Tue 02 Jul 2013

Chile: Realising Its Potential

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Earthenware amphorae ('tinajas') at De Martino in Isla de Maipo.

Earthenware amphorae (‘tinajas’) at De Martino in Isla de Maipo.

I have just returned from a five-day visit to Chile to meet the pick of The Society’s growers in this most friendly and exceptionally beautiful country.

It has been an eye-opening experience, and it has confirmed to me that Chile, despite its established place in the UK market, still has considerable untapped potential as a quality wine-producing country.

My first visit to Chile was in the 1990s, when the industry was, from an international perspective, very much in its infancy. The majority of wines, with a few notable exceptions, were simple and eminently drinkable, but without much character. Most vines were planted in the country’s rich and highly productive flatlands, known as the Central Valley, south of the capital, Santiago, but little thought had been given to which climates and soils best suited particular grape varieties.

Over the years a gradual transformation has come about. Producers began matching the right varieties to the right microclimates in the traditional grape-growing areas, with sauvignon blanc, for example, being replaced in the hotter regions with red varieties better able to cope with the heat. At the same time, a number of cooler climates were identified in parts of Chile previously untouched by the vine.

The first such area was Casablanca, north-west of Santiago, where pioneer winemaker Pablo Morandé planted some of Chile’s first cool-climate vineyards. More recently, regions such as the Leyda Valley, located a few kilometres from the coast and benefiting from the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean, was planted with varieties such as sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, and the results have been very impressive. The Society’s Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, made for us by the eponymous Viña Leyda, are good examples of the quality potential of this part of Chile.

Ventolera in the Leyda Valley.

Ventolera in the Leyda Valley.

During this trip I visited Ventolera, the other star of the Leyda Valley. My only visits to Leyda have been in winter, when coastal fog shrouds much of the region. This visit was no exception, with the sunny 18°C temperatures of Santiago, around 100km away, giving way to fog and a chilly 11°C. Stefano Gandolini, Ventolera’s winemaker, took my buying colleague Toby Morrhall and myself through an impressive range of sauvignons and pinot noirs in their tasting room with a view looking out over their foggy vineyards.

In addition to seeking out cooler-climate regions and matching the right grape varieties to climatic conditions, a great deal of work has been undertaken in recent years in Chile to map the soils of vineyard areas.

Ventolera is one of a handful of wineries that has dug a series of calicatas (pits) to better understand the soil profiles in the vineyard before matching the right clone of the appropriate variety. Try the 2012 Litoral (ie coastal) Sauvignon Blanc (£7.75) or the 2011 Ventolera Pinot Noir (£13.95) for a taste of Stefano’s labours.

Calicatas at Ventolera

Stefano Gandolini in the calicatas at Ventolera.

Another producer that has taken the subject of soil mapping very seriously is Viña Tabalí, who excavated no fewer than 500 calicatas on their properties in Limarí, 400km north of Santiago, to ensure that their new vine plantings would perfectly match the mosaic of different soils on their land. The results are most impressive, with the chardonnays from their Talinay property (Chile’s coolest vineyard) demonstrating the strides Chile is making in its quest to be taken seriously as a producer of world-class wine.

Sebastian De Martino.

Sebastian De Martino.

In addition to the work being carried out to maximise the potential of Chile’s diverse vineyards, a number of producers are finding ways to improve wine quality in the winery, not all of them as hi-tech as building computerised soil-profile maps.

For example, De Martino, whom we visited at their winery in Isla de Maipo, are ageing some of their wines in tinajas, which are large earthenware amphorae collected from the length and (admittedly narrow) breadth of the country. Sebastian De Martino (pictured) showed us an entire warehouse full of assorted sizes of these elegant containers that are a throwback to ancient times. The shape and porosity of the amphora are well suited to the fermentation and gentle ageing of wine. Members might like to try the delicious, savoury 2012 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault (£9.50), made from old vines located in the Itata region, almost 500km south of the capital.

Another company harking back to the past, but this time adding a modern twist, is Miguel Torres. The company is using país grapes, a drought-resistant variety traditionally used for blending (and still the country’s second most widely planted variety), to make a table wine. The twist is that they are employing the technique of carbonic maceration (used widely in Beaujolais) to soften the wine and make it more approachable when young. Miguel Torres has also recently launched a traditional-method rosé sparkling país which will undoubtedly have the champenois raising an eyelid in years to come.

These wines neatly encapsulate all that is good about the Chilean wine industry today, and demonstrate unequivocally that Chile has a bright future.

Tim Sykes
Head of Buying

Comments

  1. David Copp says:

    very impressed with your chilean wines and have recommended them heartily.

  2. John Legg says:

    What an interesting in depth report. Perhaps a general article on soil profiling could be included in one of the regular newsletters.
    There are many good reasons for being a member and Society Grapevine is certainly one of them.

    • Martin Brown says:

      Thank you very much for the kind words, John. Very glad that you enjoy this blog and I have forwarded your suggestion to our news editor.

  3. I lived in Santiago from 1996-2000 and agree with Tim’s assessment of Chilean wine at that time as being drinkable but rather characterless. Carmenere was really the only novelty to emerge at that time. The idea of a Chilean malbec or pinot was still unthinkable and I’m not sure I’d buy them even now. I’m prepared to believe that Chile’s volcanic landscape means a wide variety of soil conditions, but altitude still seems to have the main impact on flavour, since it determines temperature to a greater extent than latitude. Vintages are also less important than in Europe, as Chile’s climate rarely varies except in el Nino years.

  4. Gill Curtis says:

    Thanks for an interesting article.

    I visited Chile in 2002 when my daughter was working out there. At that time, the Elqui valley was just beginning to reduce their growing of grapes for Pisco, and start to look at producing wine in its own right. Have our buyers any up to date information about this?

    • Tim Sykes says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the Elqui Valley is another up-and-coming region that is starting to produce some very good wines, with sauvignon and syrah being particularly successful. It is the most northerly vineyard region of Chile, and as you say, one that has traditionally been home to Pisco production, with Pedro Ximenez (PX) the most widely planted grape. Some producers are indeed making crisp, dry table wines from PX, which show a good deal of promise.
      Elqui is an area that we have bought from in the past (Society’s Chilean Syrah) and which we are keeping a close eye on.

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