The Wines of Santorini

Santorini, one of 18 islands in the Cyclades, lies some 70 miles north of Crete, and consists of the remnants of a massive volcanic eruption that took place some 3,500 years ago and destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. The centre of the former island collapsed into the volcanic caldera to form a central lagoon.


To cope with the hot and dry conditions and very strong winds, the vines are widely spaced (<2,500 plants/ha) and trained into an idiosyncratic basket shape (kouloura). Shoots are woven around the canes of previous years; after twenty years or so, the basket is cut off and another one is started from the same plant and root system. The basket traps humidity, and protects flowers and fruit from the sun, wind, and sandblasts. The baskets are able to sit on the ground because the young volcanic soils are inhospitable and there are no weeds or insects to contend with. As the soils do not contain any clay, they are immune to phylloxera: root systems can be centuries old, and vines are propagated by layering. However, yields are very low and all vineyard work must be carried out on hands and knees, making this a very expensive and potentially unsustainable form of viticulture. The nearby island of Paros, which is also buffeted by strong winds, has evolved a comparable training system called aplotaries, with the canes left to crawl on the ground.


Santorini is reputed for its crisp, dry, and mineral Assyrtico blends made from a minimum 75% Assyrtico completed by Athiri and Aidani. These ageworthy wines, with their notes of lemon and stone fruits, combine high acidity with high extract and moderately high alcohol, and, on occasion, a touch of oak. A richer, more exotic style called Nykteri is made from overripe grapes, with some skin contact and barrel ageing.


Most famous, at least historically, is the sweet vinsanto (‘wine from Santorini’, not to be confused with the Italian vin santo) made from a minimum 50% Assyrtico completed by Athiri and Aidani. Vinsanto must be aged for at least 24 months in oak. It can be made as a vin doux naturel, from late harvested grapes sun-dried for 12-14 days and fermented to a minimum of 9% alcohol; or as a vin doux (vin de liqueur) to a minimum of 15% alcohol. It is amber in colour with notes of dried citrus peel, apricots, raisins, figs, and sweet spice, together with high acidity and a touch of minerality.


Is Wine Blind Tasting a Sport?



Wittgenstein famously claimed that games could not be defined. But in 1978, Bernard Suits more or less successfully defined a game as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

In that much, sports resemble games. They also resemble games in that they take place outside of ‘real life’, and in that they have no tangible product: when they do have a tangible product, such as fish in angling, then this is largely incidental, and the fish are returned to the river.

There are games like scrabble or monopoly that are clearly not sports. But are all sports games, as Suits claimed? While many sports like football and golf are also games, some sports like running, skiing, and rock climbing are not so obviously games other than in that they are voluntary and unnecessary. In ordinary language, we speak of ‘playing football’ or ‘playing a round of golf’, but not of ‘playing running’ or ‘playing skiing’. But if we are running from a lion, our running is neither a game nor a sport.

Culture and politics aside, what is it that makes a sport a sport? If scrabble and monopoly are not sports, then this is surely because they do not involve any physical activity, or because physical activity is not their primary purpose and any physical activity incurred is merely secondary or incidental.

In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) challenged a decision by Sport England not to recognize bridge as a sport, a decision with consequences since it would deprive bridge from government and lottery funding. The EBU lost their High Court battle on the grounds that bridge does not involve physical activity any more than, as Sport England argued, ‘sitting at home, reading a book’.

But physical activity on its own is not enough. The primary purpose of working out on a cross-trainer is physical activity, but this is classed as exercise rather than sport. What is needed for sport is not physical activity per se, but skill in the exercise of physical activity, with some athletes going so far as to test the limits of human performance.

In 2005, Sport England recognized darts as a sport, presumably because darts involves skill as well as physical activity. By that account, video gaming, although targeted at a representational world rather than the real world, might also make the cut. Chess on the other hand is probably not a sport because, although it involves some physical activity, this physical activity is not particularly skilled, and, in any case, is not the primary purpose of chess. It is perfectly possible to get someone to move our chess pieces for us and still be counted as playing chess: in that much, the physical activity associated with playing chess is not central or even secondary but merely incidental.

