Wines of Worth: Chile

 

Just as I was leaving from a week travelling through Chile earlier this month, looking for the NEW, cutting-edge, envelope pushing, stereotype smashing Chile, award-winning writer Rex Pickett was heading there. Pickett, infamous author of the wine-soaked Sideways, is moving to Chile for four months to conduct research for an upcoming Sideways sequel. “I have zero doubts about moving to Chile,” he says. “My God, it’s every writer’s dream to be traveling someplace new as, in essence, an artist-in-residence.”

Chile certainly is exciting, and change is happening almost faster than the Chilean wine industry can grasp it. The long and skinny country, isolated from pests and refreshed by the Humboldt current, has a lengthy history with vines. Early Spanish missionaries and colonists brought wine grapes to the coastal country in the 16th century, and in the 19th century, the allure of Trans-Atlantic travel brought adventurous French (and noble Bordeaux varieties) to Chile as well. The phylloxera louse that was devastating Europe at that time couldn’t penetrate Chile, what with the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, at the north; the mighty Andes mountains at the east; snow plains of Chilean Patagonia to the south; and the cooling Pacific to the west. Therefore most of the vines today remain ungrafted, natural and self-rooted. Modern Chilean winemaking dates back all of 30 years – a drop in the spittoon of most major wine regions. Those three decades, like all of time in the modern era, has seen tremendous change. Much modernization and technological advancements in the 1990s brought precise, big wines. External influence and affluence brought money for spectacular show wineries, legions of proud new oak barrels and marketing machines. Concha y Toro, headquartered in Santiago, is the largest producer of wines from Latin America and is one of the global leaders with revenue of $812 million in 2011 (last year they bought California’s Fetzer and Bonterra, among others, if that’s any indication of size). If you’re in Santiago, I recommend you visit the summer house of Concha y Toro’s founder Don Melchor, and spy the legendary Castillero del Diablo caves. In 1883 Melchor brought grape varieties from the Bordeaux region in France, establishing one of today’s strongest wine brands worldwide. I encountered the same pioneering spirit throughout my travels in the country today.

Concha y Toro is the granddaddy of impressive and dominating large-scale, export-driven companies. These are the brands that have put Chilean wine on the map – through incredible value (The Chilean peso is worth half of what it was a decade ago, currently trading at 50,000 CL for $100 CDN), marketing (mainly by grape) and branding. Chile is an impressive powerhouse, currently the world’s 8th largest wine producer, and the 5th largest exporter. I’ve long been drinking Chilean wine, splurging as a uni student on Gato Negro 1.5L, and buying organic Cono Sur Bicycle Series by the case today. I knew where Chilean wine had come from, but on my journey there I wanted to see where Chile was today, and more importantly, where it was going. I was impressed beyond expectations by what I saw and what I tasted. Below is a snapshot of where Chilean wine is in this moment.

Triumphing Terroir

For such a long country, the winegrowing area has been very small and centralized. Today vineyards reach and stretch 1200km length north to south, with the majority clustered just around Santiago, in the Central Valley, where grapes easily and traditionally grow. Chilean wine is all about the valleys – you can roughly think of them as teeth on a comb, jutting in from the Pacific. The defining climatic factor in Chile isn’t how close you are to the equator, rather it’s now where you are situated east to west. The proximity to the Pacific Ocean and/or the Andes mountains is now recognized to be a major factor, and not only through temperature; the soils are markedly older near the coast (granite, sandy-clay) and younger near the Andes (alluvial, colluvial). In recognition of these marked variations, Chile announced three brand new designations into their appellation system in 2011. Now you can see Andes (near Andes) Costa (coast) or Entre Cordilleras (between the Andes and Coastal mountain ranges) appended to the valley name.

Less is So Much More

Less, increasingly NO, new oak was a welcome surprise in some wines. Though some wineries are happy to tour you through their new show barrel cellar (yes – symmetrically impressive), others were markedly moving away from new oak towards used and larger oak vessels. Concrete was an evident thread through my tours, with some wineries eschewing oak altogether in favour of concrete – equi-parts ancient and cutting edge. Some of the graceful and memorable wines of De Martino were aged in historic terracotta amphora. Their Viejas Tinajas Cinsault (old terracotta amphorae) was fermented and aged as naturally as possible without intervention, in found amphora over 100 years old.

Uncharted Valleys

We all know that grapes are best in adverse conditions. The search for challenging fringe regions has sent pioneering winemakers into valleys far north and far south of the Central Valley. In the north, Elqui Valley, Limari Valley and Choapa Valley are showing incredible promise, and in the south, Itata Valley, Bio Bio Valley and Malleco Valley are exciting new lands for grapes. These are often in deserted landscapes, making these pristine grapes all the more appealing.

It’s Easy to be Green

As mentioned above, Chile has few climatic and pest challenges. The country’s naturally protected boundaries means that Chile is almost uniquely suited to organic or biodynamic viticulture. The industry’s vision is to become the number one producer of sustainable and diverse premium wines by 2020 (Chile: The Natural Choice is a fitting tagline). Many times over we heard about the commitment to sustainability – in the vineyard and for the workers. The conditions and philosophy have created some of the largest organic vineyards in the world (both certified and non). I walked through biodynamic vineyards at Emiliana alongside peacocks and heritage chickens, and bicycled through the organically managed vines at Cono Sur. The vineyards were vibrant – bugs, bees, flowers, sounds – life. At both locations, vineyard workers were given plots of land to organically farm for themselves, and more importantly, they were guaranteed a healthy and balanced environment.

