The winners – and losers – of the Chilean wine industry’s recent awards took everyone by surprise. BEVERLEY BLANNING MW considers the implications and a possible new era for the country’s producers
A smart way for a developing wine country to show the world it has arrived is to stage an international competition. Chile launched its own version five years ago, with the latest awards ceremony taking place in January. The panel of judges was the usual mix of journalists and wine buyers. The outcome, though, was less predictable, leaving some producers delighted, and others scratching their heads in bewilderment. Errazuriz and Arboleda owner Eduardo Chadwick expressed his surprise, saying: ‘There were many unknown wines among the winners. Now I really want to go and visit these producers; Chile is changing so fast.’
Apart from the ‘unknown’ winners, there was consternation that regions and varieties one would have expected to do well often did not. Wines from the topquality regions of Maipo and Casablanca failed to win trophies, while Chilean Merlot and Chardonnay appear to have fallen by the wayside. There were also fewer gold medals than in previous years. Julia Harding MW, assistant to Jancis Robinson MW, said: ‘There was a high general level of consistency and quality but not enough sparkle at the top. Most great wines are made on the edge. Maybe Chile is playing it too safe – it just doesn’t have that edge in most instances.’ So is it time to rethink where to look for the future greats of Chile?
Clearly, we are tiring of safe Merlot and Chardonnay, even though some Chilean examples are very good. But if Merlot is a bit of a bore, Carmenère – the Bordeaux grape it used to be confused with – is quite the reverse, finally blossoming into one of Chile’s most exciting exports. These wines are usually endowed with more personality than Merlot, combining firm structure with rich, blackcurrant and spicy tobacco flavours. Carmenère is a regular star performer in the Colchagua Valley, where the reliably warm climate ripens the grapes to perfection. Carmenère specialist Casa Silva is proud of its research into the best sites. Mario Paolo Silva says: ‘Carmenère is the most terroir-dependent grape in Chile, but in the right spot it can produce the most beautiful wines.’
In addition to the enthusiasm generated by Carmenère, the Pinot Noirs were praised by the judges for their improved subtlety and delicacy, especially those from the recently planted SanAntonio Valley. This cold, coastal appellation is turning out to be a more reliable source of top-notch Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc than the larger and more established neighbouring district of Casablanca, which has more variable growing conditions (some producers in Casablanca are even betting on reds to be the next big thing here). Leading Pinot Noir producer Cono Sur has recently invested in a large new vineyard in San Antonio. General manager and winemaker Adolfo Hurtado was setting his sights on the far south region of Bío-Bío a few years ago, but he now feels that the climate there is too rainy to produce good Pinot: ‘The wines are floral and fresh, but lack concentration,’ he says, adding that the area is best for aromatic whites (as his success with Gewurztraminer and Riesling testifies).
There is no small excitement surrounding the succulent Syrahs springing up all over Chile, but especially those from the northerly Limarí and Elqui Valleys, where magically combine perfume, concentration and balance. Another category showing real diversity and interest is red blends. No longer content to just follow the market, Chilean winemakers are showing innovation in making fresh and sophisticated blends that reflect the land, using Carmenère and Syrah along with the more heavily planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (see our June issue for a panel tasting of Chilean red blends).
But what of Chile’s flagship variety?
