One might compare it to the sense of disappointed love after a brief yet intense romance. The fact is that when the Chilean wine industry realised that its newly rediscovered Carmenère was a difficult grape – and that not everyone liked it – the idea of having it as a flagship variety lost appeal. Suddenly it had the same feeble foundations as the fantasies of a betrayed lover.
It was at that point – around the middle of the last decade – that Chilean producers began to talk about diversity. They argued that a single grape variety shouldn’t represent Chile (like Malbec in Argentina), but that many different varieties should represent the diversity of climates and soils that can be found in the country. Indeed, in a territory with two such major geological formations as the Cordillera de la Costa and the Andes mountains, plus the strong influence of the Pacific and latitude stretching across over 2,000km of vine-growing territory, the idea of highlighting diversity made perfect sense.
After this general reflection in the industry, producers slowly began to look at their wines from another perspective. So today, if you want to understand Chilean wines in terms of styles, the best thing to do is to look at their origins and how the grapes have adapted to Chile’s particular, myriad growing conditions. Let’s start in the north.
Fresh from Limarí
Winemaker Marcelo Papa has worked with grapes from the Limarí Valley since the mid-1990s. Today, among his many other responsibilities as technical director of the giant Concha y Toro, Papa is in charge of the company’s Maycas line, which focuses on grapes from Limarí, an area located about 300km north of Chile’s capital, Santiago.
For Papa, the limestone soils of the area and the freshening influence of the Pacific are the keys to understanding why grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are giving such good results here.
‘The fresh character of these wines is accentuated thanks to the morning fog that comes in from the sea, reducing the brightness of the sun and lowering temperatures. The more light and heat, the more ripe and tropical flavours, and the less mineral character that comes from the lime of the soil,’ says Papa.
These Limarí Pinots and Chardonnays are among the most distinctive styles of wine in Chile. They boast exuberant fruit, a lack of sweetness in the most successful examples and an accentuated minerality which, as Papa says, seems to come from the soil of the place, helped by the strong influence of the refreshing breezes from the Pacific.
The presence of the Pacific is a permanent force in Chilean wine, a force that manifests itself in all of Chile’s coastal valleys, from the classic areas such as Casablanca and San Antonio, to newer regions such as Paredones in the Colchagua Valley and Aconcagua Costa in the Aconcagua Valley.
The vineyards in these coastal areas are located in the hills of the Coastal Range, or Cordillera de la Costa, the mountainous formation that runs parallel to the ocean and receives the fresh sea breezes from the icy waters of the Pacific. These hills are composed of clay and granite from which some of the best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs traditionally originate. These are white wines with unctuous body thanks to the clay, but at the same time, crisp acidity and refreshing flavour thanks to the Pacific influence.
While there are many examples of the vital and exuberant style of Chilean coastal Sauvignon, other grapes also give very good results when they’re planted in coastal vineyards. Look out in particular for Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Chilean coast.
Evolution of Carmenère
Between the Cordillera de la Costa and the Andes, the soils are more fertile and the temperature higher. Historically this ‘intermediate depression’, as it is known, has been the source of large-volume wines. But it also produces quality reds made from grapes that like heat and sun, far away from the cooling influence of the sea. Carmenère is one of them.
‘Carmenère is always a challenging variety, from the vineyard to the winery. It is versatile, being able to deliver big and expansive wines with a riper style, or fresher and lighter reds in its juiciest version,’ says Sebastián Labbé, winemaker at Viña Santa Rita.
In the Colchagua Valley, Labbé produces a ‘new school’ expression of Carmenère. This is a recent style in which herbal notes are clearly present. In the past, that herbal side would have been hidden by ageing and by the extensive use of new oak.
‘I think that today we’re seeing a new wave of Carmenère,’ continues Labbé. ‘Winemakers are no longer afraid of vegetal characters and are seeking to show that fresher and crunchier side of the variety. They are making wines with character and more red fruit, that have greater acidity, but without losing their body. However, I think that both styles have a point in common, which is the silkiness of their texture, something which is always distinctive to Carmenère,’ he adds.
