Chile Into The Future
Szabo’s Free RunJanuary 5, 2015
Text and photographs by John Szabo MS
Does the mention “Chilean wine” conjure up the image of a tweed jacket? In this Free Run report I take a look at how this conservative South American country has leaped from the 19th century directly into the 21st. I offer ten reasons why you should rethink your views on Chile, along with the wines that prove the point. And for intrepid travellers, check out these four suggested travel adventures complete with photomontage, as well as some restaurant recommendations in Santiago.
Red Pants Spotted in Chile
The southern hemisphere is on the move. I’m thinking of Australia and South Africa for example, two ‘old’, new world countries that have both been radically rethinking their regional wine identities over the last decade. Now, you can add Chile to that list.
It has taken some time for the most conservative South American country to embrace change and diversity. As Toronto’s Peter Boyd recently commented via twitter: “Chile needs more outliers. More wild men + women ready to abandon the cookie cutter”.
Well Mr. Boyd, the cutters have been shelved and the revolution is in full swing, driven by the smallest operations to even the largest corporations. The new ‘boutique’ producers have no option but to offer something different, since they can never compete with the big guys on price or marketing might. And the large companies can afford to set up experimental divisions to test out new wines and respond to changing market demands, which is what they’re doing. The net result is radically good: from my first visit to Chile in 2006 to the latest last month, the cravats have come off, the top button loosened, and the occasional pair of red pants spotted. There’s evidently growing confidence that Chile can produce so much more than decent $10 cabernet and chardonnay. As Chile-based Antarctic expedition leader Francesco Contini recently revealed to me, “Chileans look all structured and serious, even boring maybe, but there is a wild side to this culture.”
The New Chile
This doesn’t mean they’re chucking out everything and starting over. In the new Chile, it means intelligent perseverance – keeping what’s working well – while at the same time experimenting with new, and often better-suited grapes. Remember that the so-called ‘new world countries’, including Chile, burst onto the scene at a time in the early 1990s when exports were dominated by wines made with a small handful of mostly French grapes. Back then the markets made planting decisions, not winegrowers.
It also means prospecting for new, often cooler regions, and allowing regional conditions to inform wine styles rather than boardroom directives. With experience, Chilean winegrowers have become more confident in their terroirs and their ability to express something different. There’s less pressure to emulate some far away European wine style – a futile endeavor in any case. And since the world is more open to, and demanding of, diversity today than ever before in the history of wine, the opportunities are great.
It also means rediscovering the value of “lost varieties”. Like South Africa’s recent enthusiasm for its old chenin blanc, or Australia’s crush on ancient grenache (both planted because they work well, not because some marketer told them they had to be), Chile, too, has a fine collection of old vines. There are plenty of carignan vines that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda himself may have gazed upon in his prime (d. 1973), and even some país speculated to be older than the Republic of Chile itself (independence from Spain was declared in 1818).
But perhaps most importantly, the new Chile has meant dissolving the walls between growers, makers and marketers. In 2006, winery visits began in a boardroom, with the export manager delivering a corporate power point presentation before the winemaker took over to present wines. Vineyards were never visited and vineyard managers never seen.
In 2014, every visit began in a pit – a soil pit dug in the vineyards, with the winemaker and vineyard manager (and even the occasional export manager) enthusiastically digging away to show the different soil structure of their various sub-parcels, which were then related to experimental wine lots back in the winery. Believe it or not, that’s the kind of stuff that tickles the taste buds of a writer jaded by an ocean of me-too varietal wines. And it speaks volumes of a country ready quite literally to examine the deeper crevices of its navel.
So, if you wrote Chile off long ago as the Tweed jacket of the new world – staid, safe and cookie cutter, here are ten things to know that just might change your mind, along with a few wines that will illustrate the point (the hyperlinked wines are available in Ontario; for a full list of top rated Chilean wines available in your province – simply set your WineAlign search parameters to “Chile”).
