Chile, Close up

  • Wednesday 1 October 2003

Natasha Hughes finds the perfect pairings of grape and terroir in the Aconcagua, Maipo and Rapel Valleys

Natasha Hughes finds the perfect pairings of grape and terroir in the Aconcagua, Maipo and Rapel Valleys

As you drive south from Santiago along Ruta 5 – the long, thin extension of the Pan-American highway that snakes down Chile's long, thin spine – a plethora of roadside hoardings extol the merits of various bodegas. Proof, if any were needed, of just how important wine is to the Chilean sense of identity.

In GDP terms, wine is in the top six Chilean exports. More importantly, it has put Chile on the map in terms of international image.

A few years ago, most of the wine produced here was destined for domestic consumption; these days, exports are driving the market. Yet while Chile's New World competitors are beginning to exploit the appeal of their various terroirs, Chile has yet to establish a distinct identity for its own regions.

'As recently as five years ago, everyone was planting anything anywhere,' explains Misiones de Rengo's winemaker Sebastian Ruiz Flaño. 'Now that we have the infrastructure in place, we need to work on our varietal selection. I think it will be a long time before our terroirs are truly established.'

That's not to say that regional identity doesn't exist, however. Far from it. 'Anyone who says that Chile has no terroirs is wrong,' says Pedro Izquierdo, Errazuriz's viticulturist. 'The problem is the appellation system. It's tied to the municipalities and doesn't provide any information.'

Slowly, though, things are changing. Winemakers are taking steps to match the climatic and geological potential of locations to the appropriate varieties – and patterns are already beginning to emerge. One major generalisation can be made. As Javier Paredes Legrand, general manager of Torréon de Paredes, points out, 'The Pan-American highway divides the country in half. The soil to the west is richer, with more organic content than the soil in the east. Water also runs deep, submerged into underground rivers that only rise to the surface near the coast.'

Consequently, most of Chile's wine-growing areas tend to be incredibly dry. Furthermore, below a thin layer of topsoil that needs little encouragement to become dust, the subsoil is extremely stony. These two givens, along with variations in the climate, have a profound effect on the country's wines.

'There are certain characteristics that I have come to associate with particular terroirs,' says Izquierdo. 'Aconcagua Cabernets usually have good levels of fruit ripeness, while those from Maipo tend to have a minty note. You'll often find soy sauce in Aconcagua Carmenères and roasted peppers in those from Curico. Colchagua's Syrahs are fruity, while Aconcagua's are meaty and gamey; and Merlot grown in the Aconcagua has more intensity and a greater degree of extraction than you'll find anywhere else.'

What was that about a lack of regional identity? Read on…

Aconcagua Valley

This is the most northerly of Chile's wine-growing areas. Confusingly enough, the name Aconcagua can be used to indicate both a large-scale municipality that also contains the Casablanca, San Antonio and Leyda Valleys, and a discrete appellation in its own right.

Although both Casablanca and, latterly, Leyda have acquired a reputation for cool-climate varieties, Aconcagua, which is known for its reds, has one of the warmest micro-climates in Chile. The reason – a corridor of mountains that protects it from oceanic influences. To date, the largest investor in the valley has been Errazuriz, both for its own brands and for Seña, its cooperative venture with Mondavi.

The 260ha Seña vineyard (of which only 16ha is currently under vine) is planted mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Merlot is planted where the soil is densest, with least stones. Stony areas are reserved for the Cabernet, where the poverty of the soil promotes intense root competition between the plants.

Another key influence in the area are the dramatic swings in temperature between day and night, which has a huge impact on the development of colour pigments.

Basablanca & Leyda Valley

People tend to generalise about Casablanca, characterising it as a cool-climate area. But the end of the valley that lies closest to Santiago is far less influenced by coastal breezes.

Veramonte's vineyards lie at the valley's warm easterly point and are planted extensively with red varieties as well as white. Juggling micro-climatic and geological considerations is key. 'The soil is a blend of granitic and sandy soils, and we're working with a range of rootstocks,' says Felipe Aldunate Valdes, Veramonte's general manager. 'Merlot does best where there's sand, clay and lime, while with Cabernet we look for steeper slopes with better drainage. The lower areas of the vineyard are cooler, so they're reserved for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.'

Veramonte has enjoyed considerable success growing red grapes in the region, yet Casablanca is best known for its whites. 'Casablanca can be subdivided into different areas,' explains Maria del Pilar Gonzalez, head winemaker at Viña Carmen. 'You get tropical notes nearest Maipo, mineral notes in the middle and citrus towards the coast.'

Perhaps the biggest buzz in Chile at the moment is about the Leyda Valley, recently awarded appellation status. 'Leyda shows huge potential for whites and for Pinot Noir,' states Viña Montes' Aurelio Montes. 'Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère don't work at all. And I'm reserving judgement as to whether it's suitable for Syrah.'

