Chile made its name producing decent, affordable, drinkable wine. ANTHONY ROSE reports back from the country’s first awards contest on the wines that shone out

When Eduardo Chadwick of Viña Errazuriz rose to give the annual Wine and Spirit Education Trust address last year, he made two bold predictions. First he said that Chile would rival Australia to become recognised as ‘the world’s alternative source of premium wines’. Secondly that Chile – the only country that has historically been free of phylloxera – would become the world leader in organic viticulture. Within less than a year, an international tasting of the world’s top reds in Berlin saw his own two wines, Viña Chadwick and Errazuriz Seña, overshadow such icons as the 2000 Château Lafite, Margaux and Sassicaia. Then, at the first Annual Chilean Wine Awards in December 2003, the Best of Show was taken by 2001 Coyam, an organic red blend from Santa Emiliana made by Alvaro Espinoza.

So far, so far-sighted. But Chadwick would be the first to admit that, however accurate his predictions of the previous year, the Pan-American highway is but one short step compared with the much bigger leap Chile still has to make before it can genuinely rival Australia’s premium wines. For while Chile’s small band of conquistadores may have ambushed the best of Bordeaux and Tuscany in a one-off tasting, the vast majority of Chilean wines still sell for under £5, with two in every five bearing a supermarket label. Once over the £5 mark, a resistance kicks in. The UK consumer’s habit for affordability sustains the notion of Chilean wine as essentially a value-for-money commodity. At the same time, most consumers still only have hazy notions about the country itself. In a survey conducted by Wines of Chile to gauge the market for its wines, images of Chile didn’t range much beyond ‘llamas, mountains and military dictators’.

With the all-important middle sector of the market in mind, Chile finally grasped the cactus and held a competition at the end of last year in Santiago designed to find the best wines of their kind at £5–15. Australia, New Zealand and others have been holding such competitions for years. Open-mindedness and a willingness to engage is one of the New World’s recipes for success, but not in Chile, where chiropractors must have been doing a roaring trade in fixing all the necks cricked from time spent looking over shoulders. Until now, that is. A new regime in Chile and London, and figures showing the lack of any significant progress at the premium wine level combined to shame the Chilean industry into taking the bold approach. Which is why six tasters from the UK packed their bags for Santiago before Christmas to taste some 500 wines, alongside three of Chile’s braver souls – Alvaro Espinoza (winemaker), Hector Vargara (sommelier) and Patricio Tapia (wine writer).

The two-day competition was conducted on international guidelines, with all wines tasted blind in panels of three, and gold, silver or bronze medals awarded. The first surprise was the Chilean judges – instead of being a soft touch, as might have been expected, they were even harsher than their international counterparts. The second surprise came on the Wednesday evening when the results were posted prior to a gala awards dinner. The 500 wines had been whittled down to 23 golds, 37 silvers and 114 bronzes, with a welcome number of newcomers to the honours list.

Alvaro Espinoza was the only winemaker on the judging panel. But instead of raising eyebrows when his 2001 Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana, won the best wine of show award, he was warmly applauded. As one of Chile’s most dynamic pioneers, and one of the prime movers behind Chile’s organic movement, Espinoza is recognised as having made a valuable contribution to the Chilean industry. His integrity, not to mention experience, is one reason why the industry was happy to accept him as a judge. In fact his success in gaining gold medals both for Coyam and the 2002 Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana, Novas Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot transcended personal triumph to be seen instead as a strong endorsement of the potential for organic wines in Chile.

The 2001 Coyam, the first release at VOE (Viña Organica Emiliana), is a blend of five varieties – Carmenère, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Mourvèdre – all grown organically at Los Robles in Nancagua. The 2002 Novas is also a blend of organically certified grapes, in this instance 70% Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo and 30% Merlot from Colchagua.

While it might be tempting to discount Chile’s burgeoning organic movement as just another marketing wheeze, that would be to ignore a clear trend in the marketplace for better quality and sustainable production.

As Espinoza says: ‘Consumers are becoming more sensitive to what they eat and drink and also the quality of the production. Because of the ideal growing conditions in Chile of a dry climate and healthy viticulture, we have the advantage of being able to produce high quality organic wines. So we can really make a difference in that category’.

