Chile has established its reputation as a producer of good-value, gluggable wines. Now top Chilean winemakers are setting out to prove that their wines can achieve greatness, says PETER RICHARDS.
I’ve always placed faith in taxi drivers. But this Chilean cabbie, hunched over the wheel, his eye beading me in the rear-view mirror, unnerved me. ‘In Latin America, socialism doesn’t work. We’re lazy. We need an iron hand in power. Chileans – we’re the most docile of the lot.’ The eye peered, eager for a response. I smiled. Nothing changes.
Or so I thought. The driver was confirming the face of Chile as I had left it two years previously: a hugely promising country suffering an identity crisis. After all, would you recognise the Chilean flag? Can you name three famous Chileans? Yet my unswerving faith in taxi drivers as the fount of all knowledge was about to take an unexpected knock.
In the past decade, the country’s wine industry has saved the day, and boosted the nation’s coffers, morale and profile. Recently though, it has become tarred by the same brush: Chilean wines are very friendly but hardly the most individual.
Now, all that is set to change. Over the course of my time in Chile, I realised that the driver’s gnarled features represented the face of old Chile. The new Chile is pioneered by a reunified and confident wine industry that will show some exceptional wines this year.
If you thought Chile was serious about its wine before now, think again. Yes, the country continues to produce gluggable wines at equally mouth-watering prices. It’s even slapped some stratospheric price tags onto the top bottles without too many grumbles. But now the nation’s winemakers are eyeing up a far bigger bull’s-eye: wines that speak of Chile and its terroir. All over the country, the search is on for new vineyard territory. That means moving away from the flat, fertile central valley and scouring cooler, hardier terrain near the coast or mountains, or in the northern and southern winemaking extremes. That search is bearing great fruit.
It’s as if someone hit the identity crisis button and a message flashed up: ‘Head for the hills’. Take Aurelio Montes. Planting on dizzyingly steep slopes in Apalta in the Colchagua Valley, Montes is on a mission. ‘It was a bingo feeling when we planted Syrah on Apalta’s slopes,’ he enthuses. ‘As a winemaker, when you find the right terroir and the right grape variety, you’ve made it. We weren’t looking for it, but it happened.’ The Alpha Syrah and new super-cuvée Folly are very impressive signs of things to come.
Casa Lapostolle is another winery also putting Apalta on the Chilean map, albeit via a different route. Its Clos Apalta is made from a blend of Carmenère (more about this later), Merlot and Cabernet.
Living on the Edge
Such moves are groundbreaking for the Chilean wine scene and should be the catalyst for its development. In this sense, Chile needs its mavericks, its pioneers. Men like the urbane Montes, Ignacio Recabarren (of Concha y Toro), Alvaro Espinoza (of Antiyal) and Patrick Valette.
Valette is a charming Chilean-born Bordeaux vintner, formerly of Château Pavie and now at El Principal, high in the Andean foothills overlooking Santiago. His focus on terroir is producing commendable results.
‘It’s easy to make good wine in Chile,’ he says, ‘but not easy to make great wine. Our aim is to demonstrate that Chile can make top-quality terroir wine. To do this, we like to work the vines close to their limits. We’re in the business of making wines that speak of Chile with class and with charm – nothing obvious.’ El Principal’s top cuvée and its second wine, Memorias, bear out these words: complex and ripe, yet reticent, they show an authentic, elegant Chilean character.
That character, in all its different expressions, is also emerging from such other wineries as Haras de Pirque, Errázuriz, Veramonte, Viña Leyda and Concha y Toro. The last on the list might seem out of place: a Goliath hiding among Davids. And yes, as by far the largest winery in South America, the Concha y Torro brand has a huge impact on how Chilean wine is perceived. Happily, it now features exemplary wines under the Trio, Terrunyo, Marqués and Amelia labels, all of which are developing distinct characters within an increasingly adventurous range. Other producers may follow suit.
As Concha y Toro winemaker Ignacio Recabarren explains, ‘We’re making a big leap in winemaking terms and it’s due to a new focus on the vineyard. It’s those taking an interest in the land and the plants that are getting ahead and setting the example. We need these challenges to help us progress.’
In the field, one such challenge lies with Chile’s Carmenère grape variety. Grown virtually exclusively in Chile, Carmenère is something of a highly gifted problem child. It needs special care and attention both in the vineyard and winery if it is to blossom into a polished finished article. But good producers are increasingly prepared to go the extra mile for Carmenère, as they know it can give their wine that special touch of Chilean-ness.
Carmenère is starting to sparkle in its natural environment, where it can be aged in a blend with other grapes. It sits happily in a blend – indeed, the variety’s roots lie in Bordeaux, where it was always blended and aged. Haras de Pirque’s winemaker Philippe Dardenne agrees. ‘Carmenère is a tremendous grape for blending,’ he says.
Among the most notable blended, ageworthy wines are Clos Apalta and the excellent Primus – the best from Veramonte – made in the Casablanca Valley from Carmenère, Cabernet and Merlot. ‘It’s a wine that causes a stir,’ says Veramonte’s winemaker Rafael Tirado. ‘Primus is what I call a discussion wine – it provokes heated debates.’
Such debates are just what Chile needs if it is to develop a reputation as a diverse and exciting wine- producing destination, rather than merely a functional production line with good terroir.
On the Tourist Route
Chile’s best features are its natural ones, and its scenery does tend towards the exhibitionist. Stunning Atacaman desert expanses coupled with towering Antarctic glaciers and Andean peaks have been the traditional lure for tourists. Now, fast-emerging wines that speak of Chile and its terroir mean its wine country is becoming another valuable draw. As Valette observes, ‘We need time for consumers to accept that Chile can make top quality terroir wine. The increasing numbers of people visiting Chile can start to appreciate this and the message will slowly filter through.’
As Chile gears up to establish wine as its ambassador abroad, the wineries are opening their arms to foreign visitors at home. Giancarlo Bianchetti, of Concha y Toro, sees the potential: ‘We want to promote Chile on the beauty and diversity of its people, land and wines. Natural diversity attracts tourists and helps people understand the wines. Welcoming wineries can do the rest.’
‘Chile should keep working at selling good, distinctive wines at competitive prices,’ says La Rosa’s winemaker José Ignacio Cancino. ‘But it’s clear from a new attitude to the vineyards and exciting terroirs that we can also make wines that justify higher prices.’ Chile is beginning to sell itself to the world. There is a new maturity in the wineries, and a select few are setting an example that could eventually establish them as world-beaters. Taxi drivers take note.