by Ed McCarthy
Chile’s wine industry has made amazing progress in the last twenty years. The country has always been blessed with excellent growing conditions for grape vines. Despite having this viticultural paradise, it was not until recently that Chile started gaining attention as a wine country that’s capable of producing more than just decent, inexpensive, under $10 wines.
Much of Chile’s arable vineyard land is dry, with long, warm summers and plenty of sunshine, just enough rain in the winter, lots of hillsides, and protection from the elements with the Andes Mountains to the east, a Pacific Coastal range to the west, the Atacama Desert to the north, and frigid Patagonia and the Pacific to the south. Thanks to this protection, the phylloxera louse, which has devastated most of the world’s vineyards, has not shown up in Chile—yet.
Thirty years ago, almost all of Chile’s wines came from the huge Maipo Valley, which surrounds its capital city, Santiago. It made sense then. Since all this prolific vineyard land and ideal climate was so close to the population center of the country, why look any farther for vineyards or build wineries too far from the capital? And besides, its principal red grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—particularly Cabernet Sauvignon—thrived in Maipo Valley.
If Chile wanted to produce only Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends, it might have been happy to restrict its vineyard sites mainly to Maipo Valley. But two major occurrences took place, starting in the 1980s: As its wine export business grew, Chile had to expand its vineyard sites to compete in the world markets; also, wine consultants such as Michel Rolland, Paul Hobbs, and other viticultural experts advised local winemakers that they were planting some grape varieties in the wrong sites. Very much like California’s situation thirty years ago, Chile’s most critical decisions for overall improvement involved discovering the most suitable sites to plant its other grape varieties.
It is no secret that Chilean white wine, mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, was rather mediocre in quality 20 years ago. In fact, Sauvignon Blanc—or what was labeled Sauvignon Blanc—was less than mediocre. In addition to the fact that both white varieties were planted in the wrong place (Maipo Valley), where they wildly over-produced, in the case of so-called “Sauvignon Blanc,” ampelographers discovered that much of it was actually the less noble Sauvignon Vert (aka Sauvignonasse), and in some cases Sauvignon Gris, the latter a mutation of Sauvignon Blanc.
Meanwhile, Casablanca Valley, a cool region near the Pacific Ocean about an hour’s drive northwest of Santiago, became recognized for its potential, especially for white grape varieties. Chardonnay, true Sauvignon Blanc, and even Pinot Noir vines were planted there. Veramonte Winery, the first major winery to be established in Casablanca Valley, was founded in 1990 by the native Chilean Augustin Huneeus—who had made his reputation in California with Franciscan Estates, and later, Quintessa. Concha y Toro, Casa Lapostolle, Montes, and most of the other major Chilean wineries followed, buying up vineyard sites rapidly in Casablanca Valley.
This was the beginning of Chile’s quality wine movement—other than for the already established Cabernet Sauvignon. By the mid-to late 1990s, Chardonnay from Casablanca was already receiving critical acclaim. It took Chile a while longer to get Sauvignon Blanc (which Chilean producers most often made without oak or very little oak) up to snuff, but today I think it is Chile’s finest white varietal wine. I was part of The Wines of Chile Fourth Annual Wine Judging which took place in Santiago in January. For the first time, a white wine—the 2006 Casas del Bosque Reserva Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley) won “Best of Show.” Chilean Sauvignon Blanc has come a long way indeed, and now I believe that it can compete with the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs.
A few Sauvignon Blancs particularly impressed me on my recent trip to Chile. Obviously, the “Best of Show” Sauvignon Blanc, the 2006 Viña Casas del Bosque Reserva from Casablanca Valley, is indeed a knockout white. For value, you can’t beat Veramonte’s under $10 Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley). But the two Sauvignon Blancs that really wowed me both came from the Leyda Valley: the 2006 Viña Garcés Silva “Amayna” and the 2006 Viña Montes “Limited Selection”—and the Montes retails for $12! (See tasting notes.)
Carmenère: Chile’s Variety
Another major breakthrough for the Chilean wine industry occurred in the early 1990s, but this time it involved red wine. Chilean viticulturists had long been wondering why “Merlot” vines from the same location ripened so unevenly. Once again, ampelographers solved the mystery: some of the so-called Merlot vines were actually Carmenère, an almost forgotten Bordeaux variety that ripens notoriously late (Merlot is an early-ripening variety). Although Carmenère can still legally grow in Bordeaux, in effect it just about disappeared there in the late 19th century, when the phylloxera louse wiped out most of Bordeaux’s vines.
After the Merlot/Carmenère identity crisis was solved, Carmenère vines were pulled out and re-planted elsewhere. Today most of the best Carmenère is growing in districts with longer growing seasons in the Cachapoal and Colchagua Valleys, two sub-valleys of the Rapel Valley (an area south of Maipo Valley where many wineries have been established in the last 20 years).
About 98 percent of the world’s Carmenère now officially grows in Chile, although it is rumored to be growing with Cabernet Franc in Friuli, Italy. Carmenère can now be spoken of as a Chilean variety, and perhaps one day will be known as Chile’s signature variety—just as Malbec has become in Argentina. Carmenère is slightly lighter-bodied than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, and fruitier—with a taste reminiscent of blueberries. At first, the common belief was that Carmenère was at best a blending grape—as it used to be in Bordeaux. Now that better vineyard sites in Chile have been discovered for Carmenère, more and more varietal Carmenère wines (with at least 85 percent Carmenère) are being produced. Concha y Toro’s Terrunyo Carmenère (Cachapoal Valley) is one of the best. Also, many of Chile’s finest red wine blends are based on Carmenère, such as Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta (Colchagua Valley), which is about two-thirds Carmenère with one-third Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot.
A New Chile
During the last decade, three more new wine regions in Chile have been brought to the world’s attention: the coastal, cool San Antonio Valley (just south of Casablanca Valley), Leyda Valley (a sub-valley of San Antonio but with its own appellation), and Limari Valley. Of the three, Limari Valley has the strangest story of all; said to be the birthplace of the Chilean wine industry (the Spanish Conquistadores planted the first vines there in 1551), it was thought that the northerly Limari Valley was too close to the Atacama Desert and the equator, but the Valley’s proximity to the Pacific allows ocean breezes and a cooling fog to travel through during the day.
Ten years ago, there were few if any Chilean Pinot Noirs and Syrahs worth mentioning. Now both Pinot Noir and Syrah have become rapidly emerging red wine stars in the newly discovered regions. For Pinot Noir, look for San Antonio Valley’s Viña Matetic and Viña Garcés Silva (Viña Matetic’s 2003 Pinot Noir was one of the finest New World Pinot Noirs that I have ever tasted); Viña Leyda from Leyda Valley; and Viña Loma Larga from Casablanca Valley. For Syrah, I was impressed with Matetic Vineyards, Lomo Larga Vineyards, and Viña Tabali (Limari Valley); Tabali calls its wine “Shiraz.” Actually, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay seem to be the best varietal wines in Limari Valley.
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