Chile’s long, slender shape defines South America’s western edge and is front facing to the Pacific Ocean. The capital, Santiago, lies in the middle with the Andes Mountains as a backdrop, and nearby, are the country’s most historic wine regions.

My first trip there was in the early 1990s when we drove for hours to wineries making unremarkable wine. I returned in the early 2000s, as part of a group of international wine judges, and discovered the industry had exploded with new wineries. Some partnerships of Chileans and French, California, Spanish or Italian wine companies, and others owned outright by foreign wine professionals. The expertise these outsiders brought in vineyard management, winemaking and marketing catapulted Chile into the wine consciousness of American consumers.

It was with this perspective that I looked forward to a tasting that told the story of this transformation.

In Chilean wine history, 1988 is notable for the founding of two game-changing wineries. The most important was the purchase of the Echenique estate by Baron Eric de Rothschild, head of the family that owns Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Under his ownership, Viña Los Vascos was created in central Colchagua.

For me, that was the Chilean version of the Good Housekeeping “Seal of Approval.” In the 1990s, I often poured the Los Vascos good-value cabernet sauvignon as a by-the-glass selection at my last restaurant, Sonoma Grill. But its first Le Dix de Los Vascos, made in 1996, elevated the perception of Chilean wines throughout the wine world.

Meaning ten in French, Le Dix is grown in the estate’s original vineyard and planted with only cabernet sauvignon, and some vines more than 80 years old. The current vintage is the 2014 Le Dix de Los Vascos Colchagua Valley, a blend of 85% cabernet sauvignon, 10% carmenere and 5% syrah. Its garnet color resembles many Bordeaux red wines, and 18 months aging in new oak barrels—made at Lafite’s cooperage—yield vanilla and black-cherry aromas. The syrah brings a plummy accent to the Bordeaux-like palate weight and texture, and the carmenere adds an herbal touch to the pleasing, balanced finish. 90 points. Retail pricing is $49 to $65.

Next to the youthful 2014 was the 2004 Le Dix de Los Vascos made under the original formula of only cabernet sauvignon. At 13.5% alcohol, it’s one degree less that the 2014, the lower alcohol a common feature of wines made a decade, or more, ago.

The older wine was opaque red with a smidgen of brown at the edge, it displayed more leather and tobacco aromas than fruit and carried a distinct tobacco taste—all common to cabernet sauvignon as it ages. 87 points. Not commercially available.

The second winery impacting Chile’s rise to quality was Vina Montes.

In 1987, winemaker Aurelio Montes—married and with five children to support—found himself jobless. His employment at Vina San Pedro ended with the sale of the winery, but the transaction helped him realize a personal dream.

Vina San Pedro’s executive director was fellow Chilean Douglas Murray, former head of the wine division of a Spanish bank for 14 years, and a business man who understood international wine marketing. The two formed a partnership and in 1988 added Chileans Alfredo Vidaurre (finance) and Pedro Grand (viticulturist). At first, they called their new enterprise Discovery Wines before changing it to Vina Montes.

Back then, Chilean wines were made by large cooperatives and wineries interested in quantity. Aurelio and his partners wanted consumers to understand that their country could produce world-class wine, and Vina Montes would do it.

Taking California as a model, the partners began with varietal wines at reasonable prices under the Montes Alpha label. The endeavor was an immediate hit and a wake-up call to other Chilean wineries. Today Montes is one of the most important and influential wineries in Chile.

Aurelio Montes Senior & Junior

Following in his father’s footsteps, 43-year-old Aurelio Junior is the current winemaker. He presented the 2014 Montes Alpha M Cabernet Apalta Colchagua Valley, a blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet franc and 5% of each merlot and petit verdot. Aged 18 months in new French oak barrels, the wine has pronounced black-cherry and herbal aromas and very ripe, blackberry and cherry fruit flavors with an underlying minerality and youthful tannins. This rambunctious wine needs two or three years of aging to coalesce. 89 points. Will arrive in our market later this year. Expect to pay about $90.

The 1996 Montes Alpha M Cabernet Apalta Colchagua Valley is composed of 80% cabernet sauvignon and 10% of each cabernet franc and merlot. Its reddish brown color and leather-scented nose gave little indication of its lively black fruit and black tea flavors. Very soft tannins combined with the color and aromas told the story of a evolving, but still enjoyable wine. 87 points. No longer commercially available, but an example of how these wines can age with grace and substance.

Not often thought of in the quality sector, the Santa Rita winery was influential in its own way. In its early days, it contributed to Chile’s wine image as inexpensive everyday fare until Ricardo Claro purchased it in 1980. Under his ownership, new vineyards were planted with top-quality clones, improved trellising and irrigation were implemented, and block-farming and late harvesting became policy. Winemaking techniques were modernized to include small-lot fermentation. The apex of these efforts was Santa Rita Casa Real, a premium wine produced in only the best years and from only cabernet sauvignon

Santa Rita Casa Real 1995

The 2013 Santa Rita Casa Real Maipo Valley has pungent ripe blackberry, plum and Darjeeling tea aromas. It is no less daring on the palate with rich, juicy blackberry and mulberry flavors with herbal accents gliding underneath. It recalled the best Napa wines from the 1980s, and its harmonious balance, length and palate weight brought to mind the best of Bordeaux. This is an excellent wine that will open a new vista of how good Chilean wines can be for those who still think it is a land of the ordinary. 93 points. Retail prices range from $83 to $90.

My biggest surprise was waiting in a glass of 1995 Santa Rita Casa Real Maipo Valley.  As I peered into the dull, fading red color with its brown-ish edge, I thought tasting this wine was going to be an exercise in futility. But much to my surprise, scents of tobacco, leather and black-fruit floated upward. With a buoyed spirit I received blackberry, tobacco and tea flavors with balance and length. 90 points. Not commercially available.

These wineries were part of a group that brought Chile’s wine industry into the modern era, it was rewarding to taste their wines through the prism of time, one of wine’s most enduring gifts.

Photos by John Foy