If I, as an amateur, decide to go skiing for a couple of days, is my skiing exercise or sport? The answer depends on my own attitude, whether I am skiing primarily to keep fit, or for the sheer thrill of pushing myself or simply being in the world: and I think that this potential for thrill, for exaltation, for a certain kind of joy—rather than just panting and sweating—is an important part of what makes a sport a sport.

Well what if I meet a friend and we race each other down the mountainside? Does this competitive dimension make my skiing more of a game and therefore more of a sport? A person who develops a certain skill, whether in skiing or in baking or in any field of human endeavour, naturally wishes to measure that skill in competition with others who also lay claim to that skill. It is this competitive aspect that makes many sports so compelling to watch, although competition is by no means essential to popular spectator sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. What’s more, a sport need not make compelling watching to be counted as a sport: angling, cricket, golf, canoeing, and weight lifting are probably not the most exciting to watch, but are nonetheless sports.

Wine blind tasting is one of my favourite pastimes. Fiercely fought competitions are popping up all around the world, and some of these competitions even have audiences. So can blind tasting be counted as a sport? Scrabble and monopoly are not sports because they do not involve any physical activity, but blind tasting clearly does involve some kind of physical activity, namely, tasting, and, as the name suggests, tasting is its primary purpose and not merely secondary or incidental. Moreover, this physical activity is highly skilled, and, in some cases, can be said to test the limits of the human body.

It might be objected that the physical activity involved in blind tasting is not locomotor but gustatory, involving not the musculoskeletal system in tandem with the cardiovascular system but ‘passive’ senses such as olfaction, taste, and touch. It might further be objected, and this is an argument that I myself have made, that the real limitation in blind tasting is not in the tasting apparatus as such but in the cognitive appraisal of the wine, and thus that blind tasting is more like chess than snooker or darts—although it must be said that snooker and darts also involve an important cognitive element. Finally, it might be added that the thrill or joy in blind tasting lies more with the cognitive aspect than the tasting aspect, although that does depend on the wine.

But unlike with chess, with blind tasting it is not possible to delegate the physical component: you cannot get someone to do the tasting for you and still be counted as blind tasting. In that much, blind tasting is more of a sport than chess, which the International Olympics Committee already recognizes as a sport.

As any athlete will attest, cognition is an important part of any sport: why create arbitrary distinctions between the primarily physical and the primarily mental, or between the musculoskeletal system and the specialized senses? Are the nose and the tongue and the brain not also part of the body? And are they not also trainable, fatiguable, fallible, mortal? Chess, bridge, and maths have their associations, players, teams, training, rules, competitions, professionals, spectators, drama, and tears—everything, in fact, but a skilled, primary physical activity. And blind tasting even has that.

Now pass me a napkin.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Montilla-Moriles: The Most Overlooked Wine Region in the World

The wine region of Montilla-Moriles is a short drive out of Córdoba, once the capital of Moorish Spain and the largest and brightest city in Europe. Montilla-Moriles is notable for its sherry-like wines, and, above all, for its sweet Pedro-Ximénez (PX), but remains largely undiscovered in the shadow of the sherry triangle.


The DO comprises some forty square kilometres around the small towns of Montilla and Moriles, with some 6,000ha of mostly Pedro-Ximénez, though there is also some Moscatel, Airén, Verdejo, and others. There are two high quality subzones, Sierra de Montilla and Moriles Alto, in which yields are capped at 60hl/ha instead of the usual 80. The best soils consist of chalk-rich albero, the local name for albariza, prized for its reflective and moisture-retaining properties. Relative to Jerez, the climate in Montilla-Moriles is more continental, with hotter and drier summers and greater diurnal temperature variation. Traditional training is bush with no arms to best protect the grapes from the sun and heat. Fermentation used to take place in large earthenware or concrete tinajas, although, by and large, these have been superseded by stainless steel tanks.


