Producer Jess Jackson once called Chile “California inverted.” The long, narrow South American nation does indeed geographically resemble California and produces a wide range of wines and styles. Long lumped with its neighbor Argentina on many lists, Chilean wines are finally separating themselves from the pack and getting some of the attention they deserve.
According to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, Chilean wine sales were up 107.2 percent in 2009. According to Woodside, Ca.-based Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, carménère is Chile’s strongest red grape varietal on the U.S. market and was up by eight percent in 2010. Pinot noir was just behind it with an increase of seven percent and red blends have grown by four percent through December of 2010. On the white side, sauvignon blanc was up by 14 percent through December, chardonnay by three percent and white blends were down by 19 percent.
New York-based Wines of Chile USA—a not for profit trade marketing organization—has 93 winery members that represent approximately 93 percent of the imports into the U.S., according to Lori Tieszen, the group’s executive director. In general Chile exports approximately 68 percent of all its production, she notes.
Operators said price points, familiar grape varietals and easy drinking flavors all account for why Chilean selections are popular on their lists. “The image and profile of Chile in our guests’ perception seems to be one of excellent price-to-quality ratio and generally very strong values,” confirms Peter Kasperski, the owner of Cowboy Ciao restaurant and Kazimierz World Wine Bar, the first serving modern American food and the second global small plates. Both are located in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Kasperski says that he generally carries 20 to 30 different Chilean wines on his lists, priced from $16 to $90 by the bottle and $6 to $29 by the glass. He adds that value is key to their sales at his restaurants and that the bulk of them are priced at less than $30 a bottle. “Tourism doesn’t drive Chilean wine sales for us,” he notes. “Locals, on the other hand, are generally searching for better values and lower price points, which is where the bulk of Chilean wines sell.”
Chile produces good to great reds at a fair price point, notes Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits at the 77-location Morton’s The Steakhouse. He carries four different Chilean selections, priced from $45 to $150 by the bottle and none by the glass. “We serve mostly steak so the reds are the only table wines we offer from Chile.” He notes that cabernet sauvignons from producers like Concha y Toro Don Melchor, Casa Lapostolle and Clos Apalta are popular brands.
Operators also note that their customers often feel comfortable ordering Chilean wines off lists as they are acquainted with the grape varieties used. “Chilean wines with familiar varietals [sauvignon blanc, merlot, cab and chard] sell themselves,” notes Kasperski. “More obscure varietals or expensive offerings need to be presented as flights or by the glass to get a bottle sale to follow.”
Sandy Block, master of wine and vice president of beverage at 33-location Legal Sea Foods, also says that the positive perception of Chilean wines makes them easy to sell. He adds that the upper-end ones are often a hand-sell. He carries 12 to 15 Chilean wines at his different locations, priced from $23 to $75 by the bottle and $7.50 to $10.50 by the glass. He says the number of Chilean wines he has featured over the past few years has stayed stable.
“The whites are clean and fresh and pair best with seafood and veggie tapas. The reds are generally medium weight and fruit-driven styles and work best with red meats,” says Ken Collura, wine director at Andina, a one-location Peruvian restaurant in Portland, Oregon. He generally carries 18 to 20 different Chilean wines at any time, priced from $28 to $145 a bottle and $7 to $10 a glass.
He adds that the quality of Chilean wines, “continues to improve every year.” Block also confirms that the country’s reputation for wine production continues to improve every year.
A Wine to Hang its Hat On
Chile is know for both single-varietal reds and whites as well as blends that usually make use of the Bordeaux red varietals. Carménère is certainly Chile’s flagship and top varietal and more syrahs and pinot noirs are being produced. This has given operators many more choices about how to merchandise and pair these wines, but may have made Chile harder to understand and market as it doesn’t have one super-strong image to sell its wines (as Argentina has cowboys, red meat and malbec).
“The lack of a category kingpin like malbec or pinot noir holds the region back from greater success. If carménère became the new shiraz or torrontés the new pinot grigio that could change,” says Kasperski. He adds that, “Argentina is a bigger part of our program due to the recent juggernaut that malbec has become, but in turn that has opened guests’ minds up to trying wines from Chile, Uruguay and even Mexico.”
In some ways the fact that Chilean wines are a stand alone category with few direct competitors can be positive for on-premise sales. They have “no real competition,” notes Block. “They are perceived as separate.”
Perhaps that sense of standing alone and differentiating themselves from the pack will continue to help Chilean wines build their presence on-premise.