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A worthy Chardonnay from Chile

Wine of the week: ’02 Santa Rita Reserva has nice balance, complexity
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From time to time, boxes of wine show up at my door from wineries, importers or marketing firms that hope I will try their wines and write positive reviews. I give these wines the same treatment as those I purchase, which account for the vast majority of the wines I write about. If they are well made and stand out, I will consider sharing them with you. If not, I pour them down the drain without an ounce of guilt. I never, ever promise a review.

That said, A collection of the latest releases from the Santa Rita winery in Chile arrived recently, unsolicited, and included a range of wines from this big producer. By far, the best of the bunch was the 2002 Reserva Chardonnay, with a suggested price of $12 (I have seen it advertised for as low as $9).

Now, if you have read this column for some time, you’ll know that the bar here for Chardonnay is high. If it’s too “fat” and has too much wood, for example, you can pretty much forget about it. If it’s lean and elegant, let’s talk.

Santa Rita’s Reserva Chardonnay is worth talking about. One of its key measurements suggests a fairly big wine — alcohol in the 2002 is 14.3 percent. But on tasting it I was pleasantly surprised by a sharply focused Chardonnay that was not the least bit flabby.

With nice balance and complexity, it starts off with subtle aromas that include orange and honey. The fruit is quite lovely — white peach, pear, citrus, followed by a touch of vanilla and a bit of spice. There is good acidity, which gives the wine an overall brightness that reminded me more of a Burgundy than a California Chardonnay. To me, the use of oak seemed restrained and just right; in fact, only 25 percent of the blend was fermented in French and American oak barrels. The rest was fermented in stainless steel, which allows the fruit to speak for itself.

Founded in 1880, Santa Rita is one of the largest wineries in Chile, owns 5,000 acres of vineyards and exports 1.3 million cases to the United States and elsewhere. Its grapes come from most of Chile’s major wine areas. The Reserva Chardonnay is from the Casablanca Valley, a relatively new wine region not far from the Pacific Ocean, which provides cool breezes that lower the hot afternoon temperatures. Casablanca is quickly gaining a reputation for the quality of its white wines, including its Sauvignon Blancs.

With Santa Rita’s Reserva Chardonnay, it’s not hard to see why.