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[Photo: Seema Gunda]

My boyfriend just returned from a week-long trip to his hometown of Santiago, Chile. He informed me that now his 2-year old nephew apparently has Spanish-speaking skills that rival my own. That kid has always been a show-off. Yet my confidence in Español-ing didn't waver until a few days later, when my lovely boyfriend shared with me a box of cigar-shaped sweets called "cuchuflis" he had brought back from Santiago. I erroneously called them "pichules" which oh-so-unfortunately is a vowel away from a bad word for the genitalia this sweet resembles. I'm told my Rosetta Stone Christmas gift is coming early this year.

What I lack in language skills in Chile, I make up for in wine knowledge. While Chileans drink a fair bit of wines themselves, they export a fair bit more (about 19 liters consumed per capita vs. about 59 liters exported per capita). What that means for the U.S. and other countries is a large volume of Chilean wines available—ranging from premium, highly regarded bottles (e.g., in 2008, Wine Spectator's #1 pick of their Top 100 list was from Chile's Casa Lapostolle) to affordable table wines, which we'll be focusing on today.

Trader Joe's has taken advantage of good deals in Chilean wine by releasing their own brand of Trader Joes Viñas Chilenas wines—a line of bottles that are $4 a pop and all from Chile's Valle Central (a mega-region including the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, and Maule Valleys).

We tried four bottles in the lineup and compared them against the same varietals (from the same Central Valley) produced by a widely distributed brand (also found at TJs!), Santa Rita 120, clocking in at around $7 a bottle. When was it worth the extra few bucks for the Santa RIta? When did TJs slide in with a tasty value option? Read on for the head-to-head results.

Sauvignon Blanc Winner: Santa Rita 120

The Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc won out for being more complex and lively, while the TJs version was more like watered down, boozed up lemonade. Although still a relatively soft, lemony wine, the Santa Rita had an interesting bitterness on the finish, like when you eat a little too far into a piece of melon, with a bit of the characteristic grassiness you see in many a Sauv Blanc. This was an easy summer sipper that can stand up to soft cheeses and even a warm artichoke dip.

Chardonnay Winner: Trader Joes Viñas Chilenas

The preferred white of the wine-off was the TJs Chard, which had a little bright effervescence. Compared to the 120 Chardonnay, this was cleaner, with less oaky vanilla flavors. Instead, apple cider and even a little minerality were able to shine through. This dry Chardonnay did have a bit of spice on the finish and was light enough to drink on its own, but would match a simple weekday chicken dinner pretty well too.

Merlot Winner: Trader Joes Viñas Chilenas

The reds were closer matched than the whites, so if you're on a serious budget or hosting a big party, I wouldn't worry too much about which to choose. For the Merlot, the TJs version slightly edged out the 120, which we found a bit more concentrated and astringent. The crowd-pleasing Viñas Chilenas Merlot was sweeter and smoother, with some sage or even menthol flavors toward the end. This fruity wine would be great with hard, salty cheeses or even a salmon dish.

Cabernet Sauvignon Winner: Santa Rita 120

As for the Cabs, the Santa Rita won for being inkier, darker, and, well, Cab-ier. While the TJs juice was on the sweeter side, the Santa Rita was dry, more full bodied, and even had a bit of smokiness. As one taster put it, "it tastes more expensive than it is." And that's what we're aiming for, right? Try airing this wine out for a few minutes first and then enjoy with grilled skirt steak or a meaty stew.

What about you? Have you ever tried TJs Viñas Chilenas? Do you have other affordable Chilean wine to recommend?

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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