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There have been vineyards in Chile since the 16th century, but as new regions are being planted and cool-climate styles are emerging, Chris Losh argues that now is the perfect time to discover more about the country’s wines
A trivia question for you to try out on guests at your next dinner party – preferably with money at stake: how long do you reckon Chile has been producing wine? If you guess 20, 30 or even 50 years you’d be way out. The first vines came over with the conquistadors, so the answer is more than 450 years.
Admittedly, this was mainly for making altar wine – and most of it would have tested the faith of even the most devout Catholic. But even if you’re talking ‘good quality wine’, the country’s history is a lot longer than you’d think, with cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay et al appearing in the country 150 years ago, and settling in like they’d found nirvana.
Which in a sense they had. Because Chile is just about the most perfect place on the planet to grow grapes. For nine months of the year there is next to no rain, but, while it’s reliably warm, it’s rarely too hot. No wonder the organic and biodynamic movements are growing in influence. After all, if you’re going to make wine with minimal human intervention and next to nothing in the way of artificial interference, you might as well do it in a climate that gives you all the help it can, rather than somewhere that’s cold, wet and European.
The key to Chile, though, is not just that it’s got ridiculously good weather, but also the frankly rather quirky shape of the country. Chile is shaped, well, like a chilli. It’s about as wide as Wales, but 4,300km long. If it were in the northern hemisphere it would stretch, more or less, from Stockholm to the Sudan.
This is great for tourists. Massive coastline? Check. Imposing 20,000ft-high mountain range? Check. Desert? Check. Penguins? Check. Glaciers? Check.
But it’s also ridiculously, amazingly good news for vines. Why? Because in a country with such an extraordinary variety of geography, and covering so many different climates, the options for grape-growing are enormous. Most of the first grapes were planted in the Central Valley, where it’s very, very easy to get grapes ripe. But if you want wines of real character, it helps to look for cooler, more marginal climates, where the grapes have to struggle a bit.
To get this marginality, you can go to higher altitudes, or nearer the sea, or to an inherently cooler area. And, since they have options in abundance, Chile’s winemakers are doing all of these things. New vineyards are springing up all over the country, often in places that were previously thought too cold to grow grapes. They’re driving the winemaking forward with wines of real character, and in the process they’re making people reconsider what they thought they knew about the place.
‘Things don’t usually change fast in the wine world, but they are in Chile’
For instance, while everyone knows Chile for its silky Cabernets, some of the most exciting wines now are Syrahs. Often grown in these cooler areas, they hover stylistically between lush Aussie Shiraz and the spicy minerality of the Rhône. Those from the Elqui Valley (a small valley way up north with the air of a spaghetti western set about it) are particularly exciting – wines of ripeness, poise and elegance with fabulous powdery tannins.
From the San Antonio valley, only 5km from the giant air-conditioning system of the Pacific, the Syrahs are feminine, delicate and aromatic – all floral perfume and winsome juiciness. This really is a grape worth exploring.
It’s not just ‘new’ varieties, either. Chardonnay has been reborn in the new cooler areas. Best of the lot is the Limarí Valley, where the elegant minerality of the wines has fooled experts into thinking that they are top class Burgundy; the sub-£20 price is the only give-away. Riesling, meanwhile, is finding the cooler, damper Bío Bío region much to its liking, giving zingy wines of purity and elegance.
Having so many geographical arrows in its quiver is allowing Chile to hit a wide variety of targets. Things don’t usually change fast in the wine world, but they are in Chile. If you thought you knew this place and its wines, you should think again...
Carmenère is Chile’s point of difference. Nowhere else has this grape been planted in such abundance. And since it’s, frankly, such a pain to grow, that’s not hard to understand why. It requires no encouragement to cause winemakers heart attacks at any point in its life cycle, not least because it ripens suicidally late. Even in Chile’s A+ climate, this can cause problems.
Flavour-wise, it’s a mix of dark fruit, spices, chocolate and a hint of green pepper, all wrapped up in a silky mouth-feel that’s low on tannin. Put all this together and you have a wine that’s almost tailor made for that hardest food-match of all: curry.
A recent tasting with a panel of top sommeliers in London found that almost every style of Carmenère went with every kind of curry, from chicken tikka to lamb rogan josh. Certainly, it was a better across-the-board match than any other wine style would have been.
So next time you’re ordering a take-away, leave the lager in the fridge and uncork a Chilean Carmenère!
Main Photo: www.mattwilson.cl