Tinajas at Pérez Barquero. Most of their length is beneath the platform.

The generosos produced in Montilla-Moriles are classified by the same system as sherry: fino, amontillado, and so on. But whether dry or sweet, they are made from Pedro-Ximénez rather than Palomino. The potential alcohol of the grapes is higher than in the sherry triangle, and the finos and amontillados are not generally fortified, which arguably adds to balance and complexity. Also, the flor is weaker and thinner than in Jerez, leaving the wines with more fullness and fruit. Most of the wines are aged in solera, but there is also a significant tradition of vintage or añada wines. For sweet PX, the harvested grapes are placed on mats and left out in the sun for several days. After pressing, rectified wine alcohol is added. Unlike in Jerez, the casks are filled to capacity, resulting in a fresher, less oxidative style.


Alvear’s PX ‘Solera 1830’

My favourite producers in Montilla include Alvear, which is the fourth oldest company in Spain, Toro Albalá, Pérez Barquero, and the organic Robles. Pérez Barquero is a rich hunting ground for independent bottler Equipo Navazos. While in Montilla, I tasted Alvear’s remarkable PX ‘Solera 1830’, a wine with an average age of ninety years: on top of the usual notes of sultanas and molasses, I found chocolate, blueberry, bitter orange, balsamic, tobacco, violets… Being black or almost black in colour, it is easy to forget that PX is actually a white wine!

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

concise guide to wine new 3e

Sherry Wines


‘Sherry’ is an English corruption of Jerez (pronounced ‘Hereth’), an Andalusian town on the Atlantic seaboard near the crossing of the seas. The three major centres of the sherry trade, which together form the ‘Sherry Triangle’, are Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa María, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Sherry is made in a number of styles, the main ones being fino and oloroso. With the exceptions of Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel, all the sherry styles are made from the Palomino Fino grape. Unlike port or madeira, sherry is not fortified by mutage, but only once fermentation has been completed. It is then matured in a solera system, which involves a continuous process of fractional blending across several vintages.


According to the 1st century Greek geographer Strabo, the Phoenicians, founders of nearby Cádiz, planted the vine in the region of Xera as far back as 1100 BC. By the time the Romans took over from the Carthaginians in 206 BC, the region that they renamed Ceret had acquired a reputation for winemaking. Under the name of Šeriš (‘Sherish’), it continued to produce wine throughout the Moorish period of 711-1264, with vineyards being maintained for trade, raisins, medicinal purposes, and other pretexts.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Anglo-Hispanic relations deteriorated (think Catherine of Aragon), and exports of sherry (or ‘sack’) to England declined. In 1587, Sir Francis Drake, whom the Spanish still refer to as el pirata (‘the pirate’), captured the harbour of Cádiz together with 2,900 pipes of sherry destined for South America. Drake had the pipes delivered to Elizabeth I, and sherry returned to favour in England. In Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff say, ‘If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.’ However, sack in those days was unfortified and in other ways quite unlike modern sherry.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and later Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) along with the increasing popularity of port left many sherry merchants with a large excess of stock. This wine sat around in barrels, which the merchants regularly topped up with younger wines. In this proto solera system, the wine began to acquire characteristics of ageing and oxidation under a layer of flor yeast, the growth of which had been stimulated by the repeated addition of younger wines. Emulating their rivals in the Douro, the merchants began experimenting with fortification, which sometimes had the effect of killing off the flor and promoting further oxidation—resulting in yet another style of sherry.

In the latter half of the 19th century, after a second golden age, sherry struggled to compete with poor imitations from France, Germany, and across the seas. At the close of the century, phylloxera took its toll and the vineyards required replanting. Despite the creation of the appellation in 1935 (the first appellation in Spain and one of the oldest in Europe) and subsequent efforts to protect and promote it, sales have struggled to take off, with sherry seemingly unable to shake off its ‘cheap and fusty’ image. However, change, at last, may be afoot.

