Chile, like California, is so diverse that the country can produce just about any type of wine. Cool coastal areas are the sources of interesting chardonnays, pinot noirs and syrahs; warmer areas produce intriguing carmenere, a red variety regarded by some as Chile's signature variety. (Nearly all of the world's carmenere is grown in Chile.)
But I think you'll find the most consistent value among cabernet sauvignon -- by far the most widely planted grape variety and the workhorse of the industry -- and sauvignon blanc.
Sometimes it seems as if Chile is trying to shake its image as a source of good-value wines. There's no question that the country's vintners, both the small, artisanal ones and the big guys, such as Concha y Toro, are making some outstanding higher-priced wines, and Chile is trying to get the word out. But the lower-priced cabs and sauvignon blancs can be real finds for consumers in search of bargains for everyday drinking.
There aren't many $12-$15 California cabernet sauvignons that offer the kind of quality you'll find in that price range from Chile. More than 100,000 acres of cabernet are planted in Chile, more than triple the acreage of the No. 2 variety, chardonnay. Much of that cab is planted in Chile's fertile, high-yielding central valley, which keeps costs down. Some cheap cab does taste thin and dull, but it's not hard to find some outstanding values.
A good example is the 2010 Cono Sur "Bicicleta" Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), from a winery that every year puts more of its large vineyard holdings under organic certification. The wine is plump, round and easy to drink, with bright cherry, a slight peppery note and medium tannins. Other bargains include the 2010 Calcu Cabernet Sauvignon ($14), which offers lively black fruit with a note of cracked pepper and very firm tannins, and the 2010 Casa Silva Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($13), with its red cherry and spice flavors.
The Apalta subregion of the Colchagua appellation is home to famous wineries, such as Montes and Lapostolle's Clos Apalta. But it's also the source of a very affordable cab, the 2011 Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($12), which displays lively black cherry fruit, accented by spicy and smoky notes.
The cabernets of Vina Koyle are a little more expensive and harder to find, but they're worth the money and effort. The winery was started in 2006 by members of the Undurraga family, which has been in the wine business since the late 1800s, and the 200 acres of vineyards are certified biodynamic. The 2009 Vina Koyle Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) is fresh and lively, with black cherry, spice, mocha and sturdy tannins, while the 2009 Vina Koyle Royale Cabernet Sauvignon ($26) is darker, denser and more savory, with black fruit, a hint of anise and firm tannins.
Another good value, although it's also a bit more expensive, is Concha y Toro's 2010 Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon ($22), which is dark, dense and slightly earthy, with black fruit and notes of anise and pencil lead.
Two other modestly priced cabs worth noting are the 2011 Emiliana "Natura" Cabernet Sauvignon ($11), made from organically grown grapes, which offers bright black cherry fruit and a slight leafy note, and the 2010 Casa Silva Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon ($13), a medium-weight wine with bright red cherry and some spiciness.
The best growing areas for cabernet sauvignon are considered to be Maipo, Colchagua and Aconcagua, although many of the low-priced bottles will carry the designation "Valle Central," which includes Maipo and Colchagua, among other areas.
As for sauvignon blanc, Chile is the best source I know of for some tremendous values. Although there is some lackluster stuff from the warmer areas, the cool-climate wines -- from areas such as the coastal Casablanca and San Antonio valleys -- can be really delicious, especially considering their modest prices. They have a vivid freshness that should make them appeal to many fans of the pungent sauvignon blancs from New Zealand.
For example, the 2012 Penalolen Sauvignon Blanc ($13) from Limari, an up-and-coming cool area better known for chardonnay, is bright, citrusy and slightly grassy. The 2012 Emiliana "Novas" Sauvignon Blanc ($14) from San Antonio Valley is fresh and persistent, with pink grapefruit flavors, while another San Antonio Valley wine, the 2012 Cono Sur Organically Grown Sauvignon Blanc ($14), offers more herbal flavors. And the 2011 William Cole Columbine Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($16), from Casablanca Valley, is bright, herbal and pungent, with citrus and tomato stem and a long finish.
The 2012 Calcu Sauvignon Blanc ($14) is from Colchagua, but the grapes are grown in the foothills of the Andes, a somewhat cooler spot. The wine is tart and citrusy, with notes of white peach and tomato stem. For a little more money, the 2011 Marques de Casa Concha Sauvignon Blanc ($18), from Concha y Toro, is quite fresh, with zippy pink grapefruit, honeydew melon and a hint of tomato stem. The grapes are from Leyda, a subregion of San Antonio Valley.
Contact Laurie Daniel at email@example.com.