Warning: you may end up wanting to visit this beautiful country.
Ten Things to Know About Chile
1. There Really is Diversity
Chile is in the early stages of recognizing its full diversity of soils and climates. But from the limestone of Limarí, to the granites and schists of the coastal range, the volcanic rocks of the Andean foothills, the basalts and ash in Bío-Bío and south, and the gravel terraces of the many rivers that flow from the mountains to the sea, they’ve got plenty to work with. Vineyards have also been pushed off the Central Valley floor into the cooler foothills of the Andes and beyond the Coastal Range sometimes within sight of the icy Pacific – the Chilean equivalent to the far Sonoma Coast, as well as into the deep south in regions like Itata, Bío-Bío, Malleco, and others further south still, yet to be officially named.
For those who have been following the industry this is not breaking news – Marcelo Retamal of De Martino for one has been exploring new areas for over a decade. But plenty more are joining in the hunt, and the planting of new areas has accelerated. And it’s not just the fringe (although there are many small producers pioneering new areas). Even the big players are playing. Carmen’s Waves Series, Montes Outer Limits, Undurraga’s Terroir Hunter Rarities, Casa Silva Microterroir, Concha y Toro Terrunyo, Santa Carolina Specialties, and the Luis Felipe Edwards “LFE 900 Project” are just some examples of the innovative series of wines emerging from well-established companies.
Wines: try the Montes 2014 Outer Limits Cinsault, a crunchy, fruity wine made without oak influence, the winemaker’s own expression and a radical departure from the usually plump, oaky house style, or the 2013 Marqués de Casa Concha País-Cinsault from old, dry farmed vines. It’s a huge statement that Concha y Toro bottled such a wine under this ultra-conservative range; ten years ago a pais under the Marqués label would have been unthinkable.
2. Going Organic
There are still too few wineries taking advantage of Chile’s near perfect climate to farm without chemical intervention, but the industry is slowly shifting in that direction. As winemaker Rodrigo Soto of Veramonte points out, it’s now clear that heavy conventional agro-farming is not only bad for workers and the environment, but it also shortens the lifespan of vines. Many vineyards are dying after barely a couple of decades – premature for plants that can often live to a hundred years or more.
This means that the maximum potential of a site expressed by proper old vines can never be realized. Big operations like Cono Sur and Emiliana prove that it can be done profitably on a large scale, while smaller companies like Matetic, Odjfell and Koyle simply understand that it also makes better wine. Oh, and consumer demand for organic wines is rising – would you pay a dollar or two more for better, organic wine?
Wines: Julio Bastías of Matetic is making fine biodynamically-certified wines across the board, though his flagship is the excellent syrah from the granite soils of the Coastal Range –the Coralillo Syrah is the lighter, juicier version, while the EQ Syrah is the more serious, concentrated range, though still very much in the cool climate idiom. Emiliana’s Coyam, also biodynamic, is a terrific, field blend of six grapes planted from massale selections and led by syrah. It’s pure, savoury and mouthfilling. Cono Sur’s Single Vineyard Nº 23 Riesling from the Bío-Bío Valley is the finest example I’ve tasted from Chile.
3. Experimentation is in Full Swing
Dry farming, massal selection, early harvest, wild yeast, whole cluster, carbonic maceration, old wood, clay pots, foudres, low sulphites, natural wine – you name it, every buzzword on the lips of sommeliers from Montreal to Tokyo is spoken, not whispered, in Chile. Just about every ancient and new technique has been trialed somewhere by someone, and the best results will eventually stick. The one-size-fits all recipe is disappearing as quickly as the ceviche spoons at a Latino wine party. Let’s hope that winery owners continue to give their winemakers a “chipe libre” – a free pass – to carry on doing what excites them.
