Buzz: Hey Marnie, I try to buy American but just saw signs at the store promoting wines from Chile. Why do they carry all these imported wines in the first place? California makes all kinds of good wines from sweet to unsweet, right?
Marnie: California wines are terrific, Buzz, but they can't possibly cover the entire style spectrum. You see, it's not just the type of grape used that determines how a wine will taste.
Buzz: Wait, are you saying that if a California grape is replanted in Chile its taste could change?
Marnie: In fact, a grape's main variable is the region's geography, including everything from macro factors like climate and terrain to micro factors like soil type and the vineyard's interconnected web of life. Essentially, California wines don't just taste like chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, they taste like California chardonnay or California cabernet sauvignon. There are plenty of people who love that style, but anyone who prefers a different flavor profile will have to look elsewhere to find it.
Buzz: I don't get it. I've tasted California wine both sweet and unsweet. You're not tasting California dirt, are you?
Marnie: It's not that you can taste California's dirt in the wine, Buzz. It's that the wine regions of California leave a distinctive imprint on the flavor of their grapes, which is then reflected in their wines. One of the most distinctive features is that California is among the warmest, sunniest wine regions on earth. Think of it as if you were growing tomatoes.
Buzz: I hope you're not comparing tomatoes to grapes.
Marnie: Think about it: If we had a cold, rainy summer, your tomatoes might not ripen fully, staying a little green all season. If we had a heat wave and a drought, those same tomatoes might overripen and start to bake on the vine, heading toward sun-dried tomatoes in flavor. In wine terms, the greenish tomatoes would be more like Italian wines, and the hyper-ripe tomatoes would be more like California wines. In the case of Chile, their wines would be right in the middle, perfectly ripe and juicy.
Buzz: Wait, I'm starting to imagine something: Tomatoes are like women. Some are luscious, some are skinny, and some, like Chile, are right in the middle.
Marnie: Time to move your brain back into reality, Buzz. Chile has unusual geography that happens to be perfect for winemaking. All of its wine valleys are drenched in sunshine, just like California's, but they are more tightly sandwiched between dueling-cooling influences — the frigid waters of the Pacific and the icy peaks of the Andes Mountains. This slows the fruit-ripening process to allow the development of intense ripe grape flavors without sacrificing the vibrant food-friendly acidity found in less-ripe grapes. Best of all for thrifty shoppers like you, is that Chile's idyllic growing conditions make grapes easier to grow, which means they are almost always very fairly priced. Not only do these wines offer the best of both worlds stylistically, but it's pretty hard to beat wines from Chile in mileage for the dollar.