'We're planting Merlot,' says Gustavo Llona Tagle, managing director of Viña Leyda, the biggest winery in the area. 'We think a cool-climate version will work well here. In general, it's a very cold area, with an extremely long growing season, which allows flavours to develop fully. Pinots and the white varieties tend to become very elegant, with good acidity.

Colchagua Valley

The potential of Colchagua is only now being realised. Lolol and Marchigue, in particular, are two sub-regions that are just coming into focus, while Apalta is hovering on the edge of stardom.

'Apalta is great for Bordeaux grapes as it has a dry climate with big swings in temperature,' says Michel Friou, Casa Lapostolle's winemaker. 'The cool-climate regions by the coast and in the mountain foothills haven't been explored properly yet, but I think they'll be good for whites.'

'Syrah in Chile has a lot of potential,' enthuses Misiones' Ruiz Flaño, 'especially the Syrah that comes from the middle of Colchagua Valley. It needs long, warm days and cold nights to ripen properly – exactly the conditions you'll find there.'

Viña Montes grows the grapes for its premium reds in the Apalta region. 'Carmenère grown in this valley has a good future,' says Montes. 'In fertile soils it never stops growing and produces that green pepper flavour. Carmenère planted on the hillside ripens really well, becoming soft and fleshy. The rocky clay soils have a poor water-holding capacity, which helps control the vigour of the vines.

'Marchigue is different,' he adds. 'With its clay soils and similar climate, it's the Chilean Pomerol. We're planting it with Merlot.' Canepa's 400ha in the west of the area are among the most incredible vineyards I've ever seen: a thick bedrock of volcanic pumice covered by a layer of incredibly fine, clinging white dust to a depth of up to a metre. If it weren't for the vast cacti that punctuate it, the vineyard would look like it was growing on the surface of the moon.

Grapes are thriving in this strange soil. 'We've planted 17 varieties here since 1997,' says Jose Canepa of Viña Canepa. 'They all seem to reach good quality levels, but the Carmenère, Merlot and Malbec are outstanding, while the white stars are Viognier and Chardonnay.'

As for Lolol, Ruiz Flaño says that if he could plant any variety in Chile, he'd plant Carmenère in Lolol. 'It has the potential to be the best grape in Chile,' he says, 'but it's very tricky to grow well, so you have to choose the right place. That place may well be Lolol: it's close to the ocean, which has a strong influence on the local climate, and the soil is very poor. The variety should ripen really well there.'

Maipo Valley

The Maipo Valley surrounds Santiago, and produces most of its premium, Cabernet-based reds. Many of these are concentrated in a small area just south of the capital, Puente Alto.

The vineyards for Concha y Toro's Almaviva and Don Melchor are within spitting distance of each other. The success of the Cabernets grown here can be partly attributed to the incredible stoniness of the soil – largely rocks held together with a fragile dusting of soil. The climate, too, has a part to play, with big temperature swings between night and day contributing to phenolic ripeness.

But Maipo isn't just about premium Cabernet. Del Pilar Gonzalez at Viña Carmen notes that there is still much to learn about the region's terroir: 'There's still a lot of discussion about which areas are best,' she says. 'Some of the sub-regions within the valley are still being explored. For instance, Syrah and Petite Sirah both do particularly well in Alhue, near Maipo's southern border with Rapel.'

Cachapoal Valley The Rapel Valley is split into two parts, Cachapoal and Colchagua. Given we're in Chile, it comes as no surprise to learn that these can also be further subdivided.

Loosely speaking, Rancagua and Rengo are best known for their reds, while Requinoa is a white wine area. Javier Paredes Legrand, general manager of Torréon de Paredes, is passionate about his little corner of Rengo. 'The valley is protected by the mountains from the worst of the weather,' he says. 'Summer temperatures can reach 35ºC then drop to 12ºC at night. If I could plant anywhere in Chile, I'd stay in Cachapoal and go further into the Andes to find a cooler climate to plant some Pinot Noir.'

Stephane Geneste, winemaker at Chateau Los Boldos, Torreon's near-neighbour, is also enthusiastic about the potential of grapes grown at altitude: 'There's a lot of places that aren't yet fully exploited in Chile, particularly at altitude.'

As well as growing a lot of Cabernet on his home turf, Geneste is also exploring other varieties. 'Syrah has been very successful here,' he says. 'Our stony soil controls its vigour. I also think the weather is ideal for growing Grenache and Mourvèdre, and Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne could also be interesting.' Across the country, Chilean winemakers are rising to the challenge of learning more about the regions they've already planted and hunting out those as-yet-undiscovered niches of excellence. As Ed Flaherty, Errazuriz's winemaker put it, 'What you're going to see more and more of in Chile are these little patches of terroir that produce interesting wines. We've only just started playing with these small projects. Finding the right variety for each area is the challenge we're facing.'

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