Wines: track down De Martino’s deliciously succulent 2014 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault, a version aged in 200+ year-old clay amphoras unearthed, sometimes literally, in the deepest corners of the country, or Santa Carolina’s 2013 Tinto de Montaña, a blend of mostly 80 year-old malbec picked early and intentionally, or at least not regretfully, a little funky (yes there’s brett!).
4. Mediterranean Grapes Are Back
Chilean wine regions by and large enjoy a Mediterranean climate: a hot, dry, sunny growing season. And after all, the country was colonized by Spain. So it’s logical that Mediterranean grapes would have been at the origins of Chilean viticulture. The Spanish planted País 500 years ago, a grape brought via the Canary Islands (where it’s known as Listán Prieto). Cariñena (carignan) and cinsault have also been part of the Chilean table since Chile was called Chile, and even before.
The deviation to French varieties came much later, but that influence is clearly waning, re-opening the door to more sensible Mediterranean varieties. Grenache (garnacha), mourvedre (monastrell) and syrah are appearing in vineyards from Elquí down to Maule. And what’s most exciting is that the majority of the new “Mediterranean blends” started as true terroir wines, instigated by the winemaker’s vision, from the bottom up not top down – it’s the wine they want to make. Prices are very modest and the best will please any southern France, Italian or Spanish wine drinker.
Wines: Casa Lapostolle’s 2013 Collection Mourvèdre is the best southern hemisphere example I’ve tried, made without crushing, fining, or filtration, fermented with wild yeasts and aged in old wood, very Bandol-esque. I love how winemaker Andrea León resisted the old siren call of oak and extraction, and had the courage to let freshness and succulent, just-ripe red fruit dominate. Undurraga’s Terroir Hunter Rarities Garnacha-Cariñena-Monastrell is a fine example of the distinctly Chilean twist on classic Mediterranean grapes, with ample, ripe blue fruit and a significant dose of South American-style garrigue led by the fragrant boldo tree (think fresh bay leaf).
Vigno, from Vignadores de Carignan , is a recently launched association of twelve founding producers, whose aim is to revalorize the rich history of the Maule Valley and especially its wealth of old vine carignan. The group’s intention is to eventually create an official Denominacíon de Origen (D.O.), though the wines bearing the Vigno name already adhere to strict appellation-like criteria. Among other requirements, Vigno must be made from unirrigated bush vines at least 30 years old (often more than sixty), and at least 2/3 carignan.
Like any appellation or producers’ association, Vigno is imperfect and exclusive (there’s only so much old bush vine carignan around, and dammit it’s a Spanish speaking country so call it cariñena), but it’s a positive step for Chile. Vigno is the country’s first wine with a genuine regional, varietal and stylistic identity. Sommelier students beware – Vigno could show up on a blind tasting exam someday soon.
Wines: Miguel Torres’ Cordillera Vigno, a recent release in Canada, is a pure essence of carignan, savoury and even a touch savage yet with some of the Torres polish; biodynamic producer Odjfell makes a dashingly rustic, stainless steel-aged, old vine carignan with genuine depth and complexity, while Gillmore’s Vigno takes a more vertical tack, with riveting acids and firm, dusty texture, aged in old wood.
Pipeño is not a grape, not a place, not a D.O. nor even an association, but it spells fun in a bottle like you never thought Chile could write. Pipeño is your chill, crack and crunch wine, an infinitely drinkable, if loosely defined style that is woefully underrepresented in so many countries. In reality there’s no standard definition of pipeño – the name derives simply from the Spanish word for barrel – pipa – the format in which wine from the 1600s-1800s was invariably sold. Ask any old-time Chilean what pipeño is and he’ll tell you it’s the dodgy stuff gauchos and farmers guzzle from a gallon jug. But it’s quickly becoming the stuff cool sommeliers (and writers) want to be guzzling after their long shifts on the floor (or “serious” tastings).
