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Chile’s winemakers are deserting the comfort zone of the Central Valley in favour of cooler, more difficult vineyard sites. And all in the name of elegance. Peter Richards reports
At a ski-resort restaurant high in the Chilean Andes a few years ago, over a well-presented meal that included lobster bisque and turbot, former Chilean chef-of-the-year Rodrigo Tapia summed up to me what he saw as the current state of Chilean gastronomy.
‘We don’t have an identity yet, or what you might call a 100% Chilean cuisine. But what we do have is fantastic fresh produce and seafood as well as an increasing number of open-minded chefs who have started to travel. We need to start a process of reinvention. We need to create this identity.’
He might just as well have been talking about Chilean wine and winemakers. The process of reinvention and creation of a recognisable identity has been at the forefront of the Chilean agenda for a good while now, ever since the mid-1990s when a planting boom spread Chile’s vineyard into new regions that are now producing challenging, individual styles of wine often made from non-traditional varieties.
The key to this expansion of diversity in Chilean wine has been the move away from the easy viticulture of the Central Valley, where the often warm and fertile conditions are fine for everyday wine but not much else. Instead, forward-looking Chilean wineries have targeted the country’s extremities, pushing vineyards into the north (temperate desert), the east (Andes foothills), the west (coastal range), and the south (forest heartlands) in the search for terroir-driven wines with their own sense of identity.
One of the most notable successes of this recent trend has been the region of San Antonio. Although a late starter (the region was only planted to vines for the first time in 1998), this coastal region took Casablanca’s example and went one step further, planting as close as 4km from the cool Pacific Ocean on clay and granite soils.
Its first hit happened with Sauvignon Blanc, made in a distinctive, groundbreaking style for the country: rich but structured, with ripe fruit but also a herbal, vegetal intensity and aromas of roast grapefruit, anis and warm stone. Then came Pinot Noir, with impressive elegance as well as ripe dark fruits, and Syrah, warm but sophisticated, with distinct elements of a northern Rhône style to it.
Work remains ongoing in the region, partly to refine these wines but also to expand the repertoire – the likes of Sauvignon Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Malbec and Cabernet Franc have all been planted recently and are now starting to come on stream, with impressive results.
The move into coastal territory, to take advantage both of the cooler conditions and also the soils, which are both poorer and more complex than those found in the Central Valley, has taken place in many areas of the Chilean wine country.
One good example of this is Colchagua, one of Chile’s warmest and most traditional wine regions, where the staple was for warm, rustic styles of red made in the flat mid-valley. This is now changing as the west of the region is being rapidly colonised by the vine, in areas like Lolol and Marchihue (also spelt Marchigüe and pronounced Mar-chee-way). Here, in the bright, warm, blustery conditions, yields are kept low and the styles of reds beginning to emerge seem to have a definite ripeness but also a sleekness to them that bodes well.
Beyond this, there are many coastal vineyard projects in development that should start to deliver fruit within the next few years, and which will be well worth keeping an eye on. Torres’ Empedrado vineyard in Maule on schist soils (they are already comparing it to Priorato) looks set to produce some ground-breaking reds, while Errázuriz’s new Chilhué/Manzanares vineyard in coastal Aconcagua promises to create a new dimension in this region’s white wine offering.
Limarí is another northern region that has also been taking advantage of the cooling coastal influence. In the past, this was an area known primarily for pisco (grape brandy), peyote and little else, but since people started planting vines in the cooler, westerly part of the region in the 1990s, the quality has become apparent, especially for Chardonnay and Syrah, both made in a ripe style but also with good natural acidity.
Both Limarí and Elqui lie in Chile’s far northern wine territory, in what are the fringes of the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest places. However, it helps not to think of a desert as in Sahara-type heat and sand; in this case, the extreme dryness is the key, while the temperatures, especially in more coastal regions, can be very temperate. Regularly clear conditions help with the health of the vineyard and give winemakers a rare control over production. Syrah, made in a meaty, restrained style, is currently the star of the show from Elqui.
At the other end of the spectrum, in Chile’s deep south wine country, both Bío Bío and Malleco are two regions that benefit from slightly cooler, quite continental conditions to make a more understated, mineral style of wine.
Both have really only been developed for fine wine in the last decade and yet both are displaying considerable promise. The Chardonnay from Malleco (SoldeSol is its sole producer to date) is steely and structured, with racy acidity, and producer Felipe de Solminihac is now planting Pinot Noir.
Bío Bío has shown itself apt for the production of everything from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, the latter two performing especially well in the hands of Cono Sur’s winemaker Adolfo Hurtado. The region tends to offer perhaps less aromatic power in these varieties than other areas but a broad mouthfeel and fine texture.
Finally, progress is also being made in exploring the eastern, Andean side of the country in what are more continental conditions. Hitherto, the low foothills have served the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon well, made in an elegant, but full style. But now the likes of Syrah, Pinot and even Chardonnay are showing potential, especially in higher altitude sites where temperatures are lower and day/night fluctuations are marked, giving wines with a rich edge but crisp acidity.
As Chile increasingly explores its extremities, there is no doubt that its wines are becoming more individual and interesting to drink, as well as more apt to sit on the restaurant table. And one thing is certain: as the process continues, there will be more to come.
Further information on Chile and its vineyards can be found on the Wines of Chile website,
Peter Richards is the author of The Wines of Chile, Mitchell Beazley
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The north dry, sunny, temperate conditions give ripe but balanced fruit.
The west sunny days tempered by cool, often cloudy mornings give wines with good acidity but also good ripeness.
The east the Andes foothills offer some of Chile’s most continental climates, with big day/night temperature swings, making for fleshy but fresh wines with full body.
The south generally cooler and damper than other wine regions, but also with a continental-style climate, so both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay work well here.
Four ‘edgy’ Gold Medal winners from the 4th Annual Wines of Chile Awards, January 2007
Casas del Bosque Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2006 – plus Best in Show trophy – Coastal Casablanca £5.25, Myliko Wines, 0161 736 9500
Viña Leyda Garuma Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2006, San Antonio £6.35, Great Western Wines, 01225 322813
Loma Larga Syrah BK-BL 2005, Coastal Casablanca £10.29, Justerini & Brooks, 020 7484 6400
Viña Haras de Pirque Character Syrah 2004, Alto Maipo £10.00, Friarwood, 020 7736 2628
The first of its kind, a wine eked out of the stony, mountainous recesses of the Choapa Valley, which lies between Aconcagua and Limarí. It is made near the town of Salamanca, which is famed in Chile for being the centre of witchcraft. £5.58, Paragon Vintners, 020 7887 1800
Italian winemaker Giorgio Flessati has been experimenting with his Carmenère. In order to make this full, meaty version he called on his Italian heritage and used a percentage of dried grapes to the mix to lend a ripasso touch to the wine. £7.90, Great Western Wines, 01225 322813
Apart from being a candidate for the longest wine name, this wine stands out for being an eclectic and innovative blend, as well as organic. £5.74, Vintage Roots, 0118 976 1999
The mere thought of poorly-made oaked Sauvignon can often be enough to send wine lovers running for cover, but this is a rich and elegant style in the mould of the best Bordeaux dry whites. £11.59, Paragon Vintners, as above
All prices quoted are single bottle, ex-VAT
Visit the Wines of Chile website.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine September/October 2007