A growing number of independent producers and an ever-evolving wine map suggest that Chile is coming of age. For publication in week of 9 May 2016.
Chile has been a huge success story with its reputation for great value, reliable Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. The industry has, though, been operating within a structure which has favoured the big guys, who churn out commercial, export-driven wines. That wine landscape, say commentators, is now beginning to change, and Chile is entering a new, more mature phase.
Best evidence of this is the emergence of two bodies which represent small producers. MOVI now has 27 members, all artisanal, while VIGNO is intriguingly a body of 15 producers championing old vine Carignan. The quest for new regions offering new and different possibilities is also in full swing.
Viña Caliterra, pioneers in the development of sustainable practices in Chile, has developed a natural way to control pests in its vineyards. The Birds of Prey program involves encouraging eagles, hawks, vultures, owls and kestrels into vineyard areas by building nesting boxes and feeders made of recycled materials. The birds control the rabbits and rodents that damage vines.
Rodrigo Plass, commercial director for Europe, Latin America, the middle East and Africa, said that since the program started in 2013 the rabbit population had decreased by as much as 18 per cent, with 30 per cent less damage to vines noted last year.
Caliterra, based in the Colchagua Valley, is also developing an educational program with local communities to generate awareness about the preservation of the valley’s rich flora and fauna. Caliterra was established in 1996 and was one of the first Chilean wineries to obtain a sustainability certificate. The name comes from the Spanish words for quality, calidad, and land, tierra.
Large-scale wine growing began and was centred around the capital, Santiago, in regions such as Casablanca Valley, Maipo Valley and Aconcagua Valley. Each enjoys balmy conditions and reasonable rainfall. Wine growing has now spread north to Atacama, which is essentially desert with just 20 mm of rain a year; and down to Itata where elevations are in excess of 1,000 metres. In Bio Bio, further south still, the risk of frost is high – a 64 per cent possibility, meaning during winter three in five days will have frost.
British-based Richard Hemmings MW, who has a keen eye on Chile, says that he is finding the Chardonnays particularly impressive. He thinks that it is important for the country to be producing quality Chardonnay if it wants to be taken seriously. Chardonnay, after all, is capable of making such great wine, and is easy to benchmark.
Take Tabali Talinay 2014 Chardonnay. It is produced in the Limari Valley, just south of Atacama, which was formerly a pisco-producing zone. It is cool up there, with chalky soils. This wine has tingling acidity, mineral edges and great fruit undisguised by its 11 months on French oak. It finishes clean and long with a fantastic sour-bitter end.
At Veintisquero winery in Atacama they make unfiltered, unfined Chardonnay with native yeasts – just 2,100 bottles in 2014. The wine looks cloudy like lemonade, then, but it doesn’t taste like a “natural” wine. It is bold and fruity with high acids and a persistent finish. Soils here are limestone, which is unusual in Chile, and usually associated with quality. The price tag here is about US$50, showing great ambition and belief in the wine.
Do Chile’s Chardonnays have ageing ability? Aristos Duquesa Chardonnay 2007 is huge and developed, deep yellow in colour. It still has a good acidic backbone and a flavour range which has gone beyond fruit. It could probably age for another five years. The main point, though, it that it is not at all oxidised, a problem facing Chardonnay producers in some of the top regions of the world.
We tend to associate Chile with classic French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, some Pinot Noir and, of course, Carmenere. Others are working with the now often overlooked Cinsault in Itata, believed to be the first place that the Spanish planted grapes. The region is full of old bush vines.
At De Martino they’re making a Cinsault called Viejas Tinajas. This means “Old Pots” and they’re ageing it in amphorae. The wine is delicate and perfumed, yet persistent, with a structure that flows across the palate.
Some the most extraordinary artisan wines are coming out of the Maule. This is Chile’s largest production zone, but also one of the country’s oldest wine regions. New projects are pushing its borders to the sea, but what is really exciting is its ancient head-trained, dry farmed Pais and Carignan. Some of the valley’s vineyards are more than 100 years old, and many have only ever been farmed organically. The aforementioned VIGNO association is based here.
The J Bouchon Salvaje Pais is an extraordinary wine, made with the Pais grape which grows untamed in the forest. Here we have another “natural” wine which is clear and composed, rather than those funky notes associated with natural wine. A touch of sulphur is added merely for the export markets. It is pale in colour, unoaked with a distinct perfume of wild strawberry and rose. It is quite light, quite Gamay-ish, and comes in at just 12 per cent. Perhaps the making of lighter reds could be another new trend?
None of this is to say that large producers cannot make world-class, nuanced wines. Don Melchor, Concha y Toro’s premium Cabernet Sauvignon, remains an iconic wine. It always shows great ripeness, purity of fruit with grip and body, and proves that if you want to make a great wine you can, however many entry levels bottles you send to the supermarkets.