It’s no accident that I was turned on to pipeño by Chile’s most highly regarded wine writer, Patricio Tapia, and its top sommelier, Hectór Riquelme. Here’s the gist of what it is (or should be): a wine made from ancient país grapes (I tried one from supposedly 250+ year-old vines) and occasionally some equally ancient carineña (although other grapes can be used), vinified as naturally as possible (wild yeast, no additions of any kind, minimal sulphur), and bottled young without any wood ageing, preferably in magnum.
In an age when so many producers strive to make only “important” wines (read: expensive), it’s delightful to see a growing number of Chileans focusing on good, wholesome fermented grape juice meant for drinking not worshipping.
Wines: Manuel Moraga is a salt of the earth sort of fellow, the kind of vignador you’d expect to see at the natural wine fair in the Loire Valley. In fact, he’s just sent the first shipment of his Cacique Maravilla Pipeño there, probably to a group of curious vignerons. And speaking of France, sort of, David Marcel is an expatriated Basque, former-courtier-in-Chile-turned Pipeño-producer. His Aupa is a little more gentil than Moraga’s but still captures the savage drinkability of the genre. To prove the point he also bottles it in 330ml format – you might call it a chic beer alternative at the party, only it’s definitely bohemian, not chic.
7. Cabernet Sauvignon
Despite all of the excitement around novelties, Chile’s unique way with cabernet can’t be denied. The grape has a proven track record; it’s been planted for almost 150 years. Not all are great, and indeed many at the basic level are manipulated with acids, oak chips, tannin powder, and more. But the best deliver authentic savoury cab flavor at under $15/bottle, a feat that few other countries can match. And at the top end, especially from classic areas like the gravel terraces of the Alto Maipo as well as from new hillside projects, Chilean cabernet handily delivers equal pleasure alongside much more expensive versions from elsewhere around the world.
Wines: so many to choose from, but for value, character and availability it’s hard to top the 2011 1865 Single Vineyard Cabernet from Viña San Pedro, made from a plot of old vines in the Isla de Maipo that shows classic regional character for under $20 (Ontario). And for sheer excitement about the future, look forward to the Luis Felipe Edwards LFE 900 Vinificacion Integral Cabernet Sauvignon, an experimental wine made from newish, high elevation vines, nearly 900m off the Colchagua valley floor in schists and granites. It shows the potential to carry a big, ripe frame on superb, natural acid and fine-grained tannins. I’m also awaiting the release of Santa Carolina’s Piedras Pizzaras, winemaker Andres Caballero’s latest crush from a thigh-burningly steep, extremely stony (slate-schist) hillside in Totihue, Colchagua Valley.
8. Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon blanc is the most reliable white grape in Chile, and at times one of the most exciting. I’m not referring to the basic tropical fruit cocktail versions from the central valley, I’m referring to those from the coast where the mighty Chilean sun meets the icy Humboldt Current. Casablanca and San Antonio (and the smaller Leyda Valley within) are the most established zones, but watch out for other coastal areas that are starting to get exploited, like Paredones and Zapallar on the far out coast of the Colchagua and Aconcagua Valleys respectively. The entire south from Itata on down is yet another source of potentially excellent sauvignon soon to come online.
And then there’s value: in a world where there’s often little to tell between a $12 and a $20 sauvignon blanc, Chile consistently delivers delicious examples at $5 to $10 dollars less than the average from around the world.
Wines: There are many fine examples from Casablanca and San Antonio/Leyda, but two of the most exiting sauvignons I recently tasted were southerners: Casa Silva’s Lago Ranco is an almost fruitless, purely mineral expression from the Región Austral in Patagonia and its volcanic ash and pyroclastic stone soils, 904 kilometers south of Santiago, and the equally riveting and mineral Laberinto Cenizas de Barlovento, Rafael Tirado’s recent project with vines planted in volcanic ash at 600m in the foothills of the Andes in the eastern Maule Valley.
