by Fred McMillin
for January 20, 1999


Merlot at the Fork


"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

...Yogi Berra

Caliterra Vineyard "Chile is facing a fork in the road---quality vs. quantity---and right now they are going both ways. Quantity: There are still plenty of good values perfect for everyday drinking. Quality: Pulled by international investors such as Robert Mondavi, some Chilean wines are climbing the price and quality ladder... [including] juicy, well-balanced Merlots."

...Thomas Matthews in the Wine Spectator

The Rest of the Story

My panel just tasted one of those Mondavi Merlots that's going both ways...though only $8, here are some of the rungs it has climbed on the quality ladder.

  • Two winemakers were used instead of one, Chile's Irene Paiva and California's Ken Shyvers.
  • Three areas were used to supply the grapes, instead of just one. They were Curico (similar to Sonoma County's moderately-warm Alexander Valley), plus the Maipo and Rapel Valleys (similar to the Sonoma Valley).
  • No inexpensive machine harvesting. It was all done by hand...around the first of April. As a matter of interest, in Chile early-ripening varieties like Sauvignon Blanc are normally picked in mid-February, when vines are dormant in California.
  • Two types of yeasts were used instead of just one. That is, part of the grapes were fermented with the wild yeasts on their skins to add complexity to the flavors.
  • Twenty five percent of the more expensive Cabernet Sauvignon was added to increase intensity.

You can't pack much more sophistication into an $8 bottle!

The Wine

1997 Merlot, Valle Central, Chile
Brand name—Caliterra
Producers—The families of Eduardo Chadwick and Robert Mondavi
Rating—Recommended in its price range
Price—$8 range


Merlot is not the hot-button red wine grape in Chile, that it is in California. Fifteen years ago there were 10 Cabernet vines in Chile for every one of Merlot. While Merlot plantings have increased since then, my latest figures show Cabernet is still being added at twice the rate of Merlot.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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