In 1987, with their eyes focused north on the U.S.A., an already very successful Chilean wine company created the Villa del Mar brand. The Mitjans family had been producing wine from French grape varieties transplanted to Chile’s fertile farmlands for over seventy years. Their Viña Valdivieso line, besides including excellent table wines, featured Chile’s largest sparkling wine brand. They maintained a classic Chilean style that ensured a secure market position at home.
But the Mitjans also felt that, given the proper treatment, their grapes could be coaxed into producing Bordeaux-style wines with the distinct flavor elements that would appeal to the thirsty cravings of the American palate. Due mainly to the extraordinarily high quality of the fruit available, it was not such a difficult project.
The grapes for Viña del Mar Merlot come from Lontue in Chile’s renowned wine producing “Central Region”. Here, due to natural geographical barriers (including the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west), the vineyards are free from infectious diseases in general, the phylloxera louse, in particular. This parasite is once again having a heyday chomping into some of Napa Valley’s finest vines, even though they are grafted onto supposedly disease-resistant rootstocks. Phylloxera is totally nonexistent in Chile. Vines introduced here from Bordeaux in the 1850s grow ungrafted and unmolested on their own rootstocks, and produce magnificent fruit.
The Merlot vine is one of these. Merlot’s popularity is growing in leaps and bounds, and no wonder! It is the second most important red variety to come out of Bordeaux, ranking only after Cabernet Sauvignon (in some vineyard districts there, Merlot is actually the main grape!). The flavors of both these varietals are rather similar, but Merlot wines tend to be softer, and are therefore ready to drink sooner than most Cabernets.
This Merlot has a medium-intensity garnet color. The nose opens up after about 10 minutes; intense raspberries with a hint of vanilla from ageing in American oak. Soft and supple on the palate, with medium body, it offers agreeable cherry and berry flavors, a balanced, refreshing acidity, and a remarkably smooth, mildly tannic finish.
Serve at room temperature with Thai BBQ’d beef and pork, or grilled lamb and duck sausages.
Cellaring notes: Drink now and for 3 or 4 more years.
Reviewed by Larry Tepper