The Wines of Chile

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The geese return from a morning’s work in the Koyle vineyards, Colchagua

The Spanish introduced the vine into their South American dominions in the 16th century, principally to provide for the Eucharist and, through the Eucharist, to bind natives to colonists. In 1524, conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered every landholder in New Spain to grow grapes; and, after the defeat of the Incas in 1531, the vine spread south into the newly created Viceroyalty of Peru. In 1554, Diego García de Cáceres planted the first vineyards in Santiago, and, by the end of the century, the vine had reached as far south as the Bío-Bío river. Franciscan, Dominican, and Jesuit missionaries played an important part in developing viticulture, and the grape variety that Cortés had brought from Spain came to be known as Mission (matched in 2006 to Listán Negro of the Canary Islands). Under the names of País in Chile and Criolla Chica in Argentina, the hardy and high-yielding Mission dominated the continent’s wine industry for the next four centuries. Indeed, it is only in recent years that Cabernet Sauvignon has displaced País as the most planted variety in Chile.

By 1641, Peru was producing so much wine that Spain restricted production in its colonies. This decree all but wiped out the Peruvian wine industry, although in Chile it was largely ignored. Chilean wine could be made more cheaply than Spanish wine, which served the territory well until the 19th century when consumers became more quality-conscious. The arrival in Santiago of French naturalist Claude Gay in 1828 led to a change in focus to quality wine. Gay petitioned the Chilean government to establish the Quinta Normal, which became a repository for all manner of plant species, including Vitis vinifera. French winemakers immigrating to Chile in the wake of phylloxera discovered not only a land free of disease but also a rich catalogue of European vine cuttings. These cuttings ultimately ensured the preservation of Carménère, indigenous to Bordeaux but almost entirely killed off by phylloxera. In 1851, the industrialist Don Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta returned to Chile with some choice cuttings from Bordeaux and established the seminal Ochagavía winery in the Maipo Valley.

Despite increasing taxation, the Chilean wine industry prospered until, in the 1970s, domestic consumption collapsed under the autocratic Pinochet regime. A vine pull scheme obliterated half of Chile’s vineyards, and the country’s wine industry only began to recover in the late 1980s after the restoration of a free market economy. In 1979, Miguel Torres of Penedès, Spain established a Chilean venture, introducing state-of-the-art methods such as temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel tanks. Producers and investors followed in his lead, shifting their focus to quality wine for the export market. In 2004, Eduardo Chadwick of Viña Errázuriz organised a historical blind tasting, known as the ‘Berlin tasting’, of 16 top Chilean, Bordeaux, and Super-Tuscan wines from the 2000 and 2001 vintages. Viñedo Chadwick 2000 and Seña 2001 placed first and second, ahead of Château Lafite 2000. Today, Chile exports up to 70% of its annual production, a greater proportion than any other country. The practice of buying grapes from small and larger holders remains very common, and, generally speaking, the concept of terroir is much fuzzier than in Europe. The price of grapes is influenced by Concha y Toro, South America’s largest wine producer. Happily, change is afoot. Founded in 2009 as a reaction to commodity wines, the Movement of Independent Vintners (MOVI) is bringing diversity and personality to the Chilean offering. In the same vein, VIGNO (Vignadores de Carignan) is rehabilitating Maule’s dry-farmed old vine Carignan, and has been hailed as the first European-style Chilean appellation.

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Centenarian vines in Maule. Hello Cesar!

The lie of the land

Chile extends over 4,300km from north to south, but only, at most, 240km from east to west. It is enclosed by the Andes to the east, by the Pacific Ocean to the west, by the Atacama Desert to the north, and to the south by the Southern Ocean. Its vineyards exist in a state of splendid isolation, untouched, or at least unaffected, by phylloxera and several other pests. The cold Humboldt Current exerts a marked influence on the climate, which is cooler than the latitude range suggests. Morning mists from the Pacific and afternoon onshore breezes exert an additional cooling effect. I remember driving for an hour, at around midday, from Colchagua Valley across the Cordillera to Punta de Lobo in Pichilemu while the temperature dropped from 32 to 21.5 degrees. (So in Chile, you literally go to the beach to chill out.) The shifting terrain harbours a diversity of mesoclimates, and high levels of sunshine combined with high diurnal temperature variation yield grapes with intense colours and bright fruit flavours. The air is also quite dry, making it a paradise for wine- and holiday-makers alike. In the absence of phylloxera, vinifera rootstocks can be maintained, although some producers prefer to graft their vines onto American rootstocks as insurance or to defend against nematodes. The cooler coastal sites are susceptible to frost, but the main threat to the harvest is the El Niño weather system, which, every few years, brings rainfall in the middle of the growing season. La Niña, the reverse or inverse of El Niño, can also pose a problem in the form of drought and bush fires.

