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updated: 11/6/2012 3:46 PM

Exploring Chile's modern vineyards

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Imagine an expanse of vineyards that glistens in Pacific mist, then ribbons through tiny valleys and across a vast plain to climb into stark mountain peaks. Where in the world are you?

If you thought California, you'd be right. But this column is about Chile.

Chile's winegrowing topography mirrors California's, only longer, higher and upside-down. California's coastline stretches for 840 miles; Chile's is nearly 3,000. California boasts the highest vineyards at 2,000 feet; Chilean vineyards rise to 3,000 feet. And while California's wine regions reach north to cool Mendocino County (39-degrees latitude), Chile's vineyards reach south to Malleco Valley (38-degrees) toward the frigid Antarctic.

Chile and California also share roots of winegrowing history. In the 16th century, Spanish missionaries carried the Word and the vine north to San Francisco and south to Chile's lush Central Valley. By the 19th century, both wine regions had won international acclaim.

Destinies veered sharply, however, in the mid-1900s. As California's wine industry boomed along with American prosperity, Chile's became mired in economic instability and social unrest.

In the late 1980s, Chile transitioned toward a free-market economy. Stability attracted investment from international wineries looking for the last affordable, prime vineyard land on earth. Between 1987 and 1993, more than 25,000 acres were planted with premium varieties including Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. New regions pioneered Syrah and Pinot Noir.

With vineyards thriving and wineries pumping out well-made and affordable wine, Chile now focuses attention on the international marketplace. To help customers understand their unique regional flavors (i.e. terroir), Wines of Chile, a group of wineries committed to promoting the country's wines, has organized 24 winegrowing valleys into three major regions:

Costa: Chilled by the Humboldt Current, Chile's coastline was considered too cold for winegrowing until the 1980s, when viticulturalists experimented with cold climate varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the brisk, grassy Sauvignon Blanc that is now Chile's white wine calling card. Casa Silva "Cool Coast" Sauvignon Blanc (Colchagua Valley) is rich and complex with herb, citrus and mineral flavors, (about $22). In the $10-$15 range, look for great-value Sauvignon Blanc from Los Vascos and Veramonte. (Also see Ross' Choice.)

Entre Cordilleras: The generous plains between the Andes and Coastal Mountains were the first home to Spanish settlers as well as modern winemakers. A Mediterranean climate and transversal rivers create a rich mosaic of terroirs to support more than 60 percent of Chilean wine. Look especially for Carmenere, once considered an extinct ancestor of Cabernet, recently rediscovered in Chilean vineyards. With inky color and saturated flavors of blueberry, plum, pepper and herb, Carmenere is a unique complement to red meats and rich poultry. Look for producers Araucano and Apaltagua (about $12) or the elegant Errazuriz "Single Vineyard" ($19.99).

Andes: Brilliant sunshine, rocky soils and dramatic diurnal temperature first attracted winegrowers in 1856 with Cousino-Macul (look for the iconic "Antiguas Reserva" Cabernet, about $15), then again an era of foreign investment led by Casa Lapostolle; Lapostolle's "Apalta" consistently wins critical and consumer raves ($90). Today, cold-loving Syrah and Pinot Noir climb into the Andes and this palate looks forward to tasting one.

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@dailyherald.com.

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