The lie of the land

The climate in the sherry region is Mediterranean with 300 days of sunshine a year and just 600mm of rainfall concentrated in the winter months. The mean annual temperature is a balmy 18°C. Summer highs often exceed 30°C, and the south-easterly levante, which rises out of Africa, periodically delivers temperatures of around 40°C. At the same time, Atlantic breezes can exert a cooling effect of as much as 10°C on more coastal areas. Differences in temperature and humidity within the sherry triangle are such that flor in coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, thrives all year round, whereas that in inland Jerez de la Frontera, with its hotter summers and colder winters, recedes seasonally, partially exposing the wine to oxygen.

During the parched summer months, the vines are supported by the region’s white, reflective albariza soils. Albariza is a unique compact of chalk, clay, and sand that is able to store up moisture during the winter and release it throughout the summer. It is largely derived from organic sea deposits, and most pure or prevalent at higher elevations and on hilltops. There are several subtypes of albariza, including the cement-like Tosca cerrada, the softer lentejuelas, and the stratified barajuelas. The blanduras, very fine dews that form in certain areas of the sherry region, are an additional source of summer moisture.


Barajuelas, ‘baraja’ meaning a deck of cards

In the wake of phylloxera, the number of varieties cultivated declined from over one hundred to just three: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel (Muscat of Alexandria), with most outcrops of albariza replanted with Palomino. These albariza outcrops are designated Jerez Superior, and cluster around Jerez de la Frontera with smaller patches around Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Puerto de Santa Maria, and a number of other centres. The other soil types are barros, which is dark brown with a high ferruginous clay content, and arenas, which is yellowish with a high sand content. Pedro Ximénez, which is harder to cultivate than Palomino, and lower yielding, tends to be planted on lesser albariza and barros. Moscatel tends to be planted on barros and arenas, especially around Chipiona.

Jerez counts ~2,400 growers working severally in vineyard zones called pagos, with the larger ones such as Balbaina and Macharnudo (both sub-divided into alto and bajo) best regarded as entire areas or even sub-regions. Palomino accounts for more than 90% of plantings in the sherry delimited area. It is high-yielding, although DO regulations impose a maximum yield of 80hl/ha. Vines are planted at a density of around 4,000 vines/ha, typically on gently sloping ground, and are either free standing (en vaso or en cabeza, with the head of the vine trained downwards) or, increasingly, wire trained. In either case, the vines are pruned according to the vara y pulgar, or ‘stick and thumb’, method. This is similar to the Guyot system, with a single cane of some seven buds and a short replacement cane of a couple of buds. The Palomino harvest takes place around late August, at which stage the grapes have a potential alcohol of roughly 12%.

Method of production

It is often said that Palomino is fairly neutral, a blank canvas on which the winemaker can express him- or herself. However, if yields are controlled, and the terroir is right, Palomino is capable of considerable interest. The grapes are hand-harvested in September and usually destemmed prior to pressing. The primera yema, that is, the free-run juice together with the first press, accounts for 65% of the maximum extraction of 72.5l/100kg, and tends to go into making finos. Any subsequent presses go into making olorosos, table wines, brandy, or vinegar. The more delicate the must, the more it is likely to go into making finos, with the most delicate must coming from albariza soils in cooler coastal areas. The musts are low in acidity, and tartaric acid is usually added at this stage along with the selected yeast culture.

Fermentation takes place in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats, with must destined for finos fermented at a cooler temperature. Fermentation can also take place in traditional American oak butts (600-650l barrels), not to impart oak flavours but to season the butts for later use as maturation vessels—some of which are more than a hundred years old. In either case, the end result is a fairly non-descript pale, dry wine with an alcohol of 11-12%. This añada (young or single vintage) wine is fortified (encabezado) with rectified wine alcohol. The resulting wine, the sobretabla, is placed, unblended, into clean butts, which are filled to about 5/6 to facilitate either oxidative ageing or biological ageing under flor. After 6-12 months, the cellar master, or capataz, reassesses the wines for style and quality. The presence of a thick, healthy layer of flor, consisting of Saccharomyces beticus and other yeasts, confirms that a wine is able to continue its life as a fino, with the finest casks chalk marked with one raya (/). Otherwise, the wine is sent down the path of an oloroso.

