Chile is probably the most progressive wine-producing country in the world right now. Look at the evidence of this success story, and the determination to drive this still young wine industry forward:
• Production doubling every ten years
• An increased focus on cooler-climate regions, notably along Chile’s long coastline, refreshed by the Humboldt current. Casablanca Valley is long established, Elqui and Limarí in the north, with San Antonio and Leyda, are the new success stories, but watch out for wines from Manzanar at the mouth of the Aconcagua Valley and Marcihue in Colchagua.
• New plantings on the hill and rock slopes (away from the first planted, easily worked flat valley bottoms) all over Chile.
• A wider range of grape varieties to supplement the original big four of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (though these four still make up four-fifths of the vines in the quality areas). Among the reds one is seeing more Carmenère (see below), Pinot Noir, and Shiraz, alongside examples of Viognier, Riesling, Marsanne, and Gewürztraminer.
• A movement away from single-varietal wines to blends, particularly among the reds, leading to greater diversity.
Among the reds - and do remember about three quarters of the quality vineyard area in Chile is still given over to reds - the dominant variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up over half of the red plantings. (One used to associate Chile with Merlot, but several Chileans believe that the identification of Carmenère in the vineyards took out much of what constituted that distinctive Chilean Merlot flavour!). With their very long growing season Chileans effortlessly achieve ripeness with Cabernet, and very supple tannins, without (on the whole) the wines becoming jammy and losing varietal character. Styles range from the light, pure and minty, to the very concentrated and ageworthy. At every level, these have to be the most expressive, enjoyable, and best value Cabernets in the New World, more than rivalling South Africa and Western Australia, and often putting to shame more expensive Californian examples.
As for Carmenère, there are those who would claim that Carmenère is approaching the status of the national grape of Chile, as Malbec is for Argentina. But whilst Malbec is wholly dominant in the country across the Andes, Carmenère plays very much second fiddle to Cabernet in Chile. Rather its status is akin to that of Zinfandel in California or Pinotage in South Africa, as being more or less unique to a region, but only making up one element in the local viticultural tapestry. This obscure Bordeaux variety was only identified in Chilean vineyards by a French ampelographer, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, in 1994. Once growers distinguished the vine from Merlot, they could give it different viticultural attention: Carmenère benefits from careful canopy management and ripens three weeks after Merlot. (It’s often picked in early May, the equivalent of November in the northern hemisphere). Now it is widely acknowledged that Carmenère is more successful than Merlot in Chile, especially in the hotter sites such as Colchagua. A large tasting of both varieties in Decanter magazine (June 2007) gave all the top three awards to Carmenère, and only two Merlots crept into the next six four star wines. Carmenère combines intense fruit with a touch of leafiness and an attractive smokey hint, and if you have not tried it yet, please do: we always offer examples, either as a stand-alone variety or where the grape is an important element in the blend.
Chilean Wine Regions - from north to south
Until Elqui was planted in the late 1990s, the Limarí Valley was the northernmost wine producing region in Chile. The local pisco co-operative collaborated with private growers to plant vineyards from 1993. The potential of Limarí for top-quality wine production is now widely recognised within Chile, with big companies either buying land or sourcing fruit in the valley.
Climatic conditions are marked by extreme aridity (and therefore there is total reliance on irrigation, which might be limiting in time), and a big diurnal change of temperature. However, as the valley is wholly open to the sea, maritime influence is perhaps even stronger: giving an early bud-break and a long growing season (ideal for aromatics in grapes); regular sea fog, the Camanchaca ; and a cooling sea-breeze which is drawn in most days as warmer air rises inland. The vines in the western part of the valley grow on a relatively flat low plateau above the river, largely on clay soils.
Our grower: Tabalí
The Aconcagua Valley, lying north of Santiago and with vineyards largely to the east of the Pan American highway, is the smallest of the traditional wine regions of Chile. Its fame rests on its red wines - about 87% of the vines in the valley are red.
This is a hot, dry zone - rain only really falls in winter. A warm spring induces early bud-break with little risk of frost. The summer heat is leavened by some fresh air in the early mornings from the Andes, and then a switch to strong westerly breezes which spring up like clockwork every afternoon and bring in cooler air from the ocean. A long dry autumn follows, giving the grapes here exceptionally long hang time and really intense flavours.
Our grower: Errázuriz
It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years ago there was only grazing and fruit in the Casablanca Valley, but it’s true. In 1982 Pablo Morandé, the winemaker at Concha y Toro, first planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, reasoning correctly that the valley was perfect for cooler climate whites. The first sight of the resultant wines in the late 1980s prompted a wave of planting, recently curtailed only by a shortage of water. As there is no river in the valley and all irrigation is from artesian wells, one can now only plant if water rights have already been acquired. It will therefore remain a small area of production, comprising less than 5% of all Chilean vineyards.
Casablanca has a remarkably cool climate. As the valley is open to the Pacific - no coastal range here - it benefits from thick maritime fogs, which can remain overhead until the afternoon, and chilly winds off the ocean. The only problem is frost, which can strike devastatingly right into November. This makes it a great region for white wine, and over 2/3 of the vineyards here are planted to white grapes, especially Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but it is also among the best sites in Chile for Pinot Noir.
A small and discrete wine region in Chile which isn’t a valley, San Antonio lies South of Casablanca across rolling hills from 5km. to 20 km. inland from the Pacific. As to be expected it’s therefore cool. What distinguishes the area is the soils: here vines aren’t growing on the deep alluvial flatlands seen across most of Chile, but on poor fertility degraded rock and clay. This is a region which is seeing sustained planting and development - watch this space.
Our grower: Matetic Vineyards
Maipo is where quality wine production began in Chile. In the nineteenth century wealthy Chileans built their country homes just to the south of Santiago and planted vineyards, usually with Bordeaux varieties, as part of these estates. The region quickly proved superb for reds and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, which benefited from a long growing season and thrived in the well-drained soils. Now well over half the vineyards are planted to Cabernet.
What used to be simply termed Rapel has recently been divided into two regions: Cachapoal Valley and Colchagua. The Cachapoal river (which translates as the mad river, describing its appearance in spate) flows from the Andes out to the Pacific via a number of lakes. This is one of the smaller Chilean wine regions, less fashionable than Maipo to the north or Colchagua to the south, and as a hotter zone largely planted to red varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère. However, in Alto Cachapoal, and especially around Requínoa, up against the Andes to the east, cool downdrafts from the mountains relieve summer temperatures and permit excellent results with white grapes.
Our growers: Altaïr; Anakena
Colchagua’s star is rising within Chile. The wine region stretches from the Andes almost to the ocean, so it is hard to generalise here. The western areas now being developed, such as Marchihue and Lolol have potential for a wide range of grape varieties, but the heartland, in particular around Santa Cruz and Apalta, is land for big reds, and in particular for Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and that Chilean speciality, Carmenère.
our grower: Viña Santa Cruz