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Chilean Syrah

Chile’s first Syrah debuted in 1995; a decade later peter richards was one of the first to see the grape’s potential. Today it is on everyone’s lips

The defining moment for Chilean Syrah, at least from my perspective, came in January 2005. Together with other members of the UK wine industry, I was judging at the Annual Wines of Chile Awards in Santiago, a recently established blind tasting of hundreds of Chilean wines. After much deliberation, we gave the Wine of the Show award to an elegant, scented Syrah – from Falernia in the Elqui Valley as it turned out – vividly reminiscent of a northern Rhône. (A fellow judge had turned to me and exclaimed: ‘it’s pure Chave!’)

Why did we single this wine out for the top gong? It was drinkable, pure and evocative. It spoke of a grape and a place. And most of all, it was different, new and exciting. All of us judges left that room converts to the cause of Chilean Syrah.

It was an award that caused much commotion in the Chilean wine industry. Few were even aware that serious wine was being made in Elqui, hitherto a valley known for its pisco (grape brandy), hippy enclaves and UFO sightings.

And, while Syrah at that time was burgeoning in popularity in Chile’s vineyards and wineries, Falernia’s was a radical departure in style from much of what had been produced up to that point.

It was, however, a sign of things to come. Today, what increasingly tends to characterise Chilean Syrah is diversity: of styles, regions, producers and price points. It is a fascinating – and delicious – process of evolution to witness.

The northern Rhône has been growing Syrah vines for centuries (DNA studies have shown the variety originated from a crossing of Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza, probably in the Isère region of France). Australia also has a long history with this variety – James Busby collected plants from France in a trip in 1831 and planted them shortly afterwards.

But Syrah in Chile has had a chequered history (see box, p73). It was only really established in the country in the mid-1990s (though its plantings have grown quickly since). As a result, Chile is only now starting to learn how best to cultivate and manage Syrah; where best to plant which clones on which rootstocks; and then how to vinify it. The vines are still young; the benefit of experience and vine age – both valuable assets in the wine growing business – is scarce.

Yet Chile is already starting to prove that not only can it produce outstanding wines from Syrah, but that there is much more to come. Take it from John Duval, the man who made wine at Penfolds for 29 years, including many vintages of Grange. Among other things,

he now works with Ventisquero on its top Syrahs from the Apalta Valley in Colchagua, including icon wine Pangea.

‘I think 34 vintages of Syrah give me some insight into the possibilities of this variety in Chile,’ he says dryly, before delivering a telling judgement. ‘Australia virtually invented the term Shiraz; Chile can do the same for Syrah. The potential in Chile for Syrah is enormous.’

Regional characters

One of the most intriguing aspects of the development of Chilean Syrah has been the evolution of markedly divergent regional and even sub-regional styles, which makes drinking very rewarding but generalisations very difficult.

Take Colchagua. This warm, sunny area – incidentally, the region with the largest plantings of Syrah in Chile – typically produces full-flavoured, spicy reds with super ripe fruit and sweet tannins. And yet Syrah is starting to emerge in a number of different styles, from the burly beauty of Apalta to the sleek savouriness of the more coastal Marchihue.

Lolol and Peralillo are two other Colchagua sub-zones making a name for themselves with this variety, which the winemakers like to describe as ‘plastic’ due to its chameleon-like ability to change nature given its surroundings.

Other regions are undergoing a similar process of evolution. Elqui, in Chile’s northern winemaking territory, tends to produce Chile’s most northern-Rhône-like Syrahs, with aromatics of violets, black pepper and grilled meat, together with a savoury, often mid-weight palate profile. It’s undoubtedly a fuller style than the northern Rhône, but it also has a profoundly savoury character that’s rarely found in the New World.

San Antonio and coastal Casablanca often give the same kind of meaty, floral, peppery Syrahs as Elqui, though usually in a richer, fuller style with more blackberry fruit. Matetic’s EQ Syrah is a benchmark wine in this context, though the likes of Casa Marin, Viña Leyda, Casas del Bosque, Kingston, Loma Larga and Garcés Silva (Amayna) are also providing increasing diversity. The example set by these producers indicates there will be a bright future for Syrah in Chile’s other coastal regions, where decomposed granitic hillsides and cooling sea breezes provide an ideal home for this variety.

Limarí is just starting to develop a regional style which sits somewhere between Elqui and San Antonio: elegant tannins, refreshing acidity, savoury spice and ripe fruit. Much of the Syrah vineyard in Limarí is planted in the warmer inland areas; it will be fascinating to see how the wines evolve as new coastal vineyards (of which there are plenty) come on-stream. For the moment, wines from producers like Tabalí, Casa Tamaya, GEO, Maycas del Limarí, Cono Sur, Santa Rita and Undurraga are worth trying.

Aconcagua, along with Colchagua, gives the most overtly New World style of Chilean Syrah/Shiraz, with ripe fruit, high alcohol and creamy oak making for a rich, heady style of wine. But this picture may change as Errázuriz brings into action new vines in the cooler west of the region.

Maipo is also undergoing similar developments with Syrah, though to a lesser extent given the ongoing predominance in this region of Bordeaux varieties, principally Cabernet Sauvignon. The tiny Choapa region only makes Syrah, in a rich yet savoury style, under the aegis of respected winemaker Marcelo Retamal of De Martino.

Future fortunes

As for the future of Chilean Syrah, my bet is that this variety will go from strength to strength, eventually becoming one of its headline stars. Chile can cater for the bottom end, with cheap and cheerful reds full of ripe fruit and soft sweet tannin; and it is proving it can cater for more refined tastes at the top end, too.

From a personal point of view, it would be good to see the Chileans trying to work on reducing alcohol, extraction and oak levels, and jettisoning the risk-averse winemaking to let this naturally protean variety sing in a variety of ever-more edgy, perfumed, challenging styles. It is in this spirit of diversity that I have selected my Top 10 Chilean Syrahs (see below), encompassing a range of styles, prices, regions and producers.

The reality of Syrah in Chile is a fast-evolving one. At the latest Wines of Chile Awards in January, San Pedro won Wine of the Show for its 1865 Syrah from Cachapoal. It was a reminder, barely five years on from that initial defining moment, that Syrah and Chile have a long way yet to go together.

Written by Peter Richards

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