Flor only forms if the alcohol ranges from 14.5 to 16%, for which reason wines destined to become finos are fortified to 15 to 15.5%. Under these conditions, flor metabolizes aerobically, breaking down alcohol and producing acetaldehyde and other compounds that contribute to the characteristic aromas of dry finos. Flor also metabolizes glycerol, accounting for the light body and intense dryness of finos. Dead yeast cells fall to the bottom of the butt to form fine leesanother factor, along with chalky soils and blending, that has led to comparisons with champagne. If the alcohol drops below 14.5%, the flor begins to produce acetic acid, turning the wine to vinegar. This can be prevented by entering the wine into a traditional oak butt and then into a solera: the butt allows just enough evaporation to maintain the right level of alcohol, with the solera periodically alimenting the flor with younger wines with more alcohol and nutrients. Temperature and humidity are also important, which is why flor thrives all year round in coastal Sanlúcar de Barrameda but seasonally recedes in Jerez de la Frontera. To maintain temperatures within the ideal range of 14-20°C, traditional bodegas, or ‘cathedrals’, are built with thick walls and high roofs, with small windows aligned so as to funnel the prevailing Atlantic, or poniente, winds. The windows are draped with esparto grass blinds to keep out sunlight and insects, and the south-facing wall may be screened by vegetation. The ground is covered with albero, the same compound of sand and chalk found in bullrings, which can be irrigated to decrease temperature and increase humidity towards an ideal of around 70%. There is, perhaps, no other wine region in which the cellar conditions are more important to the elaboration of the wine. A cathedral may contain a sacristía for the storage of the most venerable wines, not unlike the sacristy of the cathedral of Toledo with all the mystical El Grecos.


Wines that are directed or redirected onto the oloroso track are fortified to 17% alcohol or more, making them hostile to flor. In contrast to finos, olorosos are aged in a deliberately oxidative style and may be left in solera for a decade or more. Cellar conditions matter less: in some cases, the butts may even be left outdoors under the hot sun. In time, they brown and develop concentrated aromas of nuts, dried fruits, caramel, and much more. Gentle evaporation during the ageing process results in a high alcohol of up to 24% for older olorosos.

A solera is a fractional blending system consisting of stacked rows of oak butts in which older wines ‘teach’ younger wines to take on their refined character. After having been assessed for style and quality, the sobretabla is poured into the top row, or criadera, of butts, which are filled to about 5/6 of total capacity to facilitate either oxidative ageing or biological ageing under flor. Wine for bottling is withdrawn (saca) from the lowest criadera, which, confusingly, is also called the solera—solera being cognate with suelo and meaning something like ‘earth’ or ‘ground’. The solera level is refilled (rocio) with wine from the above, or first, criadera, which is in turn refilled with wine from the second (often also the top) criadera. The solera level contains the oldest wine and the weakest flor, and benefits most from the higher humidity and lower temperature at floor level—which helps to explain why soleras tend to be arranged in the way they are. The net effect of operating the solera, or ‘running the scales’, is to blend the wine both vertically across vintages and horizontally across barrels, producing a consistent yet highly complex wine. Although pumps and pipes have been introduced, the process remains very labour intensive. A maximum of one third of the wine in a butt on the solera level may be withdrawn at any one time, and only three times in any given year. This ensures that any sherry inevitably contains a small amount of stuff dating back to the foundation of the solera—in some cases, more than two hundred years ago.

Finos must spend a minimum of two years in cask although top examples tend to spend much longer, typically four to seven years. Finos require a high flow of nutrients to aliment the flor, such that large amounts of wine (often the maximum) need to be withdrawn from the solera level. Thus, fino soleras can have up to 14 criaderas compared to just three or four for olorosos—which, for the finest, may flow by no more than ~5% a year.

