2 August 2014

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An introduction to Chilean wine


Chile is a fascinating wine region, capable of producing crisp, refreshing whites, and fruity, complex reds. Read on for our bluffer's guide to Chile

Chile - grape harvestHow long would you say Chile has been making wine? Twenty years? Forty? Fifty tops? Since the first grapes came out with the conquistadors, the answer is, in fact, close to 500 years. Admittedly, the new arrivals weren’t producing single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon – the grapes were for sacramental wine. But still, this country is hardly new to wine.

In the mid-19th century, some wealthy industrialists began to plant vineyards as a way of conferring on themselves some European status: industry might earn you money; a vineyard meant you knew how to spend it with style. Many of Chile’s best old wineries date from this era, with achingly beautiful estates and grand old houses.

French Connection

The key to Chile’s success wasn’t so much that these vineyards were planted at all, as what they were planted with. Keen to establish their aristocratic heritage, the wealthy santagueños ignored their Spanish heritage, instead bringing cuttings of noble grape varieties from France: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux; Chardonnay from Burgundy.

To say the grapes settled in well is an understatement. And if you were a Cabernet vine, used to struggling in the wind and rain of the Médoc, wouldn’t you love Chile? With eight months of unbroken sun a year and cooling breezes wafting from the Andes, it’s a climate to die for. Before long
a genuine wine industry was born.

Most of Chile’s vineyards – and certainly its oldest ones – are planted in its Central Valley: the middle strip of this super-long, super-thin country, between the Andes (to the east) and Pacific (to the west). The rivers that cross it laterally have given it the names of its most famous regions: Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, Maule and Bío Bío.

Wine Valley of Chile map

Chile’s Grape Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon: Chile’s flagship grape variety – in fact more is planted here than in Bordeaux. Deep cassis and black cherry flavours, often with a whiff of eucalyptus, and velvety tannins.
Key regions: Maipo, Aconcagua.

Carmenère: Chile’s distinctive red grape, originally from Bordeaux, is capable of making a wide variety of styles, from bright, red-fruited and Beaujolais-like, to deep, spicy and brooding. Soft tannins and a whiff of pepper make it a good bet with rogan josh. Key regions: Rapel.

Chardonnay: Something of a forgotten grape, despite being so widely planted. Casablanca style is lush tropical fruits with a zip of acidity. Curicó is gentler. Sol de Sol is one of the New World’s finest whites. Key regions: Casablanca, Curicó.

Merlot: Rich, plummy, mid-weight wines with softness and at times, a Pomerol-like intensity. Key regions: Colchagua, Rapel.

Pinot Noir: Three very distinct styles: the ripe, full-on style from Casablanca; silkier, more elegant versions from Leyda and San Antonio; and minerally semi-European wines from Bío Bío. Key regions: Casablanca, Bío Bío, Leyda, San Antonio.

Riesling: Plantings are tiny, but early results are hugely promising: taut and focused, yet also silky and effortless. One for the future: probably from San Antonio and Bío Bío.

Sauvignon Blanc: Chile’s biggest white variety. Coastal plantings are giving
thrilling, minerally wines. Key regions: Casablanca, Curicó, coastal Aconcagua, San Antonio, Leyda.

Syrah: For many, the most exciting grape in Chile. It’s making startlingly elegant wines in the cooler-climate regions, and big, gutsy powerhouses in Colchagua.
Key regions: San Antonio, Limarí, Aconcagua, Colchagua.


Chile 1 - Chilean_vines_in_winter_SMALL.jpgChardonnay from Limarí:

When planted in the coolest, westerly part of Limarí, grown over calcium-rich subsoils, Chardonnay can be made in a style that majors on structure and firm acid backbone as well as ripe, rich fruit.

Coastal Syrah:

Both San Antonio and coastal Casablanca are demonstrating that the right clones of Syrah grown in granitic soils close to the coast can produce wines of startling intensity but also great elegance and complexity, with elements of a northern Rhône style. 

San Antonio Sauvignon Blanc

Close to the coast, frequent cloud cover and cool afternoon breezes extend the season for Sauvignon, meaning winemakers can pick later but with good acidity, making for a rich but structured style that can match well with a range of foods.

Cabernet from the Andes foothills

Winemakers are pushing up into the Andes in order to find not only cooler conditions but also well-drained alluvial terrace soils that give balance and finesse in the wines.

Pinot Noir from Bío Bío

Due to huge improvements in its viticulture, Pinot is starting to thrive in many areas around the country. Bío Bío is just one – a cooler, damper part of the country in the south, where it can give ripe but fresh fruits and a firm tannic structure.

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