Treasures of Chile

With a surprisingly long winemaking history, Chile is now starting to explore exciting new cool-climate regions. Chris Losh unearths some real gems

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.

New Ambitions chile9.png9.png

For most of the 20th century the industry was happy to make wine for the home market in an oaky, oxidised style (a bit like old Rioja) that the Chileans liked. Then, from the mid-1980s on, the focus switched to exports. The wines had to change. Out went old barrels and tired flavours, in came modern winemaking and new French oak.

You might be able to remember the first time you tried Chilean wine: the silky fruit, the soft tannins, the vibrant colour – and the competitive price. The country’s wines blitzed the UK, selling millions of bottles and launching thousands of dinner parties. But the winemakers wanted more. It was great making wines that were soft, ripe and lush. But how about something edgier and more complex that could compete with some of the greatest wines in the world?

It was soon evident that the answer lay in the vineyards: sites that were cooler, where the grapes would take longer to ripen and flavours could develop slowly. To find ‘cool’ in Chile you need to head either south towards Patagonia’s glaciers, east up into the foothills of the Andes, or west towards the Pacific. Paradoxically, you can also head north towards the Atacama Desert.

The foothills of the Andes are proving a great place for producing high-quality, elegant reds, but arguably, the most exciting factor in Chile happens if you go west. The Pacific is wetsuit-cold, and acts like a giant air-conditioning system. Vineyards in Casablanca are surrounded by fog until midday and cool down rapidly at night. They allow for quality white wine production, particularly for Sauvignon Blanc, giving wines of aromatic intensity and freshness.

Leyda and San Antonio are two new coastal areas already making superb Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and even Gewurztraminer. And remember these are still young regions. As the vines get older, the wines will get even better.The far north shows similar promise. Despite being practically desert, the western edges of Elqui and Limarí can make top-quality European-style Syrahs and Chardonnays.

These new areas are making some of the most exciting wines, not just in Chile, but anywhere in the world. Despite its almost 500 years of history, in many ways the story of Chilean wine has only just begun.

These new areas are making some of the most exciting wines, not just in Chile, but anywhere in the world

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.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Restaurants & Bars Guide 2009