On the Cusp of Greatness?

By / Magazine / August 26th, 2010 / 1

The Chilean wine industry is at a defining point in its evolution. Historically, Chile’s place in the wine world has largely been identified as a producer of inexpensive wine. This label served it well when first entering new markets in the 1990s, but producers have discovered recently that there is little consumer loyalty (or profitability) at the seven-to-nine-dollar price point. Australia, and now Argentina, have both eroded Chile’s market share for entry level wines, and, in general, the wines from these countries are more approachable and consumer friendly.

For years, Chilean producers ignored their greatest asset … the country’s geography. It is only in the past 10 to 15 years that producers have started to identify the country’s diversity of soils and microclimates. And as vineyard managers and winemakers improved techniques and gained a better understanding of what grapes grow best in what areas, the quality of the resulting wines improved dramatically.

On a recent trip to Chile, I served as a judge at the Wines of Chile Awards and participated in seminars, panel discussions, and individual conversations with many producers. The main topic of discussion: “How can Chile achieve its goal of being recognized as a producer of great wines as opposed to a producer of cheap wine?”

The country could also conceivably become the world’s first organic wine producing nation. Many producers are already producing sustainably, organically, and/or bio-dynamically, but Chile as a whole has the ability to go this route. And Chile’s physical isolation (Pacific Ocean to the west, Andes Mountains to the east, desert to the north and Antarctic to the south) protects the country’s vineyards from many vineyard diseases and pests that have affected most other countries.

You want to make an impact on the global wine scene? You want to change your image as a mass producer of cheap wine? Then produce great quality, regionally diverse wines that have a sense of place, do so sustainably, and do so collectively — Chile has this potential.

And as consumers, we have to demand better. Instead of drinking “Chilean” wine, we should be drinking Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from Casablanca, San Antonio, and Leyda; Cabernet Sauvignon from Maule and Alto Maipo; Syrah and Carmenère from Apalta; and Riesling from Bio-Bio.


Elqui
Maintains a gentle, steady climate with little wind or precipitation. It also possesses some of the clearest skies, ideal for stargazing. In fact, numerous international observatories have been constructed in the area. Grapes also thrive in the climate of this semi-arid valley and new vineyards cover the terrain from coast to high into the Andes. Many varietals are planted, but Syrah from this cool climate is making the biggest impact. Look for wines from Falernia and Geo.

Limari
Vineyards cover the entire mountain to sea span. The Pacific Ocean’s cooling fog covers the valley each morning and burns off as the sun rises over the Andes in the afternoon. The mineral-rich soils receive less than four inches of rainfall each year. The combination creates fresh wines with a distinct mineral edge. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah do well in the cooler coastal areas, while Viognier and Carmenère benefit from the warmer parts of the valley. Tabali, Tamaya, and Maycas del Limari are the top producers.

Casablanca
First planted to vine in the mid-1980s as Chile’s first cool-climate coastal region. Strongly influenced by the Pacific Ocean’s cold Humboldt Current, whose effects are felt through the fog, cloudiness and cool breezes that combine to produce a relatively delayed harvest. Crisp, fresh Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir result. Producers include Quintay, Cono Sur, William Cole and many others.


San Antonio
A relatively new wine region, defined in 2002. Vines cover the rolling hillsides as close as four kilometres from the Pacific and there is no barrier to the strong, cool maritime influence resulting in crisp, lean, mineral-fresh whites and vibrant, spicy reds. Leyda is the most prominent sub-zone. Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay stand out, but the cool climate Syrah is making an impact. Vina Leyda, Garces Silva, Casa Marin, and Matetic are all making outstanding wines.

Maipo
Three distinct sectors form the region, but we will focus on the Alto Maipo, whose vineyards rise into the Andean foothills from 400 to 800 metres above sea level. The afternoon sun warms the vineyards and the cool mountain breezes at night create a broad variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures, all of which makes for great conditions for bold yet elegant red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. Chadwick, Cousino Macul, De Martino, and Undurraga are only a few prominent Maipo producers.

Colchagua
The southernmost portion of the Rapel Valley, the Colchagua sub-zone’s climate is temperate all year round and the enhanced maritime influence acts as a moderating factor for both the hottest and coldest yearly temperatures as well as for greater daily variation. The vineyards stretch to the foot of the Andes. Syrah and Carmenère do very well. There are a number of very good producers including Casa Lapostolle, Cono Sur, Estampa, La Playa, Montes, Neyen, and Emiliana.

Maule
Dry farming is practised in this traditional wine region. A wide variety of varietals are grown, many from old, low yielding vines that produce naturally concentrated fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Carmenère, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Barbera and other experimental varieties are grown. The best wines are fresh with bright acidity and juicy fruit. Reserva de Caliboro, Chilcas, Chilensis, and O Fournier are standouts.

Bio-Bio
One of the southernmost wine regions in the world. Warm days and cold nights make for a long ripening season, but the Bio-Bio’s higher rainfall, strong winds, and broader extremes make for more challenging conditions than those of Chile’s more northerly regions. Cool-climate varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir from Cono Sur, Veranda, Gracia, and Agustinos have shown promise.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Editor-in-chief for Quench Magazine, Gurvinder Bhatia left a career practising law to pursue his passion for wine and food. Gurvinder is also the wine columnist for Global Television Edmonton, an international wine judge and the president of Vinomania Consulting. Gurvinder was the owner/founder of Vinomania wine boutique for over 20 years (opened in 1995, closed in 2016) which was recognized on numerous occasions as one of the 20 best wine stores in Canada. Gurvinder was the wine columnist for CBC Radio for 11 years and is certified by Vinitaly International in Verona Italy as an Italian Wine Expert, one of only 15 people currently in the world to have earned the designation. In 2015, Gurvinder was named by Alberta Venture Magazine as one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People. He is frequently asked to speak locally, nationally and internationally on a broad range of topics focussing on wine, food, business and community.

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