A Healthy Three-Tier System: Chilean Wines For All

By John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

A healthy wine industry is a diverse industry. Focusing all effort in a single segment puts the industry at risk. Wine, like all non-essential products, is economy-dependent; I doubt you’ve stopped filling up your car since the carbon tax was imposed, but a dip in your personal income, or a government hike in alcohol taxes will directly affect which wines, and how much you’ll purchase. A smart and healthy industry (or individual business) makes sure it has a range of products that can weather all economic conditions, filling in the gaps during the highs and lows.

In this light, the Chilean wine industry is high on the wellness index, much more so than it was twenty years ago. There are of course challenges, but Chile now seems to be cruising along comfortably, offering wines in three different tiers, with something for everyone at all times. The industry’s three main categories, as I see them, are: (1) Value for Money; (2) Luxury Brand Icons; and (3) E&E: wines of Experimentation & Exploration.

Which segment appeals most to you? Read on to learn about each tier, and then try the recommended wines in each, currently available in Ontario, to find your Chilean comfort zone.

Tier One: Value for Money

Chile, since the dawn of its exports in the late eighties, has been known for offering tough-to-beat value for money. These are the wines priced in the early to mid-teens (sometimes even less), produced mainly in Chile’s Central Valley, that fertile stretch of land between the Andes and the Coastal Mountains seemingly designed by Bacchus himself to crank out large quantities of decent juice. Enviably rich soils, abundant irrigation water, endless sunshine and low farming costs make high volume, low priced wine possible It’s a confluence of factors many other regions can only dream about. Need a decent $12, fruity cabernet, or soft and round chardonnay for the party, wedding, by-the-glass pour? Chile has you covered.

It’s remarkable just how consistent these wines are, which is both a strength and a weakness. You won’t find them of course in hip wine bars or high-end restaurants, precisely because their predictability makes them un-cool and pedestrian in the sommelier world where edgy, unusual and novel wines attract the most attention. But they perform well on LCBO shelves where consistency and reliability, and value, are prized.

The Camanchaca bank of clouds and mist rolling in from the Pacific in the Limarí Valley

The Camanchaca bank of clouds and mist rolling in from the Pacific in the Limarí Valley

There is some concern regarding the future of this tier in the industry, however. “The average wine price has been the same for the last 20 years, $28-$30USD per case FOB”, Francisco Baettig, chief winemaker at Errazuriz, tells me this past January. That’s the equivalent of about $12-$15 retail in Ontario. Costs, of course, have gone up over the same period. “Many smaller producers can’t afford to sell at these prices, and half of them will not survive”, he says.

But a shake down is not necessarily a bad thing. “A lot of mistakes were made in the early 1990s”, Baettig continues. During this boom period for the Chilean industry, many wealthy industrialists from other sectors got into the wine business to capitalize on the growth. “They could have planted nuts or other fruit, but saw the potential for grapes, so planted vineyards instead.”

The problem was that many of these newcomers had no experience in the industry. A lot of bad plant material was planted. “People didn’t understand clones, soils or climate. It’s been 30 years of learning. Only the large companies could afford to fix mistakes.”

This likely means further consolidation of production in the Value-for-Money category (fewer brands), and a paradoxical increase in quality as early mistakes are ‘fixed’ by well-funded operations. It’s not a terrible trade-off. Let the big players do what they do best with their economies of scale.

Chilean Buyer’s Guide:  Value-for-Money

Cono Sur Organic Cabernet Sauvignon Carmenere Syrah 2016 ($14.00)

Pérez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2016, Maipo Valley ($14.95)

Boya Chardonnay 2016, DO Leyda Valley ($14.95)

Cono Sur Organic Cabernet Sauvignon Carmenere Syrah 2016Pérez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2016Boya Chardonnay 2016

Tier Two: Luxury Brands

By the turn of the century, Chile was ready to hit international markets with a wave of so-called ‘icon’ wines at the opposite end of the value market, wines designed to compete with the very best from around the world. Yet shedding the ‘value-for-money image’ was proving a real problem. Consumers weren’t ready to pay top dollar for wines from a country branded as cheap-and-cheerful. Thus the “Berlin Tasting” was conceived, a guerilla-style offensive modelled after the famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting of 1976 that put California wines on the international map.

