A Week in Chile
For a long time now, my wife and I have talked, at times wistfully, about going on a big wine trip to explore different regions and experience first-hand where the wines we enjoy so much come from. Well, we finally took the plunge, quit our jobs, and have just embarked on a nine-week tour that will encompass Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. I'll be blogging as I go along, sharing what I learn; like the trip the blog starts with Chile.
We're here at the end of November, just as Chile's summer is beginning. No surprise that the weather is warm, but the heat in the afternoon is intense, the sun beating down relentlessly. There are moderating factors, however, which add to the quality of the wines. Breezes blow in from the ocean, which can still be felt in the foothills of the Andes. Fog can roll in too, though not beyond the coastal regions. The nights are cool, the temperature dropping drastically, which helps most of all to prevent the grapes from becoming overripe.
Chile's climate is by no means uniform. As a whole, it can be split into three: coastal, the valley, and the Andes, going from cool to warm to moderate. There are lots of specific variants to these climates which have the potential to make Chile's wines more interesting, relating to proximity to the sea, exposure to the sun, protection from the wind, and altitude.
Our first visit was to Viña Aquitania, in the suburbs of Santiago but also in the foothills of the Andes (the buildings of Santiago are not attractive, but the backdrop of the Andes is spectacular). As we felt the breeze gently blow, our guide explained how this western part of Maipo Valley was cooler than the lower, eastern part, mainly due to the much cooler nights at higher altitude as well as the wind. As a result, the fruits in the wine are less ripe and obvious.
There are local variants on the coastal side of Chile too. The coolest parts of Casablanca are the lowest vineyards, as they are most exposed to the ocean; the warmest are higher up away from the ocean. Again, this produces different styles: Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca's most distinctive grape, is grassy and vegetal in the cooler vineyards, more tropical and full-bodied in the warmer, higher ones.
Overall, the wines are ripe and fruity. Often, this ripe fruitiness can be too obvious, a simplicity the best producers are working to move away from through site selection. Other producers tend towards oak to compensate for simplicity.
The most interesting variety is arguably Syrah, particularly from the cooler San Antonio and Casablanca regions. It's spicy and smoky, but immediate and appealing with ripe black and blueberries. Inland, it’s bigger, bolder, and more tannic. The coastal regions also produce crisp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc with pleasant fruit aromas ranging from green to tropical fruits. Pinot Noir is being grown in different parts of Chile in attempts to make styles of wine that reflect the country's varied climates, but even from the cooler areas such as Casablanca or the southern Malleco, I've found it too fruity.
Such is the wide range of grape varieties grown in Chile that there has been an understandable attempt to focus on just one in order to give Chilean wine a discernible identity. The chosen variety is Carmenère, a Bordeaux grape planted in Chile back in the nineteenth century, when it got confused with Merlot. Given that virtually nowhere else plants Carmenère, there's certainly room for Chile to carve out a niche. However, there is a good reason no one else plants Carmenère: it's just not that interesting and even the best wines offer little other than blackcurrant aromas. There is perhaps a future for Carmenère away from single-varietal wines in the guise it was originally used in Bordeaux - in blends; Carmenère can add structure, tannins, and black fruits, and distinguish a wine from other Bordeaux blends made around the world.
Much of Chile's wine is exported, as there is relatively little domestic demand for the wines. This is a country in thrall to beer and pisco, rather than the cheap wines locals remember past generations drinking. Most visitors to wineries are foreign, and the best wine bar in Santiago, Bocanariz, was almost solely filled with tourists. This influences Chile's producers in several ways. Domestically, brands dominate and consumers rely on scores, as there is little interest in finding small, unknown producers. All producers, whatever their size, have to appeal to the international market, which is why so many good-value but simple wines are produced. It also explains why so many varieties are grown, from Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay to Merlot to Malbec, in order to appeal to an international audience used to single-varietal wines. The result is a dependable style of wine, but based more on international trends than local taste.
Speaking to those in the wine industry while I’ve been here, I’ve heard a lot of debate about the quality of Chile’s wines and whether they will ever come close to the great wines that have been made in France for centuries. It’s certainly frustrating that Chileans are not more interested in their wine, and that lack of domestic interest holds the industry back. It must be remembered, however, that although winemaking in Chile goes back to the 16th century, Chilean wine in its modern incarnation is relatively young. The Casablanca region saw the first grapes planted in 1982, while many of the wineries I visited were only established in the 1990s onwards. There is still a lot to learn about the different regions, particularly the cool ones near the coast and those far to the south such as Bío-Bío and Itata. It may take some time for these regions to fully express themselves, but there is potential, should the industry choose to follow it, for Chile to make wine of more consistently high quality than it currently does.