Chile’s 130,000ha of vines are concentrated in the Central Valley region extending south from Santiago, although regions to the north have become increasingly important. The Central Valley lies between the Andes to the east and the lower Coastal range (Cordillera de la Costa) to the west. The Coastal range shelters the valley from the brunt of the cool sea mists, and, as a result, the climate in the valley is Mediterranean. Maritime air that does filter through meets with cold air nightly descending from the Andes, leading to a very large diurnal temperature range, in summer, from about 32 degrees in mid-afternoon to about 14 degrees late at night. Rainfall is concentrated in the winter, while the summers are even drier than in the Mediterranean, with sunshine pretty much all day every day. Irrigation is common, and necessary in many areas, with snowmelt from the Andes channelled into furrows. Drip irrigation is preferred for newer sites, and is becoming the norm. Compared to the slopes, the valley floor is warmer and more fertile, yielding fuller wines with riper fruit and softer acidity. To the east, in the foothills of the Andes, volcanic soils and a more continental climate make for crisper and finer wines. To the west, on the granitic slopes of the Coastal range, the vineyards are generally lower. The Pacific breezes bypass certain sites in the Coastal range, creating hot conditions suitable only for the production of full-bodied red wines. Some of Chile’s newest and most exciting vineyards are on the windward side of the Coastal range. The climate here is distinctly cool and maritime, and better suited to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and aromatic white varieties.

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© Acheron Press/Neel Burton

Regions

The most recent revision of Chile’s wine regions conserves the traditional names of six regions organized by latitude. These regions are divided into sub-regions or ‘valleys’, each with one or more of three designations according to whether they are on the coast (Costa), in the Coastal range or valley plateau (Cordilleras), or in the Andes (Andes). Sub-regions may be further divided into zones or ‘sub-valleys’, the most important of which are in the historic sub-regions of the Central Valley region and San Antonio Valley in the Aconcagua region. The most northerly region, Atacama (Huasco and Copiapó Valleys), traditionally grows grapes for pisco (brandy, the signature cocktail of Chile and Peru is pisco sour) and table grapes; while the most southerly region, Austral (Cautin and Osorno Valleys), mostly consists of new, experimental vineyards. This leaves us with four regions to discuss: Central Valley, Aconcagua, Coquimbo, and South.

Central Valley

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Caliterra in Colchagua

Chile’s most important wine region consists of four sub-regions, from north to south, Maipo, Rapel (Colchagua and Cachapoal), Curicó, and Maule. This last alone accounts for almost half of Chile’s export wines. With the exception of Maipo near Santiago, all the sub-regions contain coastal, cordilleras, and Andean designations.

In the 19th century, under the influence of Echazarreta, an emerging class of gentlemen industrialists established wineries on their summer estates on the outskirts of Santiago. Today, Santiago is the only capital city with vineyards within its perimeter, even if most of Maipo’s ~12,000ha are in the Andean foothills and on the valley plateau. Despite the predominantly clay soils, Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for more than half of plantings, and thrives on the higher sites of the Andean foothills, the Alto Maipo, with its poorer soils and cooling afternoon breezes. Other black varieties include Merlot, Carménère, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Bordeaux-style blends are common, as indeed are varietal wines. There are also sizeable plantings of Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, with the white varieties finding favour in the small part of Maipo that is near the coast. Puente Alto in Maipo is home to Concha y Toro’s iconic Don Melchor vineyard; Almaviva, a joint venture between Concha y Toro and Philippe de Rothschild; and, last but not least, Viñedo Chadwick, which belongs to Viña Errázuriz.

