
someone with the time and resources to explore a range of high-price items.
This includes mixing wine varieties (ensemblajes), a larger number of
suppliers with shorter runs (which may be genuine boutique producers, boutique
wineries that have been bought by bigger companies, or simply marketing), and
"obscure" varieties (blending and a "smoother" taste characterise the lowest
and highest ends of the market...).

This sector includes the widest price range (since it's the "top", prices can
continue upwards), but despite the emphasis on variety and choice, the
variation in blind tasting is much smaller.  I would suggest that most people,
after a couple of examples, could reliably detect the sweetness of the
cheapest wines, or distinguish between the varietals (mid price) and reserve
(high price) from the oak; detecting the difference between an "expensive" CS
and a "very expensive" CS is, IMHO, much harder.

Of course, we can turn the argument above on its head and note that being able
to (or claiming to) detect that difference implies expertise, which reflects
well on the "discerning customer".  Resources like CAV (Club de Amante de
Vinos) encourage this, providing customers with both sample wines and tasting
notes (invariably of the more expensive wines - there is no point in educating
customers about lower priced products).

Given all that - what wine do I recommend?  I hope it's clear that it depends
completely on the people who will be drinking it.  Someone I know once told me
that he thought it pointless to drink wine that costs below $7.000.  So I have
to buy boutique wine for him.  For myself, on a weekend, I would buy an
entry-point reserve (for my market segment, with aspirations to "know
something" about wine, that gives the best return for your money); for a
special treat some obscure ensemblaje; for weekly drinking something in a
small package (either mid-price varietal in small bottles, or a small
tetra-pack).  The above is for red.  For white (SB) I buy a varietal.


PS CS - Cabernet Sauvignon (the most popular red grape here); SB - Sauvignon
Blanc (one of the two popular white grapes).

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