Long and Lean, Chile is Red Hot
Chilean wine should have likely come before Argentina. After all, Argentina basically looked at what Chile has done, and mimicked their marketing plan. I suspect other South American countries will do the same in the near future. I also remember discovering Chilean wine 18 years ago, prior to me being able to spell the word W-I-N-E. I happened upon a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon with a plastic black cat hanging from the cork. It was about 6 bucks. I am sure in my wine snobby state today, I would not have thought it was fantastic, but at the time, I marveled at the fact that one could find a perfectly drinkable red wine for under 7 dollars. One thing that has not changed since back then, is there is some good wine to be had in Chile, and in general, at bargain prices. The land is cheap, the labor is cheap, the climate is good, the soil is interesting, and there are vines that have been planted on their own roots with NO Phylloxera, making for wine that is the TRUE expression of the grape. This is why many, including the top winemakers from France, Italy and other parts of the world are starting to invest. This is a part of the wine making world that is up and coming, and I for one feel is just starting to figure out what the land is capable of producing. It will be a wild ride, you may need to kiss some frogs along the way, but you will undoubtedly get to drink some spectacular wines at a very reasonable price relative to their French, American, Spanish, or Italian cousins.
Chile is a long and narrow country to the West of Argentina. It is nearly 3000 miles from top to bottom, and only 100 miles and some change wide. Chile can be broken into 4 major regions. In the North is Coquimbo, and then heading south from Coquimbo you will enter Aconagua, the Central Valley and finally the South Region. Not pictured here because they are relatively new you will also find Austral and Atacama. In addition, since 2012 wines may also be characterized by their location. One may label wines Costal (Near the Ocean), Entre Cordilleras (Between the Mountains), or Andes (On the Mountain). As a result, labels can get confusing. Since the country is nearly 3000 miles long, there is a vast change in temperature from top to bottom. Wine is only grown in the middle third of the country as a result. The south is too cold, and the north gets too hot.
The first vines in Chile were brought by the conquistadors in the 16th century, but it was not until
the 1980s until they began shipping wine to the international market. In the last 30 years, Chile has gone from no exports to being the 5th largest exporting country for wine in the world. They are also 9th in production of wine world wide.
Chile's climate is influenced by three major factors. First the cold water from the arctic circle come up to Chile's West coast. In doing so, they produce a cooling fog. However, the cooling effect of the ocean is also shielded by the second most important contributor to Chile's climate, and that is the coastal mountains which blocks much of the sea air from traveling inland. Except that it is able to travel up the rivers and tributaries that transverse the mountains. There is very little rain, making Chile one of the driest countries on earth. Fortunately the Andes mountain range gets sufficient snow to both cool the grapes at night, as well as to irrigate the vines.
Because of the dry, dessert growing conditions, the mountains, and the terrain, Chile benefits from a few advantages when it comes to growing grapes.
1. Little to now fungal disease (No spraying expensive anti-fungal products)
2. Diurnal temperature variations (Warm days with cold nights in the desert)
3. No Phylloxera (Due to the sandy soils, seclusion, and height of the vineyards)
4. Sun, and lots of it
5. Water from the Andes for irrigation
6. And because of all of this, it is easy to farm organically
They grow lots of grapes in Chile. Sauvignon Vert, Gris, and Savignonasse along with Pais (Brought by the missions) are still planted. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Viognier, Tortotel, Pedro Ximenez, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat are grown. Carmenere is a rock star, and perhaps the most promising grape grown. Finally Merlot, Zin, Petite Sirah, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera, Malbec and Carignan are all grown. This is a staggering number of grape varieties and the diversity of Terroir and weather support them all.
You could imagine that while growing all of those grape types that you might tend to get a bit confused. Chile did get a bit confused. They have grown grapes and called them by the wrong name historically. Merlot from Chile was sometimes Carmenere, and Sauvignon Blanc was often Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. Much of this has been fixed, but if you find an older bottle and think, hmmm, this is not Merlot, you might be right.
The wine laws are relatively new and went into effect in 1995. Wines must have at least 75% of a grape variety to call it a varietal wine. It must also have 75% of the grapes from the vintage listed on the label. Wines must have 75% of the grapes from a given region to list that region as well. So if on a test you are thinking Chile, think 75% and you will usually be right. The only exception is if the label lists Costal, Entre or Mountain then 85% of the grapes must come from that geography. Also to be reserva it must have 12 percent Abv, Grand Reserva must have 12.5% Abv and all must spend time in oak.
Atacama is the Northernmost region and the warmest wine growing region in Chile. There are two sub-regions called Copiapo Valley and the Huasco Valley. Due to the heat, most of the production in the area is for Pisco.
Coquimbo has 3 sub regions called the Elqui Valley, Limari Valley and the Choapa Valley. Pisco is also grown here along with simple table wines. Pisco is a liquor that is originally from Peru, but also made in a slightly different way in Chile. In Chile it is made from Muscat, Torontel and Pedro Jimenez grapes. A different mix is used in Peru.
The first place that makes serious wines in Chile is the Aconcagua valley which takes its name fromt he river by the same name that runs through the region. It is warm, sunny and dry. Like in the rest of Chile, red grapes rule the day in the Aconcagua. Most planted are both Merlot and Cabernet. Much of the valley is too hot for serious grpe-growing, however Panquehue has a more moderate climate. Perhaps the most accomplished estates in the area is Errazuriz producer of Sena, a Bordeaux blend that placed quite high in the 2004 tasting. They also make some amazing Carmenere wines called Max and Kai that we tasted in class. Kai in particular is a silky, sexy big red wine.
San Antonio and Casablanca are two other sub-regions of the Aconcagua. Casablanca wine makers are producers of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. San Antonio is also a predominately white wine producing region with Pinot Noir showing some promise as well. The cool weather in these regions are in contrast to the rest of the interior valley and are one of the few Chilean DOs focused on white wines.
The Central Valley is the oldest producer of wine in Chile. Sub regions include the Maipo Valley (Most Famous) which is known for Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also located in close proximity to Santiago making it a perfect place for foreign winemakers to travel in and start a winery. Errazuriz and Concha y Toro's have a presence here.
Other sub-regions include the Rapel Valley which contains Cachapoal and Colchagua and also produces Cab Sauv as the leading grape. However, Carmenere is growing rapidly in its acrage as well as its importance. Lapostolles "Clos Apalta, Vina Montes "Alpah M are tow iconic wines from the region. Vina Montes also produces Purple Angel which is a spectacular wine made from Carmenere.
Maule and Curico are the rest of the Subs in the region of the Central valley. Maule is one of the largest regions in Chile. Quality here is questionable but the acreage is huge. Much of the valley produces wines to be enjoyed locally.
Curico has two sub-regions called Lontue and Teno. Here again Cab Sauv dominates but many others are grown in the region as well.
Chile is evolving slowly, but one would think that it will beging to change more quickly. Why? There is a list of the A list wine barons that have invested heavily. Robert Mondovi, Miguel Torres (Spanish Winemaker) Chateau Lafite Rothchild (With Los Vascos) and Chateau Mouton Rothschild along with others, all have collaborations and investments in Chile. This allows for great wines, produced by great houses, to be had at reasonable costs. Get excited about Chile. I am.