Further south, Rapel contains the large and warm Cachapoal Valley and Colchagua Valley zones. Cachapoal is the smaller, with over a third of its 10,000ha given to Cabernet Sauvignon. The best sites are in the Andean foothills. To the west, in the Coastal range, the climate is warmer and better suited to Carménère and Syrah. Further west, in the coastal areas, there are sizeable plantings of Sauvignon Blanc. Colchagua too is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up more than 10,000ha of the ~25,000ha under vine. As in Cachapoal, Carménère is gaining ground against Merlot. Also important are Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Colchagua boasts many long-established wineries and a number of foreign investors such as the Marnier Lapostolle family (Lapostolle), the Lafite branch of the Rothschild family (Los Vascos), and François Lurton (Hacienda Araucano). It is also home to one of Chile’s most hallowed terroirs, the Apalta, a group of hills arranged in a natural amphitheatre on the banks of the Tinguiririca river. The Neyen family first planted Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon on the stony and free-draining soils of the Apalta in 1890, and to this day are making wine from those vines. According to Wine Spectator, Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta 2005 was the best wine in the world in 2008.

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View of the Apalta from Clos Apalta

Vines have been cultivated in Curicó since the 19th century, and the region developed an international standing after Miguel Torres moved in. Curicó derives from Kureko, an indigenous term meaning ‘land of black water’, and the soils are predominantly alluvial. Summer days can be very hot, but nights are bathed in cool Andean air. Of the 13,500ha under vine, ~4,000ha are given to Cabernet Sauvignon and ~3,500ha to Sauvignon Blanc. Curicó is still in a state of flux, with old vines, mostly of País, being replaced by superior varieties.

With ~32,000ha under vine, Maule is Chile’s largest sub-region by far. Owing to its more southerly latitude, it is cooler and cloudier than the rest of the Central Valley, enabling some vines to be dry-farmed. As in Curicó, País is being replaced by superior varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Syrah, and there are also significant plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Carménère. Maule is gradually shaking off its reputation as a bulk producer. Old dry-farmed bush vines, especially of Carignan, are being rehabilitated, and attract something of a cult following.

Aconcagua

The Aconcagua region counts three valleys: Aconcagua, Casablanca, and San Antonio. Aconcagua Valley sits in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. The interior has been producing quality red wine for over 150 years. Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, are traditional, while Syrah and Pinot Noir are much more recent introductions. Viña Errázuriz, established in 1870, in Panquehue is the region’s most recognized producer, and it was Eduardo Chadwick who, in the early 1990s, first introduced Syrah to Chile. Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have been taking off on the coast, and white varieties currently account for ~20% of Aconcagua’s ~1,000ha.

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Viña Errázuriz

Casablanca and San Antonio are exclusively coastal. Casablanca, to the west of Santiago, was planted in the mid-1980s with Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. However, the relatively cool climate is better suited to white varieties, which, led by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, have come to dominate the sub-region’s ~6,000ha. Meanwhile, Pinot Noir, also at home in this cool climate, has overtaken the other black varieties. Unusually, there is no river to tap, and irrigation water has to be obtained from boreholes. Drip irrigation is common, supplemented by dew from morning mists. Many wineries in Casablanca source fruit for red wine from the nearby Central Valley.

San Antonio, immediately to the south of Casablanca, is newer and smaller, with just over 1,700ha under vine. The climate is similar to that in Casablanca, albeit drier. Sauvignon Blanc is dominant, and there are also significant plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The sub-region’s most exciting zone is Leyda Valley, a mere 12km from the coast.

Coquimbo

The Coquimbo region is roughly centred on La Serena, Chile’s second oldest city. Its three disparate valleys are, from north to south, Elqui, Limarí, and Choapa. Elqui and Limarí have both coastal and Andean designations, Choapa only Andean. On the whole, the region is hot and very dry, with no more than 100mm annual rainfall. Drought has been a major problem in recent years, with some vineyards being ‘left to die’. Quality vineyards tend to be located at altitude in the Andes or facing the Pacific in the coastal area.