These are some of the highlights of our tastings. They’re more expensive than most Chilean wine sold domestically or abroad, but they give an indication of what the best producers are trying to achieve and that Chile’s wines can go beyond the ordinary.
Viña Aquitania Sol de Sol Chardonnay 2012 (17,000 pesos - $25)
Many Chilean producers source grapes from different regions in order to produce the many styles of wine that the international market demands. Although Viña Aquitania are based outside Santiago, the grapes for their Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay come from Malleco, the southernmost region in Chile where just a handful of producers work. This Chardonnay is aged for nine months on its lees, giving it a nutty, biscuity feel. The cooler climate of Malleco ensures high acidity, making this a refreshing wine, with stone and tropical fruit aromas that aren’t too overripe. ✪✪✪✪
Viña Montes Folly 2007 (80,000 pesos - $120)
Of the 800,000 cases Viña Montes produces, 95% of them are for export, showing just how dependent producers are on the international market. They make a wide range of wines, from the everyday drinking to the very expensive. Tasting this wine was our first indication of the great potential Syrah has. It’s named "Folly" because Montes were the first to plant in the hills in warm Colchagua, even in the 1990s deemed a foolish thing to do. At nine years old, there’s a wonderful, expressive maturity to the wine, with a beautiful nose of smoke, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, and violets, but it’s still big and bold, with blackberry and spicy black pepper and liquorice aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Matetic EQ Syrah 2013 (12,000 pesos - $18)
Another Syrah, this time from San Antonio near the coast making the wine a bit less big and bold than the Folly. The warm days still give plenty of ripe fruits (blackberry, blueberry), but there’s a perfumed nose of violets, vanilla, and cedar to give the wine an attractive balance. Very drinkable, particularly at the price. ✪✪✪✪
Loma Larga Malbec 2013 (17,000 pesos - $25)
Loma Larga are another young producer focusing on quality from their small property in Casablanca. This Malbec, unusual as the grape is so strongly associated with neighbouring rivals Argentina, demonstrates the potential of Casablanca's cooler climate. This climate makes the Malbec very distinctive, more like one from the Loire than Mendoza. It's very restrained with high acidity, firm, light tannins, and aromas of brambles, violets, fennel, and a light pepper spice that lingers on the finish. ✪✪✪✪✪
Refugio Pinot Noir 2013 (20,000 pesos - $30)
In a country of overripe Pinot Noir, the best wine from the grape variety by far is the Montsecano from Casablanca. It’s a joint project between Julio Donoso, a photographer who lived in France for nineteen years, and André Ostertag, one of Alsace’s great and most distinctive winemakers. The grapes are grown on a steep hill just seven kilometres from the coast on difficult red clay soils with as little irrigation as possible. The second wine, Refugio, is similar in style, some of the grapes coming from Montsecano and the majority from a nearby vineyard. Neither of the wine is aged in any oak, which Donoso views as too dangerous with a high chance of contaminating the wine. Instead, they’re aged in concrete eggs, although the Refugio sees more stainless steel than the Montsecano. The Refugio is an intense wine, with almost underripe fruit aromas of raspberry, red cherry, blackcurrant, and blackberry and bitter, herbal aromas of mint and fennel. Donoso told us that he finds beauty in the imperfections of a wine; this is a great example of a wine whose unusual distinctive qualities repeatedly draw you in. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Huaso de Sauzal Pais 2014 (28,000 pesos in a restaurant - $42)
This is a suitable wine to finish on, as it perhaps shows that Chile’s future best lies far back in the past. The first vines in Chile were planted by Spanish missionaries in the 1530s for religious purposes. The simple grape used to make wine for Mass is called Mission in California, Criolla Chica in Argentina, and Pais in Chile. There are still plenty of old Pais vines planted, particularly in the warm Maule Valley, and arguably it is those old vines that Chilean winemakers should be focusing on to distinguish Chile from other countries, rather than Carmenère. Drunk with a delicious rabbit dish on our last night in Santiago in Bocanariz, this Pais from Cauquenes in the Maule Valley was an extraordinary, quite delicious wine that was almost like a Pinot with restrained red fruit aromas, and a smoky, peppery, meaty quality. The acidity from the old vines was refreshingly high, making it an extremely good food wine, together with the fine, grainy tannins. Maybe not all Pais is as high quality as this wine - yields do need to be kept in check - but I look forward to trying more examples. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
We were only able to visit the Maipo, Colchagua, and Casablanca regions - there's a lot to explore both further north and south. Let's hope Chilean winemakers continue to explore the country and push Chilean wine beyond its safe limits.