Cabernet Sauvignon is still the most widely planted grape and best-known wine in the country, yet in January’s competition, they were not the most impressive wines. And none of the wines that won gold medals came from Maipo Valley, the most renowned region for Cabernet. The trophy winner was a little-known wine from Maule, a region better known for high-volume wines than for prizes. This is not the first time Maipo has failed to take the top slot in the Wines of Chile Awards, which suggests that this may not, after all, be the definitively best spot for Cabernet. Some winemakers have already concluded that there is more value to be had from other varieties in Maipo. Bruno Prats, former owner of Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux and owner of Viña Aquitania, says he is now planting Syrah instead of Cabernet, since the latter has proved less successful than he hoped. Fellow Bordelais and Chilean winemaker Jacques Lurton says: ‘Maipo is perhaps too cool to produce top-quality Cabernet – it’s better for Syrah.’ Lurton says he prefers Cabernet grown further south, in warmer
Colchagua: ‘Here you can escape the menthol and eucalyptus,’ he says. ‘Thewines taste like a cross between Bordeaux in a ripe year, and Napa.’ But those with more long-standing experience of growing grapes and making wine in Maipo vigorously defend the credentials of this historic area. Top winemaker and consultant Alvaro Espinoza is firm in his view that Maipo is still ‘by far the best place’ for top-quality Cabernet. He maintains: ‘For me, the best expression of Cabernet in Chile is the Alto Maipo, the highest part of the valley, close to the Andes. Here you get complexity and tannic structure. It’s hard to make great Cabernet in other regions.’ What about the complaint of green fruit character? ‘Yes, some places can be meaty, too balsamic and herbal, but if you have low vigour, good ripening, and correct yields, Maipo is the top expression in Chile.’ Cono Sur’s Hurtado agrees: ‘Cabernets from the south are sweeter, friendlier and juicier on the palate. But the real elegance is in Maipo.’ If Maipo is still producing the best Cabernet fruit, there may be another reason why the wines are less impressive than one might expect: perhaps the styles of wine being made by the more established producers have not adjusted to changes in taste as quickly as new producers elsewhere. There is evidencethat this more traditional region has been slower to embrace the more fruit-forward and less oaky styles of wine that are increasingly popular.
A common complaint from this year’s judges was the excessive use of oak, something that was especially noticeable in more expensive Cabernets. Sunday Times correspondent Joanna Simon summarised: ‘There are still wines where the powerful taste of oak is masking the flavours of the wine, or in some cases being used to try to cover up inadequacies… there needs to be a reappraisal of the styles being produced.’
Easy on the oak
Chilean winemakers recognise that there is an issue to be addressed. Aurelio Montes, owner of the eponymous winery (see interview, p54), says he has adapted the style of his wines in the past few years to take account of changing tastes: ‘I won’t betray my winemaking, but I will adapt,’ he says. ‘The market is demanding more fruit and less oak. I’ve always been quite lavish with oak, but it can cover switching to a more modern, fruity style.’ Espinoza can also see the move towards alternative styles. He says: ‘Now, people are looking for freshness and balance and harmony. In the past, it was more about power and complexity.’ Speaking of his admiration for the multi-award-winning young winery Falernia, in the Elqui Valley, Espinoza says: ‘These wines are full of fruit, with little or no oak. For a traditional winemaker like me, it’s harder to leave the barrels alone.’ Freshness, balance and harmony are words that come to mind when tastingSyrahs from the far north of Chile, which again excelled in this year’s awards. The new regions of Limarí Valley and, especially, Elqui Valley, are producing wines with impressive fruit purity and concentration. The distinctive character of the wines is determined largely by the microclimates within the narrow valleys, where the air is clear and dry.
The trophy-winning Falernia winery’s four vineyard sites demonstrate how, despite its shape, Chile’s terroir is usually influenced far more by east-to-west geography than north to-south. Day and night-time temperatures depend on the grapes’ proximity to the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean or the Andes mountains. The Falernia vineyards range in altitude from 350–1700m above sea level. The lower land is only 11km from the ocean, while the upper vineyards are more than 100km away, high in the Andes. Chile is well established as a serious wine-producing nation, but its regional strengths are still being discovered. The simple division of the country into north-south regions belies the enormous complexity within them. Discussing the current state of play, Espinoza says he sees ‘more distinguished regionality’ in Chile today. ‘Today, all our wineries are more respectful of regions and their characteristics than in the past,’ he says. Easy it’s not. But as Chile’s winemakers are discovering, no one ever said great wine should be easy.
Written by Beverley Blanning