Prior to bottling, sherry undergoes cold stabilization to remove tartrate crystals. Finos are also filtered and clarified to remove yeast cells. Finos that undergo minimal filtration and clarification are referred to as en rama (‘on the vine’, ‘raw’). En rama sherry is a recent trend that seeks the best possible compromise between flavour intensity and stability, enabling punters to drink sherry as they might out of a bodega butt. The implement used to transfer sherry from barrel to glass, consisting of a small cylindrical cup at the end of a long flexible shaft, is called a venencia, and its manipulation by a venenciador is in itself an art form, with many adepts in Japan! The venencia minimizes flor disruption, and the long pour from a giddy height serves to aerate the wine. Traditionally, venencias were made from silver and whalebone, except in Sanlúcar, where they are still fashioned from a single piece of reed.



Prior to bottling, a true fino spends its entire life under flor. It is pale, elegant, and dry, with a final alcohol of about 15.5%.

A fino that spends some time under flor followed by a period of oxidative ageing is called an amontillado. This style results if the flor dies down, either naturally after a number of years or by deliberate fortification. Such ‘true’ amontillados may be aged in dedicated soleras, and ought to be distinguished from mere blends of fino and oloroso. True amontillados are yellow-brown in colour, with rich nutty notes, yet a lighter, drier body than olorosos. An amontillado that has undergone only a short period of oxidative ageing is sometimes called a fino amontillado. The word ‘amontillado’ may originate from a time when finos were carted down from Montilla, with the hot, bumpy ride disrupting the flor and resulting in a more oxidative style.

After having been assessed for style and quality, a young wine with flor development may be fortified to around 17% and redirected to age oxidatively. This results in a palo cortado, an uncommon style with the body of an oloroso but the aromas and finesse of an amontillado. The boundaries between the various styles are somewhat blurry, and a wine might be called different things at different times and by different people. To recap, the styles are, in increasing order of body or glycerol: fino, fino amontillado, amontillado, palo cortado, and oloroso.

Most fino hails from inland Jerez de la Frontera, where it undergoes a small degree of oxidation as the flor recedes in the summer and winter. This is less the case in coastal Puerto de Santa María, and even less so in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which lies at the broad mouth of the Guadalquivir. A fino made in Sanlúcar is called a manzanilla, and can also fall under the DO of Manzanilla de Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It is typically lighter, drier, and fresher than a fino from Jerez, with notes of citrus fruits and seaspray. Interestingly, grapes for a Manzanilla need not come from Sanlúcar, suggesting that the ‘terroir’ of the bodega is deemed more important than that of the vine itself. Manzanilla pasada, manzanilla amontillada, and manzanilla olorosa are the Sanlúcar counterparts of, respectively, fino amontillado, amontillado, and oloroso (though the terms ‘manzanilla amontillada’ and ‘manzanilla olorosa’ have no legal standing). A fino from Puerto de Santa María is called a Puerto fino, with a character in between that of Jerez fino and manzanilla.


Manzanilla vs fino, you can tell them apart from the colour alone.

The greatest incarnations of the above styles are all dry, but many commercial styles are sweetened with Pedro Ximénez, Moscatel, or concentrated grape must (arrope). The sweetest style, ‘cream’, was created by Harvey’s of Bristol for the British market. ‘Pale cream’ is either cream that has been discoloured by charcoal treatment or a fino that has been sweetened with arrope. Less sweet than cream is ‘medium’, and while most mediums are less than ordinary, there are some very serious standouts.

The naturally sweet dessert wine Pedro Ximénez, or just ‘PX’, is made from 100% Pedro Ximénez. Very little Pedro Ximénez is grown in Jerez DO, and most of the requirement is (legally) imported from hotter and drier Montilla-Moriles DO. The grapes are picked late and left on straw mats for one or two weeks to raisin further. Once fermented, the wine is fortified and entered into a solera for oxidative ageing. The end result is something unique: a dark, syrupy, intensely sweet wine redolent of sultanas and molasses, and just perfect with, or even on, a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Moscatel, though very different in style, is made in a similar way to PX.