Apart from the obvious success of Espinoza’s organic reds, the competition brought into sharp focus just how much progress Chilean reds have made, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and red blends. As a generally warm country with apparently limited access to water, Chile’s potential for world-beating Cabernet seems obvious, but it takes just as long for entrenched attitudes to change as it does for vines to mature. ‘Our new viticulture is young’, says Espinoza, ‘but the wines are starting to show the developments we’ve been working on over the last decade. Better grapes are planted in the right places and these vines are starting to mature and produce better wines. I think also that producers have a far better understanding today of what consumers want and, linked to that, is a new generation of winemakers with more overseas experience.

While not on the panel himself, Concha y Toro winemaker Ignacio Recabarren agreed that blending is one of the most important methods of achieving greater complexity. Acknowledging that most of Chile’s better vineyards are still young, he also believes that new varieties, improved clones and better thought-out vineyard sites can only yield a positive outcome. ‘It’s no use thinking you make Château Bordeaux from young vines in two to four years. People who are making good wines accept the need for patience in order to achieve greater concentration and complexity. Those who aren’t doing that risk losing out in this competitive environment’. He also sees strong potential for more specifically Bordeaux-style Chilean blends with Syrah and Carmenère as important blending components with Cabernet Sauvignon.

VALUE FOR MONEY

Concha y Toro’s 2001 Marqués de Casa Concha, £7.99 at Safeway, justifiably took the award for best-value red. Other new names in the Cabernet and blended reds stakes included Viña Chocalan and the 2001 Viña Siegel, El Crucero Cabernet Sauvignon. Three wineries from the underrated Maule Valley in Chile’s south also struck gold: the 1999 Viña Aresti, Family Collection, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001 Viña Casa Donoso, D and 2002 Viña El Aromo, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s probably harder to draw conclusions from trophies for the likes of Pinot Noir and Syrah given the more limited material, but it’s encouraging that the categories are growing. The excellence of the fruit in both the trophy-winning 2002 Tabalí Reserve Syrah and the 2002 Viña TerraMater, Shiraz Cabernet made you wish that more Syrah was planted in a country which seems so ideally suited to the variety.

Equally, the concentration and fruit intensity in the 2001 Cono Sur 20 Barrel Pinot Noir from the coolest corner of the Casablanca Valley makes it one of the most convincing Pinots yet to emerge from Chile. As Cono Sur’s Adolfo Hurtado pointed out, ‘Until four or five years ago, Pinot Noir was a non-player for Chile internationally and nationally. But Chile has the ideal conditions for this variety in valleys like Casablanca, Leyda, Bío Bío – where the climate is cold and the soil is red with clay – and Mulchèn. There is a new Pinot Noir generation responding to the serious line of work carried out in these recently discovered and planted valleys.’

Merlot showed less well, but many believe that will change once new plantings of good clones of Merlot take hold in areas better suited to the variety. At the same time, strict new Agriculture Department recognition procedures should help separate out Merlot from Carmenère in the vineyard.

Greater confidence in ensuring a better match of grape and clone to location and climate is not just talk. With so much at stake in planting new areas, Concha y Toro, working with the Catholic University, has successfully used global positioning systems to locate potential sites for planting new vines. Meanwhile, Mario Pablo Silva of Viña Casa Silva, winner of the Carmenère trophy for his 2002 Viña Casa Silva, Doña Dominga Reserva Carmenère from Los Lingues, is about to embark on a three year terroir study, the first of its kind to cover land already planted. Casa Silva has worked the vineyards for nearly 100 years, developing, in Mario Silva’s view, the necessary in-depth viticultural knowledge that’s getting off the ground in other parts of the country.

If reds stole the show, there was encouragement for white wines in the performance of assertive Sauvignon and Chablis-style Chardonnay from cooler areas close to the Pacific cost, such as Casablanca, Leyda and the northerly Limari region. With vineyards in Maipo, Rapel and Casablanca, Ventisquero – established in 1998 – has made good use of three different clones planted in both blue clay and sandy soils, to create a wine of intense varietal flavours in the 2003 Yali Sauvignon Blanc, winner of the trophy for best-value white. Viña Agustinos, a project that only started up a year and a half ago, scored a gold medal for the 2003 Sauvignon Blanc, made, according to its chief viticulturist and winemaker Juan Ignacio Ramsay, specifically with origin in mind. Not surprisingly, the biggest differences between the medal-winners and also-rans were down to yield and location. With both points taken on board, the future for classy whites, as well as fine reds, looks more assured than ever.

Anthony Rose writes a wine column for The Independent, and specialises in Chile.

Written by Anthony Rose