9. The Best is Yet to Come
“Wait ten years”, sommelier Hectór Riquelme tells me. “We have it here in Chile”. I believe you Hectór. Chile is in a good place, but I can’t help but think that many of Chile’s most promising sites have yet to be planted, and those that are are in their infancy. Those old vineyards are a valuable heritage, but let’s not forget that they were mostly planted to crank out quantity, not quality wine. Imagine what we’ll taste when today’s plantings of the right grapes in the right place, designed to maximize site expression, reach 50 years of age. That’s exciting.
Thankfully the spirit the of exploration and experimentation is alive and well, and if I had to point to one man who’s made the greatest difference in changing the Chilean mind-set, it’s self-declared “terroirist” Pedro Parra. Parra, a rare expert who combines knowledge of rocks and soils along with their relation to both grape growing and wine style (most geologists aren’t trained winetasters), has been instrumental in helping dozens of Chilean (and international) wineries better understand their terroir and how to exploit it, and which new areas are worth planting. All those soil pits? You can thank Parra for them.
“About a decade ago, people started to realize that Chile could be much more interesting than it is”, says Parra. “The reality today is that the best terroirs are far away from Santiago, but the ‘big money’ doesn’t want to go that far from the capital.” True enough, it’s hard to establish a wine region where there’s virtually no infrastructure, but the ones willing to be pioneers may well reap huge rewards. To be continued, and keep digging, Pedro.
Wines: Parra puts his money where his mouth wants to be in his own project, Clos des Fous. Along with friend and winemaker François Massoc and two other partners, this crazy venture seeks out extreme terroirs: high altitude, extreme coast or deep south. The Clos des Fous Tocao Granito Paleozoico is a mesmerizing malbec from a vineyard planted in 1914 in the southern Bío-Bío Valley, with marvelously fresh acids and fine, granitic tannins.
10. It’s a Beautiful Country to Visit
Fairytale climate, increasingly fine food and excellent wine, and breathtaking, varied landscape should be enough to convince you. But why read words when you can see photographs – watch this short compilation of some of my highlights from Santiago, Tierra del Fuego, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó and San Antonio. Just the tip of the iceberg, as they say.
And here’s my mini travel guide of memorable things to do in Chile, and places to eat in Santiago.
Four Memorable Things to do:
1. Stargazing in the Elquí Valley
Enjoy one of the clearest night skies on the planet, guaranteed cloudless, unless you’re the unlucky one who arrives on the one rainy day per decade.
2. Horseback Riding in Colchagua
A great way to visit the vineyards up close; early morning or late afternoons best. Also makes you very thirsty – start with the sauvignon blanc post ride.
3. Camping in Torres del Paine National Park
An astonishingly beautiful park, even by Canadian standards. And major bonus: Chilean mosquitos don’t bite.
4. Boat cruising in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia
Glaciers, fjords, Magellenic forests and penguins and other wildlife galore – the trip of a lifetime.
Places to Eat and Drink in Santiago:
1. Donde Augusto. Delivering ultra fresh, rustically prepared seafood in the bustling Mercado Central since 1872. That’s right, 1872. An experience not to be missed.
2. D.O. Restorán. Back from 10 years in Spain working with some of that country’s most innovative chefs, Juan Morales’ mission is to highlight the depth and diversity of Chilean products. The acronym stands for “Denominación de Origen”, which, as it also applies to wine, means products with a sense of place – the mantra of the restaurant.
3. “ChPe” Pisco Republic. A self-declared independent republic housing the best piscos offered in northern Chile (Ch) and southern Peru (Pe), and there are hundreds. The cuisine follows suit; try the outstanding ceviche (both Chilean and Peruvian style). If your partner isn’t into pisco or even sours, next door is Bocanariz, one of Santiago’s best wine bars.
4. Liguria. An atmospheric, boisterous wine bar serving simple but tasty Chilean classics and copious bottles of wine.
That’s all for this Free Run. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo, MS
For a full list of top rated Chilean wines available in your province – simply set your WineAlign search parameters to “Chile”.
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!