The 300ha of Elqui Valley are close to the southern border of the Atacama Desert, a great place for stargazing. While the valley floor is best suited to tropical fruits and table grapes, coastal and high altitude (up to 2,000m) vineyards can yield relatively cool climate expressions. The most commonly planted varieties are Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Carménère, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Only in the 1990s did attention turn to the cool Pacific coast of Limarí, with its significant limestone deposits, as an area for quality Chardonnay. Today, Chardonnay accounts for more than one-third of the ~1,800ha of Limarí, a success that it shares with Sauvignon Blanc. Further inland, sizeable plantings of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon bear witness to Limarí’s history as a red wine producer.

Choapa Valley is at Chile’s narrowest point. For now, Choapa counts little more than a few select plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

South

The Coastal range is less prominent in the South region, leading to a stronger Pacific influence. The climate is cooler and wetter, making irrigation unnecessary. Annual rainfall averages 1,300mm in some parts, even if most of this falls in winter. The three sub-regions are Itata, Bío-Bío, and Malleco. The vine first reached the port of Concepción in Itata in the 16th century. Today, the ~11,000ha under vine are mostly planted with País and Muscat of Alexandria. There are smaller plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, and Carignan, which can make for interesting wines. Like Itata, Bío-Bío, on the northern banks of the Renaico river, is in a period of transformation, with País, Muscat, and Cabernet Sauvignon being replaced with varieties better suited to the cool, wet climate, most notably Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer. Currently, there are 835ha under vine, which is significantly more than the 17ha in Malleco, 640km south of Santiago.

Wine styles

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Four types of ceviche

Chile is South America’s second largest wine producer after Argentina, but arguably enjoys the greater reputation on the export market. Black varieties account for over three-quarters of the country’s plantings. Cabernet Sauvignon makes up ~35% of plantings, followed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc at ~12% each. In the 1990s, it came to light that much Chilean ‘Merlot’ was in fact Carménère, which must have made blind tasting even harder than usual! Winemakers have since shifted their focus from Merlot to Carménère, which, in Chile, tends to outperform Merlot, and which also has the advantage of being a signature varietal along the lines of Argentina’s Malbec, Uruguay’s Tannat, and South Africa’s Pinotage (although this can lead people to associate Chile with little more than Carménère). Bordeaux varieties, whether as blends or varietal wines, make up the core of Chile’s exports, although white varieties are increasingly popular as are Syrah and Pinot Noir.

Chile looks to France not only for its Bordeaux-style blends, but also for its cool climate Chardonnay and Alsatian-style aromatic wines. For Sauvignon Blanc, it treads a line between the restraint of the Loire and the pungency of Marlborough. At the same time, the USA is its important market (followed by the UK), and it is increasingly turning towards UC Davis for expertise. Although traditional winemaking techniques such as bâtonnage, pigeage, and maturation in French oak are common, Chile is not hampered by tradition and boasts one of the most modern ensembles of winemaking equipment in the world.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the past, present, and, for some time to come, the future of Chilean fine wine. The best examples come from Maipo, Rapel, and Aconcagua. Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is deep purple with aromas of fresh cassis and, often, a signature herbaceous note. Top examples are aged in French oak, adding notes of cedar, vanilla, and toast. Cool nights lead to crisp acidity, and warm days to higher alcohol and riper, softer tannins than Bordeaux. Legally, a wine need contain only 75% of the variety on the label, and many Chilean ‘Cabs’ contain other, usually Bordeaux, varieties.

Carménère is a challenge for the grower. As it is highly vigorous, it needs to be planted on very poor soil. It also ripens late, by which stage acidity may be dropping. Producers can harvest early to preserve acidity, but at risk of overly herbaceous notes; or they can wait until full ripeness, but at the risk of a flabby and jammy wine. The best producers find the optimal balance, making a wine that is deep ruby in colour with notes of cherry, blueberry, spice, black pepper, green pepper, and tobacco. On the palate, acidity is low, alcohol high, and tannins soft and silky. Cabernet Sauvignon is often co-opted for extra acidity and tannin structure, and field blends with Merlot remain common. Most Carménère plantings are in Rapel, with some of the best examples coming from Peumo Valley in Cachapoal.