Rediscovered Grapes

Many know that Carmenere, Chile’s signature grape, was for many years mistaken for Merlot. Transplanted from Bordeaux in the mid-19th century, people assumed it was lookalike Merlot, its French cousin who it was interspersed with in the vineyards. Once it was identified as Carmenere in the mid-1990s and treated as such, it began to flourish. Carmenere ripens late, so winemakers began watching and picking it later than the other reds, allowing for full grape maturity (and none of that abrasive green character that Chilean wines were hallmarked with 15 years ago). Today, impressive winemakers are picking their Carmenere when it is just ripe, and not letting it sunbake on the vine, accumulating sugar and alcohol. What a treat to taste bright, balanced, floral and darkly spiced Carmenere. Grial, a wine from Apalta Valley’s Apaltagua, is 100% Carmenere from 60 year old vines, unfiltered and unfined with intensely fresh red currant, sweet dried plum and savoury fig. Finesse in spades – I’m hoping Apaltagua makes it to our market soon.

By far, the most impressive wines I tasted were from the humble Carignan grape. In the push for new discoveries came an old discovery – plots of old, bush vine Carignan, mostly in the Maule Valley. These gnarly, old dry-farmed (non-irrigated) grapes had been quietly growing for 60+ years until they were “rediscovered” in the late 1990s. Intrepid winemakers began to harvest and bottle these old vines, to remarkable results. Since then winemakers have been hunting for more patches, promoting their findings and banding together to get the word out about these special grapes. A couple of years ago Vignadores de Carignan was formed (VIGNO). VIGNO is part advocacy (fair prices for local farmers) and part marketing group (spreading the word and setting regulations for what should be included). Not all OV Carignan producers are part of VIGNO, but it makes up a significant proportion, and all benefit from their promotions. Old vines may squeak out precious few grapes, but what does come out is concentrated and complex, layered with flavours of dried cherries, mulberries, wild herbs and earth. Some of these Carignan pass through our market from time to time – keep an eye out for De Martino El Leon – a single vineyard wine from exceptional blue clay soils. One of my favourite wines of the trip, the intense dried strawberry, dusty minerality, saddle and alluring cherry fruit lingered far after the wine was finished.

New Heights

Altitude is taking Chilean grapes to new heights. Ok – but it’s true. Brilliant fresh, bright and lively wines are coming from super high altitude vineyards in Elqui (nearly 2,000m vineyards!) and Choapa (820m). Syrah, in particular, is showing tremendous promise from these cooler sites, in an elegant, Northern-Rhone way. Chile’s next star grape? Si.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

One of the most eye-awakening parts of the trip came at one of my favourite ‘boutique’ wineries. When we pulled up to Vina Maquis, a massive, super modern and architecturally imposing winery facility awaited us. ‘Large scale operations’ I thought immediately. But tasting through the wines, sitting under the canopy of avocado trees on the family property, it was absolutely evident that these were not wines of mass quantity, but wines of hand-on care and attention. Up until recently the entire historic property’s grapes were sold as bulk juice, to companies around the world (for example, see Cellared in Canada) for turning into cheap and cheerful. Now the humble and generous family-owned company was claiming some of their grapes for themselves, and through minimal winemaking intervention, is allowing the old vines to speak. We are in the early phase of seeing Chilean winemakers bottle single vineyard offerings and embracing sites.

Changing Guard, Shifting Gears

We all know it’s challenging to change the course of a massive freighter. Chile is dominated by large wineries and powerful brands, but even established names are moving in new stylistic directions – at least partially. Young winemakers, many of whom are women, are graduating from winemaking school and working vintages around the world, bringing back a global perspective to their country. Regionally-specific, vineyard-designated wines are gradually working their way into the traditional portfolios as a result. Carolina Wine Brands is a perfect example. One of Chile’s larger winemaking groups, the company has produced and sold wines for 135 years. They own 2,000 hectares of vineyards and 7 winemaking facilities over their five brands. While maintaining strong worldwide familiarity with their classic Santa Carolina brand, they’re allowing for smaller-lot terroir explorations with Vina Casablanca. Make note of the name Ximena Pacheco. This young, travelled, female winemaker at the charge of Vina Casablanca has positioned the winery remarkably well, creating distinct, niche wines successfully within the larger company. Another example on our market is Undurraga. Founded in 1885, the winery is today found in over 70 countries and 5 continents. One of their newer lines, T.H. (for Terroir Hunter), is a unique project which aims to solely express the site from where the grapes are sourced. Young winemaker Rafael Urrejola heads up this line of characterful wines – watch for more of his TH wines to gain confidence and hopefully inspire more to take up the hunt.

 

The pioneers of modern Chilean wine have built a globally strong foundation of brands and value. It’s up to the now generation to explore and share regionality and individuality. It’s encouraging to see small scale plots and projects trickle up the ladder and gain momentum, and exciting to watch more people celebrating the uniqueness of Chile. Watch for wines from members of MOVI – the Movement of Independent Vintners of Chile. Their declaration states that MOVI is “an association of small quality-oriented Chilean wineries who come together to share a common goal to make wine personally, on a human scale. Each and every vintage of every MOVI wine is crafted to reflect a particular vision, and the origin and terroir from whence it came. There are no Fortune 500 companies, no economic groups, and no patrons of convenience. The common purpose of all who embark today in the Movement of Independent Vintners, MOVI for short, is above all a quintessential passion for the endeavors of growing grapes and crafting fine wine.”

There is much to see and taste in Chile today – and much to look forward to in the future (including Rex Pickett’s next Sideways sequel). Keep up to date with Wines of Chile here.

 

 

 

Written By:

Treve Ring is a wine writer, editor, judge, consultant and certified sommelier, and has been with EAT Magazine for over a decade. In addition to her work with EAT, she is a Wine Critic and National Judge for WineAlign, ...

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