Brilliant international marketing campaigns during the early 1990s by the national body Wines of Chile, when large groups of winemakers and vineyard owners toured the world together, brought the great-value wines of Chile to global attention. These were typically the big names: the likes of Santa Rita, Concha Y Toro and Errazuriz.
Since those days Chile’s wine industry has sought to drop the cheap-and-cheerful image, and has produced some premium, seriously expensive wines. These include the multi-award winning Sena, and cult wines such as Purple Angel and Montes Folly from the visionary Montes winery.
We are now seeing two main trends. First, the search for more and more extreme vineyard sites, for example Bruno Prat’s Vina Aquitania in the region of Malleco, where conditions are sufficiently cool that there’s a risk of frost.
Second is the production of more and more wines which straddle the middle ground in price terms; a solid movement for quality over quantity at competitive pricing. The winery last year voted Chilean winery of the year at London’s influential International Wine and Spirit Competition, Casas del Bosque, serves as a great example of this market segment.
The winery was established in 1993 by Juan Cuneo Solari, the son of an Italian immigrant, who runs a very successful retail business. This activity has provided ample funds for the essential, continuing investment needed in the creation and maintenance of a tip-top estate they like to call “boutique” – though they have more than 200 hectares under vine. Most of the vineyards are in the cool-climate region of Casablanca (about 70 kilometres north of the capital city Santiago), most famous for white grape production and in particular chardonnay. Some vineyards are situated in Rapel, favoured for red grapes.
The backbone, even the “bread and butter” of the Bosque output is sauvignon blanc. Chilean sauvignon blanc is often described, perhaps in a slightly pejorative sense, as a cross between New Zealand and Loire; though these three places are the key locations for the grape.
A truth sits amidst the generalisation: the Casas del Bosque sauvignon blanc is not the grassy, fruit-driven wine typically produced in New Zealand (though head winemaker Grant Phelps is from New Zealand), but shows the more herbaceous, mineral qualities often associated with Loire. Thus it will appeal both to drinkers of something like the commercial Oyster Bay brand from New Zealand (and it is only a touch more expensive) and some of the lighter (less intense, less concentrated) examples of Sancerre.
Wine Enthusiast has voted the 2010 Reserva the most food-friendly sauvignon blanc, and it has appeared in the publication’s top 100 buys in the world. The same vintage was voted Chile’s best sauvignon blanc in the annual Wines of Chile awards in 2011.
The Gran Reserva chardonnay is a terrific wine too, rich and honeyed; a wine which Phelps has slowly crafted since he joined the company in 2010. He has taken a fresh look at clonal selection and lees contact, and has introduced the use of French barriques instead of American oak. The result is a high quality wine that retains its freshness, and balances good acids with ripe orchard characters.
Phelps is also doing some great work with red grapes. The 2013 Reserva pinot noir is full of fruit, even though it may come in a little high in alcohol (14 per cent). The Reserva carmenere (a grape originally from Bordeaux which Chile now calls its own) is black fruited and spicy with plenty of depth – but best suited for those familiar with this grape which can tend to greenness.
Easily topping both of these reds is the Grand Reserva syrah, and though it also reaches 14 per cent alcohol, shows wonderful balance. One comment overheard at the tasting was that it “melts in the mouth” and certainly it has a wonderful, flowing structure.
The nose is intriguing, with eucalyptus and compost notes. It is not possible to make wine to this quality every year because of the cool-climate conditions. The 2011 vintage was particularly good for red wine production. You might pay up to double for something similar from France. As Montes Folly proved, syrah can be magnificent in some of Chile’s higher altitude, cool climate sites. Casas del Bosque have made it affordable.
Footnote: The first Port Wine Day will be held on September 10. We will be covering this event from Porto (known as Oporto in English). This handsome northern Portuguese city, the second largest in the country, is the historic heart of the port industry.
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