By Nick Adams, Master of Wine
The modern wine industry in Chile is 200 years old, but it is in the post Pinochet era (from 1998) that this amazing country has really taken off. Already the 7th largest wine producer in the world, today Chile is only just starting to realise its potential – and with such a diversity of regions and micro climates the future for this country is as exciting as any in the world of wine.
Chile is a remarkable country. 2,700 miles long and no more than 110 miles wide it is aptly described by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as “this strange sliver of geography”. From the dry and arid Atacama in the far north to the cold and glacial southern Antarctica the country has a smörgåsbord of microclimates and soils which it is only just beginning to understand fully in relation to grape growing and viticultural potential.
The Spanish conquistadors first brought vines to Chile in the 1550’s, but it was a Frenchman – and ex-pat Bordeaux-lais Claudio Gay – who established the first vine nursery in the 1820s. Historically Chile had focused on the local, workhorse black grape Pais and white Muscat, grown as much for the then national spirit drink of Chile – the aptly named Pisco. By the mid-18th century, the country had already established a reputation for its wines. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong leaning towards red wines and Bordeaux varieties, which is still prevalent today, with 75% of production being red wine. Local Don Silvestre Errázuriz also started importing French varietals and employed a French winemaker, so momentum built, and the foundation of the Chilean wine industry was defined.
Chile enjoys numerous natural, favourable advantages for grape growing and winemaking. Due to its geographical isolation most vines to this day are still grown on their own roots (most other vines in the world are grafted onto rootstocks to counteract the aggressive nematode pest Phylloxera). The Andes provide a natural and constant source of pure water. The cool Pacific helps to moderate the growing season – especially in the main viticultural Central belt – promoting extended ripening and more complex flavours in the grapes. There is an almost complete absence of pests and diseases, so the use of chemicals is kept to a minimum, making many of the vineyards naturally organic. The luminosity of sunlight in Chile is also notable aiding ripeness and purity of varietal expression. However, if you felt that this created a rather homogenous environment and wines, you would be mistaken.
The heartland of the winegrowing area is between latitudes 30 and 40° south, close to the capital Santiago. Here established regions such as Maipo and Rapel (with contains highly regarded sub appellations of Cachapoal and Colchagua) are sources of some of the finest (Bordeaux style) Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot red wines in Chile. However, regions to the north such as Aconcagua are challenging hard on the red front, with both Bordeaux varietals, but also the “home grown” ex Bordeaux varietal Carmenère. Some of Chile’s most prestigious and “cult” wines also originate here.
The Curicó and Maule Valleys have less history but have become large and important production areas – quality has been variable, but increasingly better wines are now coming out of both areas. This includes Chile’s local favourite again – Carmenère, but also increasingly individual and well-made old vine Carignan (especially in the Maule).
The leading cool(er) climate areas, to the north west, are Leyda and San Antonio Valleys (along with the already established Casablanca Valley). Here – with cooling on shore Pacific winds – refined Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays are made, and these areas are also seen as having great potential for Pinot Noir. However, leading producers such as Casas del Bosque and Matetic are also making some elegant Rhône styled reds for the Syrah grape. And watch out for new up and comings areas such as Bio Bio Valley (for aromatic whites) in the south and Limarí (both for whites such as Chardonnay and reds from Syrah) in the north.
But it is worth finishing with a few words more about Carmenère in the mix of grapes and styles which define Chile today.
This variety came over in the 19th century in the mixed bag of Bordeaux varieties, as it was then an important component in red Bordeaux. Along the way its identity got somewhat lost – or confused – in the vineyard plantings; so much so many believed they were growing, harvesting, and making Merlot. But it has a distinctly different aroma and flavour profile and I think good examples are the most individual of all reds made in the country. And it does work well with a lamb curry! On a final note (before looking at Wine Trust Chile recommendations) plantings of Carmenère are now increasing again in Bordeaux.
Wine Trust Recommendations
A nice mix of grapes regions and styles. Casas del Bosque are on particularly good form these days and they are establishing a strong reputation for some of the finest Syrah (Shiraz) in Chile. The Adobe Carmenère offers particularly good value for money and do try it with spicier dishes. Chile also has established a fine reputation for juicy, medium bodied and easy drinking Merlots and the Los Boldos example is typical of that style.