It's hard to believe that in the early 1990's less than 100 acres of vineyards were planted in Chile's Casablanca valley. In little more than two decades, this region of Chile has surged in growth and popularity, and is currently producing excellent wines that generally represent excellent values on the world market. The region is currently home to more than 10,000 acres of vineyards.
Back when the grape acreage was still in the triple digits Agustin Huneeus decided that the Casablanca valley was one of Chile's most promising wine regions, and that he needed to start making wine there. Not surprisingly, the world took notice. Huneeus was not just any aspiring winemaker. Indeed, by 1990 Huneeus could lay claim to being one of Chile's first great modern wine pioneers.
In 1960 Agustin Huneeus entered the Chilean wine scene by becoming CEO and majority owner of Concha y Toro, the wine brand that would eventually put Chile on the wine map for the rest of the world. In 1971 the political climate in Chile became unstable and Huneeus left for the United States, where he took over the helm of the beverage giant Seagrams Worldwide for a time, as well as Franciscan winery in Napa. He went on to purchase the Quintessa winery in 1989, and more recently, Flowers Winery on the Sonoma Coast.
The early 1990's were calmer times in Chile, and Huneeus was afforded the opportunity to spend more time in his home country exploring the continually expanding wine regions, including the Casablanca Valley. These explorations turned serious rather quickly, and before long Huneeus was the proprietor of a brand new Chilean winery called Veramonte.
Driving west from Santiago out towards the cooler coastal region of Casablanca valley, the highway maces several graceful curves up an incline and then enters a very long tunnel that bores through Chile's coastal range. When the road finally emerges again into daylight it caresses the apex of a triangular valley that lies between two mountain ridges and fans in a gradually broadening arc towards the Pacific ocean about 25 miles away.
At this narrow apex, the vineyards begin immediately, sneaking down the hillsides into a the flatlands as the valley widens, and surrounding the massive yellowish stone building that is the Veramonte winery.
Veramonte is a well established and massive producer of Chilean wine -- an easily recognizable brand for anyone who strays into the global section of their wine shops, as well as those who have a thirst for reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc, of which Veramonte makes a seemingly never-ending supply.
It is easy to dismiss Veramonte as yet another massive industrial Global producer, but that would be short-sighted, and would belie the quality of Veramonte's wines. At the scale of hundreds of thousands of cases made per year, they are hardly artisans, but the Veramonte wine portfolio is significantly higher in quality than most producers their size.
The winery's 1100 acre vineyard in the Casablanca valley is one of the country's largest, and section by section, it is gradually being converted to organic farming, with wildflowers bursting up between the rows, and huge piles of compost dotting the roadsides.
On my recent trip to Chile I had an opportunity to sample a few of the winery's current releases. The wines were not all amazing, but as usual, the best of them represent some of the best wine values on the planet today.
2009 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of gooseberry and passionfruit, with a hint of grassiness. in the mouth it is juicy and bright, with kiwi and passionfruit flavors, hints of green grass and lime juice. Very clean, very crisp, very refreshing. 95,000 cases made of which 65% are sold in the United States. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $10. Click to buy.
2008 Veramonte Chardonnay Reserva, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of buttered popcorn, cold cream and pineapple. In the mouth it tastes of buttered sourdough toast, pastry cream, and lemon zest. Hints of pineapple emerge on the finish. Solid but not spectacular. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $10. Click to buy.
2008 Veramonte Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of wet wool, cranberry and apple juice. In the mouth it is soft in feel, with cranberry and cherry flavors that are somewhat clunky. A wet dirt flavor emerges in the finish along with wet wood. Tastes incomplete. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $14.99.
2008 Veramonte "Ritual" Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley, Chile
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cedar and sandalwood, with cranberry and cherry aromas as well. In the mouth it is exceedingly silky with cedar and cranberry flavors with cherry and spices. Nice character and personality. Good acidity, very light tannins. Red apple skin barely peeks through in the finish. New world styled, but not egregiously so. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2007 Veramonte "Primus" Red Blend, Casablanca Valley, Chile
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of sweet cherry and plum, with hints of cassis. In the mouth it is gorgeously balanced, incredibly smooth, with a hint of velvety tannin but barely so. Really integrated and silky, hint of earthiness and a balsamic quality. Beautiful. The blend of this wine has shifted over the last couple years to be less Carmenere and more Cabernet, with the addition of some Syrah as well. The 2007 is 36% Cabernet, 31% Syrah, 15% Carmenere, 8% Merlot. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
In addition the wines above, the winery also produces a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a rosé, and a Malbec from Argentina.
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