Eduardo Chadwick of Errazuriz was the orchestrator of the landmark tasting in 2004, in which he pitted his top wines, Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve, Seña, and Viñedo Chadwick, against the biggest names in cabernet from France and Italy. Three dozen of Europe’s most respected palates gathered in Berlin to taste the wines, blind, and award rankings. In the end, Viñedo Chadwick 2000 and Seña 2001 came out first and second, respectively. The coup had paid off. The event paved the way for more Chilean ‘icons’ to rub corks with the best and most expensive wines in the world.

Virtually all of the larger companies produce a so-called icon wine, while many small or medium-sized wineries simply make excellent, top of the range wines, conspicuously not touted as “icons” (and which bleed into the E&E tier – see below). And while I admittedly dislike the term Icon, which in the past often meant caricatures of wine rather than wine itself, these top end bottlings are made with little expense spared. Careful parcel selection, organic/biodynamic farming, and lavish attention in the winery are key facets (Lapostolle even hand-destems bunches for their Clos Apalta, for example).

Biodynamic preparations at Matetic

Biodynamic preparations at Matetic

And I’m especially happy to report that the icon industry has matured. In getting with the times, Chilean winemakers have grown to understand the important principal that bigger, riper and more oaky is not always better. Balance and finesse are now words comfortably applied to the best of this category, wines that are notably less sweet and woody, with lower alcohol and genuine concentration, rather than squeezed from simply overripe, raisined grapes.

New concrete fermenting ‘spheres’ at Odfjell

“We are now harvesting earlier, and we are also making some changes to fermentation, with a portion of the wine in barrels, and some in concrete, so we have more options, and more layers of flavour to play with”, explains Viña Santa Rita’s “premium and ultra-premium winemaker” Sebastián Labbé, in charge of the company’s flagship Casa Real, one of the original Chilean icons. Earlier harvests and the replacement of once-ubiquitous new barriques with partial ageing in large (old) cask and concrete has permeated even the most traditional establishments, including Chadwick’s own Seña. 2016 was the first Seña aged partially in foudres, with the rest in barrels, of which only three-quarters were new. “Much work has been done to lower alcohol, and to aim for more freshness, says Francisco Baettig, a statement he quickly follows up with the half-joking quip, “we all have a dark side”, in reference to his earlier winemaking philosophy.

Edoardo Chadwick's biodynamic Viña Seña, Aconcagua Valley

Edoardo Chadwick’s biodynamic Viña Seña, Aconcagua Valley

And also importantly, while most of the original Icons hail from classic growing regions like Acongagua, Maipo or Colchagua, winemakers are now tapping a broader range of regions for their premium potential, such as Viña Tabalí’s excellent Roca Madre, a pure malbec from recent plantings in the Rio Hurtado region way up at 1600 meters in the Andes, or Errazuriz’s Pizzaras range from the far out coastal Manzanares vineyard in the Acongagua Costa, where pinot noir and chardonnay shine. Yet for the most part these Chilean Icons will still satisfy well-heeled hedonists seeking maximum palate impact.