While it is impossible to put a precise age on a sherry, the finest specimens can spend several decades ageing in solera or in a lone cask. The designations Vinum Optimum Signatum (Very Old Sherry, VOS) and Vinum Optimum Rare Signatum (Very Rare Old Sherry, VORS) designate blends that are, respectively, at least 20 and 30 years old on average. Old sherry, such as the widely available Gonzalez Byass Apostoles, can be mindblowing, and represents very good value for money.

When it comes to food pairings, there is an old Andalusian adage: fino and manzanilla if it swims, amontillado if it flies, and oloroso if it walks. But this, of course, is much too rigid.

The present and the future of sherry

The sherry delimited area counts ~7,000ha of vineyards, of which about half are owned by small growers associated with co-operatives. In 2016, 34.4m litres of sherry were sold, versus 46.5m in 2010. Sweet styles, which are mostly destined for export, accounted for just over half of production. Fino accounted for a fifth of production, and manzanilla for another fifth, while amontillado, oloroso, and palo cortado together made up just 3-4%.

Between 2010 and 2016, exports fell from 33.7 to 22.4m litres, although the higher and drier ends of the market are doing much better than these overall figures might suggest. As of 2016, the largest export markets were the UK (29% of production), the Netherlands (17%), and Germany (7%). These three markets plus Spain (35%) together accounted for over 85% of sales.

Prior to 1996, a bodega had to have a stock of at least 12,500 hectolitres to obtain a shipping licence. In 1996, this was reduced to just 500 hectolitres, enabling boutique bodegas—often former almacenistas, who had been selling on their wines—to enter the fray. Many shippers are diversified with an important, and more profitable, brandy business, which can be used to subsidize their sherry business.

Some favourites among the 44 shippers include former almacenista Gutiérrez Colosía, El Maestro Sierra, Emilio Lustau, Emilio Hidalgo, Hidalgo la Gitana, González Byass, Valdespino, Delgado Zuleta, Rey Fernando de Castilla, Bodegas Tradición, and Williams and Humbert, which is notable for its añada or vintage (non-solera) sherries.


Luis (Willy) Pérez

Since 2005, independent bottler Equipo Navazos has been hunting down exceptional sherry butts with the aim of revealing the region’s true potential. Over the years, Equipo Navazos has become increasingly involved in different aspects of production, and in different projects such as terroir-driven Palomino, unfortified, naturally fermented in cask, and aged under flor (Florpower, Navazos Niepoort). Luis Pérez specializes in such ‘vinous’ sherries, with the quality of the fruit and expert cellar handling obviating the need for fractional blending or fortification. His friend Ramiro Ibáñez is doing similar work in Sanlúcar, albeit in a fresher, Sanlúcar style. Their wines have a strong sense of vintage and terroir, and, hand in hand with the more standard styles, may point the way to a brighter future for the region.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

Why Blind Taste Wine?


Wine is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, polyphenols, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon the amount consumed—on mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, wine- making, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, which can be analysed and interpreted by the experienced or attentive taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label. Even our past experiences (‘I once had a lovely picnic in this vineyard’, ‘I hate Sauvignon Blanc’) and the context and conditions of the tasting (‘This room is cold’, ‘This Empire style Château is amazing’) can influence our appraisal of the wine.

While all these factors can, and inevitably do, play a part in our personal enjoyment of a wine, they can lead us to prejudice one grape variety, region, producer, vintage, etc. over another, and, ultimately, one wine over another. By holding us back from tasting different wines and thinking about wine, they limit our understanding, and so our enjoyment, of those wines and wine in general.