The Carmenère grape was imported to Chile in the mid-19th century, along with several other French grapes, among them Cabernet Sauvignon – the grape variety perhaps most often associated with Chile. Although Cabernet has been planted in practically all of Chile’s wine regions (except in coastal areas, where it seems to be too cold for the variety), the classic Chilean Cabernet comes from the strip of land that runs at the foot of the Andes, especially in the so-called Alto Maipo.
On the alluvial soils of the banks of the Maipo River, rich in stones and sands – and with temperatures moderated by the cold breezes that descend from the Andes – Alto Maipo Cabernet displays its trademark herbal and eucalyptus notes, plus firm tannins coated with black and red fruit flavours. This classic style has not evolved, except for the presence of eucalyptus notes which, in modern versions made by the likes of Cousiño-Macul, Domus Aurea, Don Melchor or Almaviva, seem to have been attenuated.
‘We don’t consider eucalyptus aromas, which come from trees near the property, to be a characteristic of the Cabernet grape. And that’s why we avoid selecting lots that have that character,’ explains Almaviva’s winemaker, Michel Friou.
If Cabernet from Maipo represents the classic side of Chile, wines from the south – from Maule Valley to Bío-Bío – represent the pure tradition of the Chilean countryside. These are dry-farmed areas, with non-irrigated vineyards and very old vines. The Maule is the land of Carignan, a grape that was imported into Chile in the 1940s and today gives wines of deep acidity, firm tannins and intense colour; hearty reds to go with the rustic yet delicious food from the region.
Further south, in Itata, scented Moscatel and fruity Cinsault dominate. Itata‘s wine history stretches back almost 500 years, when the Spanish conquistadors established the first vineyards in this area of mountains and hillsides. Traditionally Moscatel has been made – and continues to be made – in a full-bodied style, usually fermented on its skins, and with intense aromas of flowers and fruits. In comparison, Cinsault produces a light, refreshing and crunchy wine with red fruits.
In a similar style, although perhaps more earthy, are wines made from the País grape in Bío-Bío. The grape variety was originally brought to Chile by the Spaniards during the conquest of the New World. ‘The País here reflects the coldest climate in the area. It has a herbal, balsamic and sometimes floral character. It gives delicate reds, even refined,’ says producer Roberto Henríquez, one of the most important País producers in Chile.
To compare the País of Henríquez with the Pinot Noir of Marcelo Papa in Limarí is to compare different worlds. And this exercise can be done with many other wines in Chile, a country where more than grape varieties, the diversity of the landscape defines the wines.
Sustainability in Chilean wine
As in other areas of the world, most of Chile’s vineyards are located in regions with defined seasons. Dry summers are followed by seasonal rains that begin only in the autumn, providing a good natural framework for growing healthy vines.
However, increasing production volumes and the industrialisation of the Chilean wine industry in the past have affected the environment. Producers today are acknowledging this impact, and consequently the idea of sustainability has begun to gain strength.
Since 2008, efforts have been made to regulate the production of wines in Chile, from the vineyard to bottling and transportation. ‘Today there is a sustainability code that originally covered vineyards, winery, bottling and social responsibility. This year, we added a new area of wine tourism,’ says Patricio Parra, who is the head of the sustainability project for Wines of Chile.
The code certifies aspects such as waste management, maintenance of native trees, integrated pest management, rational use of water in the winery and the wellbeing of workers and communities. When the requirements of all areas of the code have been met, certification allows wineries to use sustainability seals on their bottles.
‘Although certification in the vineyard, for example, is not as strict as that of a certified biodynamic entity, there is a strong commitment to produce wine of high sustainability standards,’ adds Parra.
Initially, in 2011, the Certification Code was signed by 11 Chilean wineries. By last year there were already 76 committed wineries, which today represent 80% of the wine that Chile produces.