Errazuriz's Manzanares Vineyard, Aconcagua Costa

Errazuriz’s Manzanares Vineyard, Aconcagua Costa

Buyer’s Guide: Chilean Luxury Icons

Concha Y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Maipo Valley ($130.00)

Montes Purple Angel 2015, Colchagua Valley ($62.95)

Viña Errazuriz Pinot Noir Las Pizarras 2017, Aconcagua Costa ($92.95)

Concha Y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2016Montes Purple Angel 2015Viña Errazuriz Pinot Noir Las Pizarras 2017

Other icon wines to seek out are are the Rothschild family’s Viña Almaviva, Miguel Torres’ Manso de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon from century+ old vines in the Curicò Valley, Viña Vik’s “Vik”, a relatively new multi-million dollar project by a Norwegian family of the same name in the Cachapoal Valley; Viña San Pedro’s Altaïr from the same valley, now aged partially in 600 liter barrels and 2000 liter foudres; the Veramonte Group’s Neyen Espiritù de Apalta from 125 year-old cabernet and carmenere. 

Tier Three: E&E (Experimentation & Exploration)

Tier three is the newest, and for many the most exciting, category in Chilean wine today. As I reported after a previous visit to Chile in 2014 (“Ten Things to Know About Chile”), winegrowers have been embracing diversity (regions, grapes, styles) for several years now, experimenting serially, and exploring both new and very old regions. And the pace has accelerated.

Perhaps the biggest development since my last visit is the expanding exploration and exploitation of Chile’s south, especially the Itata Valley inland from Concepción. It’s here that the Spanish first planted vines in Chile in the mid-1500s, and the region remains a rich source of old vines today.

Ancient, head-trained, dry farmed vines in the rolling hills of the Itata Valley

Ancient, head-trained, dry farmed vines in the rolling hills of the Itata Valley

Until about 1920, the Itata Valley produced about 50% of all Chilean wine, but it was largely forgotten for most of the rest of the 20th century. This was due in part to the fact that it was near impossible to get anyone to live and work that far away from Santiago, the epicenter of Chilean life.

But today, “finding workers in the south is no longer an issue as it was a decade ago”, Isabel Guilisasti tells me, the Marketing Manager at Concha y Toro. “Young people seeking better quality of life are moving south. There are now good schools, hospitals, and universities”.

Timing couldn’t have been better, as the government-subsidized forestry industry has been seriously threatening the old vine patrimony. Only about 6,000 hectares of vineyards remain, down from a peak of around 20,000 earlier last century. But the vast majority of remaining vineyards are enviably old, and attracting interest from producers throughout the country.

Some vineyard of país, the original mission grape brought from the Canary Islands, are purported to over 200 years old and still producing. Much of the fruit of these old vines used to find its way into anonymous blends and rustic wines for home consumption. But país has experienced a makeover; now much finds its way into bottlings of increasingly fashionable “Pipeño”, the pale, fresh, crunchy, light red wine named after the often ancient vats – “pipas” – in which they were once aged, or bottled simply under the name of the grape, no longer a marketing death knell. Some vineyards of white Moscatel de Alejandría are even older, and finding a new lease on life as they’re transformed into sought after dry, crisp, floral versions.

Viña Cucha Cucha’s Patrico Middelton with several centuries-old moscatel vines, Itata Valley

A government backed project in the late 1800s-early-1900s to ‘improve’ the wines made by país saw the doling out of subsidies to plant cinsault in the Itata valley, also largely forgotten in the 20th century. These vineyards are now an additional source of excellent old vine fruit for blends and varietal bottlings.

In an ironic twist, one of the largest Chilean multinational pulp and paper companies, Arauco, purchased the historic Viña Cucha Cucha Estate (est. 1649) in Itata about a decade ago in an effort to support and sustain local winegrowers. While many industry insiders cynically believe the move to have been motivated by a “green washing” of the company’s image, Cucha Cucha has become an important incubator for about a dozen small growers, offering training, technical expertise and facilities in order to help each launch their own brands. The company, too, makes some wine under the Cucha Cucha label.

Álvaro from Borde Sur, one of Viña Cucha Cucha's artisanal protégés, Itata Valley

Álvaro from Borde Sur, one of Viña Cucha Cucha’s artisanal protégés, Itata Valley

While Arauco is partly responsible for the disappearance of many old vineyards, they are now part of the salvation of the remaining acreage. As managing director Patricio Middleton points out, with slightly twisted but unassailable logic in defense of the forestry industry’s incursion into vine country, “the price of grapes is still quite low, but at least farmers can now supplement their income through grapegrowing and winemaking. But imagine how low the price of grapes would be if there were still 20,000ha of vines planted. It would be totally unsustainable”.