By far the best way to control for biases is to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass, preferably in a more or less neutral setting and without flourish or fanfare. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may be usefully compared and contrasted with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for instance, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the tasting is said to be ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Focusing on nothing else but the wines in our glasses.
  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses.
  • Applying our judgement.
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories.
  • Comparing our analysis and interpretations with those of our peers.
  • Getting it completely right, more or less right, or ‘wrong for the right reasons’.
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general.
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

In philosophy, phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Wine blind tasting is the best phenomenology, phenomenology par excellence, returning us from our heads into the world, and, at the same time, teaching us the methods of the mind.

The less highfalutin among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more down-to-earth purposes: winemakers need to taste a wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their stocks; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers and patrons; and imbibers before sharing it with their friends. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of local, national, and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering into the wine trade, which is no doubt more life affirming than many other trades.

See my related article: How to Organize a Blind Tasting

Adapted from the Concise Guide to Wine and Blindtasting


Concise Guide to Wine 2e

How to Organize a Blind Tasting

  • Six to twelve different wines
  • Standardized unmarked bottles or receptacles in which to decant the wines (or bottle sleeves with which to mask the original wine bottles)
  • A corkscrew
  • A funnel
  • Metal foil wine pourers
  • ISO wine tasting glasses, one per wine in each flight
  • Spittoons
  • Tasting sheets
  • Crib sheets
  • Some spare pens

NB: Tasting sheets and crib sheets can be downloaded from here.


A typical blind tasting involves six to twelve different wines. The wines ought to be decanted into standardized unmarked bottles or receptacles. This is preferable to using bottle sleeves, which betray the shapes of the original bottles. In the absence of unmarked receptacles and bottle sleeves, the guests need to leave the room while the wine is poured into their glasses, which is quite a palaver.

It is important to pour the right amount of wine into the glass: too little and it is difficult to smell and taste all the components; too much and the wine cannot breathe in the glass. A finger’s breadth is a good rule of thumb (no pun intended). At most, a bottle of wine can serve 18-20 portions, which equates to ~40cl per portion. Ideally, white, rosé, and sparkling wines ought to be served at 8-10 °C (46-50 °F) and red wines at 14-18 °C (57-64 °F), even if the wines will quickly warm up in the glass.

If there are twelve different wines, they may be presented in two flights of six, typically a flight of white wines followed by a flight of red wines. This has a number of advantages, including dividing up the evening and limiting the number of glasses required to just six per person. If there are six wines, they can be presented as a flight of six or two flights of three, and so on. The wines within a flight may or may not have a common theme, for example, grape variety, country or region of origin, or vintage. Remind guests that they need not progress systematically from the first to the last wine in the flight; encourage them instead to start with the lightest wine in the flight and work their way up to the heaviest wine, which, if tasted first, could interfere with their ability to taste the lighter wines.

Each wine calls for five to ten minutes of analysis and ten minutes of discussion. So if there are, for example, six wines presented in two flights of three, allocate thirty minutes for assessing the first flight, thirty minutes for discussing the first flight, thirty minutes for assessing the second flight, and thirty minutes for discussing the second flight. Don’t be too rigid about time allocation: if everyone has stopped writing, move on to discussing the wines.

Wine is also about bringing people together, so remember to make time for guests to socialize. If at all possible, sit everyone around a single table: this is more convivial and also facilitates the discussion of the wines. Sit beginners next to more experienced tasters who can encourage and guide them through the tasting process described in Chapter 4 of the Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting. Some people prefer to assess the wines in silence, but complete silence can be intimidating to beginners and restricting to more gregarious or talkative types.

Upon discussing a wine, it is customary to call for one or two tasting notes before taking guesses and opening up the table to a more open-ended discussion of the wine. Once the discussion has been exhausted, the identity of the wine can be revealed. In some cases, particularly if there is a common theme to the flight, it may be more politic to delay the guessing and/or revealing until all the wines in the flight have been discussed. With the tasting at a close, consider asking the guests to dinner with whatever remains of the wines.

See my related article: Why Blind Taste Wine?

The Wines of Chile


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 08.10.36

© Acheron Press/Neel Burton


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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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