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Flying winemakers and its varied terroir are just two of the factors behind Chile’s growing success in the global wine market. Sarah Jane Evans MW reports
When life in the Square Mile gets too much, it’s good to speculate on what you might do next. One of my top choices would be to live in Chile and work as a winemaker.
Chile seems to have it all. There’s the ocean – mile upon mile of it – for cooling off in the summer. There are the Andes – mile upon mile of them – for winter sports. And between them runs the world’s longest country, starting with the highest desert in the north and running down to the glaciers and the Antarctic in the south. The Chileans are charming, and it’s a prosperous country, rated number one in Latin America in terms of global competitiveness.
Then there are the vineyards. The Spaniards brought vines here when they conquered the native peoples back in the 1540s and planted the PaÍs grape for communion wine. The Church took this grape all the way up into California for the same reason – where it was known as the Mission. From this narrow focus half a millennium ago, Chile has more recently launched itself on to the global wine scene.
The Central Valley and Casablanca were the best-known regions in the early years, and Cabernet Sauvignons, cheerful but cheap Sauvignon Blancs, Merlots and Chardonnays the most widely produced wines. Frankly, though, Chile was like a rather dull relative – good company, safe, sensible, solid. In the past five years, however, sommeliers and retailers have started to talk confidently about a portfolio of grape varieties. Among the reds are Carmenère – for over a century confused with Merlot – Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Carignan and the Italian varieties Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, while the whites include Semillon, Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.
But it is where the grapes are grown that makes the real difference – what the French call terroir – and Chile certainly has plenty of it. This long, narrow country is crossed horizontally by a series of valleys, each of which has its own microclimate, soil type and slopes with exposure to the sun at different times of day.
Starting in the north, the first valleys to seek out are Elqui and Limarí. Regions formerly known for Pisco production, these are proving great places for winemaking, because of the extremes of temperature day to night. Below them is Aconcagua, named after the Aconcagua mountain, the highest in the Americas at 6,959m. It is a particularly good region for red grape varieties. Then comes the Casablanca Valley, which runs down from Santiago west towards the coast and made its name for its Chardonnays. At the tip of the Casablanca Valley, on the coast, San Antonio, Leyda and Lo Abarca all produce wines with a blast of coastal freshness. Look out for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, much as you would in New Zealand.
The Central Valley is a huge region, taking in most of Chile’s wine production. It includes Maipo, one of the traditional zones, in the suburbs of Santiago. New investment is piling into Apalta, a classy sub-region of Colchagua good for smart reds, while on the coastal tip of Maule there is a new development in virgin territory called Empedrado, which may prove a successful site for reds. Spanish producer Torres is planting Grenache, Tempranillo, Merlot and Syrah vines on schist, a rock typically found in Priorato in Spain and the Douro Valley in Portugal. Finally, in the south, there is plenty of new planting in Itata, Bío-Bío and Malleco, with Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and some Gewurztraminer too.
Great wines come from great vineyards, with the right combination of climate and soil, but the human influence is also important. That’s why there’s a whole industry of experts, including the ‘flying winemakers’ who travel around the world from client to client. Their task is to accelerate the learning of the team in the winery, and to draw on their international experience to make the best wines possible. Using consultants is one way of establishing a successful vineyard rapidly.
An interesting case in point is Ventisquero, which was established only a decade ago, with vineyards in Casablanca, Maipo, Colchagua, Apalta and Lolol. It is now one of the top 10 suppliers of Chilean wines to the UK and was the first winery in Chile to offset the CO2 emissions of its wine transportation. One of the reasons for this rapid success was Aurelio Montes (who has his own well-known brand, Montes), a godfather of Chilean wine. Montes advised Ventisquero’s owners on where to plant their vines, and what to plant, and he remains a benign influence. Says Felipe Tosso, the articulate and passionate chief winemaker: ‘Once a month we still talk about the business. Aurelio is always in the background.’
Tosso has also established a fruitful relationship with one of the big names of Australian wine, John Duval. A winemaker at Penfold’s for 29 years, Duval finished his career there as the winemaker of Australia’s iconic red, Grange. So how did one of Chile’s leading young winemakers build a relationship with one of Australia’s senior stars? ‘There are 20 years between us – I could be his son – but it’s a relationship of two friends; we breakfast together at weekends,’ explains Tosso. It’s also a very practical relationship: ‘John has a great palate and we spend our time tasting. We’re very intuitive winemakers, so we talk a lot.’
Duval came to Ventisquero to focus on Syrah/Shiraz, since this was his speciality in Australia. The first wine he helped to produce was the company’s flagship Pangea, made from Syrah from Apalta with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon for extra complexity. Aged in French oak barrels for 18 months, then in bottle for a further year, this is a wine made for the long haul – up to 10 years or more. Vertice is the latest joint collaboration. Sitting just beneath Pangea, this is a blend of Carmenère, Chile’s keynote red, with Syrah from Apalta. It’s a succulent and silky wine with blackberry spice fruit. There may have been an Australian involved, but these wines, as intended, are an expression of Chile.
Projects like this explain why it’s such a great time to be a winemaker in Chile. The mix of local enthusiasm, international expertise, new technology and established observation is producing wines that can rightfully take their place in the wine world. What makes it even more exciting is that many of the vines producing Chile’s award-winning wines are so young. Give them time and the wines will become even more complex and subtle.
Visit the Wines of Chile website.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008