The positive spin is that the rush is on to preserve and exploit the old vine resources of Itata, and the wines they produce are genuinely exciting. What makes the valley great for growing trees also makes it increasingly appealing for 21st winegrowers. With over 1000mm of rain per year, irrigation is unnecessary. Notably cooler temperatures and regular cloud cover also mitigate the fierce South American sun, allowing for lighter, fresher, lower alcohol wines to be produced effortlessly. And the landscape is unlike any other in Chile, where head-pruned, dry-farmed old gnarly vines tumble down green rolling hills. Big names like the De Martino family and celebrated terroirist Pedro Parra have been buying vineyards and sourcing grapes here for some years, while others like former San Pedro head winemaker Marco Puyo and his newly launched Dagaz wines have arrived more recently in search of old vine grapes. Others are sure to join.

De Martino's 200 year-old pipas in Itata (the winery is due for some renovation)

De Martino’s 200 year-old pipas in Itata (the winery is due for some renovation)

But Itata is of course not the only Chilean region with old vine wines. The Maule valley is also an excellent source, especially of carignan, which makes up the back bone of the relatively new Vigno category, an association of producers making wine from head-trained, dry-farmed, old vine (at least 35 years old) carignan in the Maule Secano area.

And you don’t have to be old to be exciting. Innovative, experimental, original wines are being made all over the country by a growing cadre of enthusiastic producers eager to explore Chile’s potential and shake up the establishment. Members of MOVI, the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (Independent Winegrowers Movement) is a fine place to begin your exploration of the New Chile. MOVI is a group of about three dozen small wine producers, aiming to make high quality, and especially individual wines, “made on a human scale, handmade, unique, far from the industrialization with which Chilean wine is known”.

Emily Faulconer, Winemaker, Viña Carmen

It’s this third tier of Chilean wines that you’ll find in wine bars and wine-focused restaurants, and in the Instagram feeds of opinion leading sommeliers. They provide an important counter-stream to the value and icon wines of Chile, and increase the relevance of Chilean wine in the international market.

You see, Chile has something for everyone.

Buyer’s Guide: Experimental & Innovative Chile

De Martino Gallardía Old Vine White, Itata Valley 2018 ($26.99, Lifford Wine Agencies, 6/cs)

Matetic Corralillo Syrah 2015, San Antonio Valley ($26.95)

Pedro Parra Y Familia Pencopolitano (Red Blend) 2016, Itata Valley ($30.70, Brix & Mortar, 12/cs)

Other innovative producers/wines to seek out: former San Pedro winemaker Marco Puyo’s new Dagaz wines from Pumanque (Colchagua) and Itata; Charlie Villard’s Casablanca portfolio, especially grand vin pinot noir and chardonnay; Enzo Pandolfi’s splendid Pandolfi-Price chardonnay and pinot noir from the Itata Valley; just about anything from the Itata portfolio of De Martino; the small Collectivo Mutante project in the Limarí valley; Odfjell’s fine range, especially old vine carignan and Vigno; The Garage Wine Company’s quirky, natural wines; Gillmore (top Vigno); the biodynamic, small parcel, hand crafted wines of Maurizio Garibaldi; Viña Tabalí, especially the wines from extreme coastal Talinay vineyard in Limarí and Rio Hurtado in the high Andes; The exceptional old vine Semillon Quijada of Viña Carmen from the upper Apalta Valley planted in 1958; Cacique Maravilla’s authentic pipeño from over over two century-old vines.

Felipe Mueller, winemaker at Viña Tabalí, in the Talinay Vineyard, Limarí Coast

That’s all for this special report. See you around the next bottle.

John Szabo, MS