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Comment: Chile could have the ‘world at its feet’

Andrew Jefford reflects on this year's Decanter World Wine Awards judging and highlights Chile as one nation that he would love to show greater diversity, notwithstanding its winemakers' success to date.

One of the pleasures of co-chairing the Decanter World Wine Awards is that my colleagues and I take a peep at wines from everywhere – and with 17,000 wines in contention, that’s quite a privilege.

The two weeks of judging, moreover, lead us on a kind of trek from base camp through the uplands of Silver, Gold and Platinum towards the summit of the 50 ‘Best in Show’. There’s grand scenery to admire along the way. The journey this year set me thinking about the question of national character in wine.

Should it exist? Of course: every wine-producing nation sits in a certain position on the face of the earth, and is subject to a particular set of climate parameters. It may possess preponderant soil types; then there are national palates to please, with their own set of likes and dislikes.

What the greatest wine-producing nations can offer, though, are a set of soundly conceived, gastronomically informed, expressive values, which are offset by ample differences both regional and stylistic.

Italy and France both manage this kind of vinous ‘theme and variations’ exceptionally successfully. Perhaps both nations are lucky with their variety of key latitudes, sites and soils; both countries, of course, have had many hundreds of years to refine regional differences. Since humans only get to make wine once a year, it’s hard to shortcut this process. The key for newer wine-producing nations may be to increase varietal diversity, not so much for the print of the varieties themselves but because this liberates and encourages growers to embrace new styles and forms of expression.

Australia, this year’s DWWA showed, can boast more regional differences than many drinkers give it credit for, and its wine creators, too, are clearly interested in stylistic experiment. Spain grows in confidence and attainment every year. Among smaller producing nations, I was hugely impressed by what Canada is managing to achieve: tiny production, but a wide range of styles with often limpid and unfussy vineyard expression.

If I had to pick one nation, by contrast, which I would love to see show greater expressive diversity, it would be Chile. Let me explain, because there’s a puzzle here.

We’ve long known that Chile’s wine-growing zones have an unmatched aptitude for viticulture; it’s beyond question that Chile offers some of the world’s finest value wines. Chile’s remarkable export successes would not have been possible without skilled and sensitive winemakers. Its winemaking community, moreover, understands the imperatives of fine winemaking and site expression as well as it does the delivery of value and consistency in branded wines.

See Chilean Platinum medal winners at DWWA 2018

For me, the challenge seems to be viticultural. There is a ‘Chilean cast’ to too many of the country’s wines, at every level, even those from newer regions or those made with the highest quality ambitions. The frank herbaceousness that was so familiar in the past – particularly with Merlot and Carmenère – is on the wane; nonetheless even the most ambitious wines seem to find it hard not to convey a sense of the green plant lurking behind the fruit, casting a faint shadow across the fruit. This is true of the white wines as well as reds. The puzzle is that it often accompanies ample ripeness; it’s not necessarily a trait of mixed ripeness or under-ripeness, as so often elsewhere.

It’s not, let me be clear, a blemish; indeed it may be that faithful fans of Chilean wines around the world lock on to this trait as being something they particularly like. I like it on occasion; it can come across as freshness. The problem is its ubiquity, over-shadowing the regional and stylistic differences which might otherwise sing out.

Forget oak, of course. If Chile could succeed in bonding its remarkable purity and charm of fruit to whites of taut vinous structure, and to reds in which texture and ripe tannic structures combine to efface the memory of plant and leaf and tendril, it would have the world at its feet.

Andrew Jefford is a Decanter contributing editor and the Louis Roederer International Columnist of 2016 for this and his ‘Jefford on Monday‘ column. He is currently writing series of ‘August essays’ on Decanter.com, of which the latest concerns the influence of money on the world’s top wines.

See more Decanter magazine articles from the September 2018 issue

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