Mateo's Merlot 

More great values from Chile's Central Valley.

In these parts, certain Pinot-loving types may consider Merlot a grape to sniff at. But in Chile, home to one of my favorite far-flung Wineau correspondents, it's a crucial element in a growing and increasingly acclaimed export market. "Merlot is not my favorite red, simply because I like thicker, more-tannic wine — but it's always nice with pasta," explains ex-pat Matt, who usually relies on the annual Guia de Vinos de Chile when choosing his beloved Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and yes, pasta-friendly Merlots, all in the $6 to $10 range. Matt is currently "drinking down" his carefully organized wine cellar, but when in shopping mode, he has luck with Merlots in Santa Ema's reserve line and all lines from the Cono Sur label. In the East Bay those brands sell for upwards of $10, so we went adventuring in the bargain bins this week, striking gold with two wines out of three.

My favorite was the cheapest: the 2007 Frontera Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot ($3.99). Frontera comes to us courtesy of huge Chilean winery Concha y Toro, and the grapes are sourced from the Central Valley, which produces most of Chile's wine. The bouquet on the Frontera was "pleasant enough," declared our Token Winemaker; we both noted dark fruit and he further detected subtle dark toast and black olives. The taste was smooth and balanced with a hint of chocolate — a really nice mellow wine.

Token Winemaker had higher praise for the 2006 Calina Reserva Merlot ($6.99), from the one of the cooler subregions of the Central Valley, Valle del Maule. The aroma here was great — once again, dark fruit, but with notes of leather and an inviting brightness the Frontera lacked. The taste was smooth and dry, with perfect balance and a subtle spiciness. Both the Frontera and the Calina would pair nicely with food or hold up well on their own.

Less pleasing overall was the unusual 2005 Santa Rita Reserva ($7.99), from Chile's warmer Maipo Valley, an area that's especially kind to Cabernet and Chardonnay. "Sour shoes" and "penetrating, high-note skunk" were the comments on Santa Rita's unfortunate aroma; this translated to a mouthfeel that might be pleasing to lovers of big leathery reds, especially when paired with strong flavors that could stand up to it, like grilled steak. Otherwise, this is probably one to skip — a disappointment from a winery proud of its efforts at modernization and known for true quality at low prices.

Back at home we recently discovered a gem at a medium price ($20 without a case discount), but you can enjoy the hearty depth and barnyardy richness of the 2000 Mietz Cellars Merlot for free with a visit to the Healdsburg winery. Call 707-433-7103 for an appointment or visit MietzCellars.com.

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