The valley floors on which most Merlot is planted are often too hot, and Merlot’s natural roots do not dig deep enough to sustain the vine through dry spells. Moreover, excess sunshine can burn and shrivel the grapes, leading to a raisined aroma profile and harsh tannins. Solutions include seeking out more suitable sites and grafting onto deeper-rooting rootstocks. Some of the best examples of Chilean Merlot come from Maipo and Colchagua. Compared to Merlot-dominated Bordeaux blends, Chilean Merlot is deeper in colour with notes of ripe plum, cherry, currants, chocolate, and mint. The minty note is similar to the herbaceous note often found in Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère, and may come from nearby garrigue and eucalyptus. On the palate, the wine is full-bodied with high alcohol, balanced acidity (though often adjusted), and soft and silky tannins that are not, however, without grip.

Introduced as recently as 1993 and accounting for less than 3% of plantings, Syrah has become Chile’s most exciting black variety. The best sites for Syrah have turned out to be in cooler regions, with the high altitude vineyards of Elqui and the coastal vineyards of Casablanca and San Antonio yielding medium-bodied, fragrant, meaty, and peppery Rhône-style wines. Warmer sites such as Maipo and Apalta in Colchagua produce a rounded style with more intense blackberry. Overall, the style is much more reminiscent of French Syrah than Australian Shiraz; but the wines are deeper in colour, often with a characteristic smokiness or herbaceousness.

Pinot Noir is still finding its feet in Chile, and already proving successful in certain cool coastal sites. Owing to the high sunshine, Chilean Pinot Noir can be deep purple in colour and, in some cases, overly alcoholic, although there are also many lighter, more delicate examples. The aroma profile leans towards cherry and black fruits, often with chocolate and herbaceous notes. Good Chilean Pinot Noir can sing and dance, but still lacks the length and complexity of Pinot Noir from Côte de Nuits or Martinborough.

The cool climate expression of Chardonnay from Limarí, Casablanca, and San Antonio (especially Leyda) is fast becoming Chile’s signature style of Chardonnay. The wines are lean, restrained, and elegant with notes of both citrus and tropical fruits. Ambitious producers favour Burgundian techniques, with the current fashion being for less overt oak. The best examples, while not on par with top Burgundy, can be difficult to distinguish from well-made Mâcon. However, the bulk of Chilean Chardonnay comes from warmer sites in the Central Valley, and is characterized by lower acidity, higher alcohol, and more overt tropical fruits.

Much of what used to pass for Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was in fact the less aromatic Sauvignon Vert (Sauvignonasse, Fiulano), and a bottle labelled with just ‘Sauvignon’ most likely contains Sauvignon Vert. Sauvignon Blanc plantings are disseminated throughout the country, but the best examples hail from Casablanca. Most Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in stainless steel. It neither matches New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for punchiness nor Sancerre for restraint, but is instead distinguished by grapefruit and a nettle or smoky herbal note. Wines from warmer sites are often dominated by tropical fruit aromas and can be rather flabby.

Small amounts of quality dessert wine are made from Muscat of Alexandria (Moscatel de Alejandria). Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer are finding their feet in Bío-Bío and other cool climate sites, while Viognier is becoming increasingly fashionable along the coast and in the cordilleras, as well as the wine bars of Santiago.

In addition to these more general styles, there a number of impressive curios in Chile, such as the traditional method sparkling País from Miguel Torres, the Nebbiolo from Botalcura, and the late harvest Torontel from Erasmo.

Mapuche grave statues

Mapuche warrior grave stones

Top producers in Chile include Almaviva, Altïr, Anakena, Botalcura, Caliterra, Casa Lapostolle, Casa Marín, Casas del Bosque, Concha y Toro, Conosur, De Martino, El Principal, Emiliana, Erasmo, Errázuriz, Falernia, Flaherty, Garage Wine Co., Garces Silva, Gillmore, Hacienda Araucano, Haras de Pirque, Kingston Family, Koyle, Loma Larga, Los Vascos, Matetic, Montes, Morandé, Neyen, Santa Rita, Miguel Torres, Undurraga, Ventolera, Veramonte, Viña Leyda, and Viu Manent.

 

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