Chile’s cast of red varietal characters originated with the País grape, used by missionaries to make wine for mass in the mid-16th century. Hardy, versatile and drought resistant, País appealed to Chile’s pisco-drinking public. Then Cab Sauv reigned supreme and other Old World varietals joined the mix.
Reds rule in Chile, accounting for 70 per cent of wine production. Through improvements in viticultural knowledge, winemakers have discovered optimum places to plant in 14 growing regions in valleys along the length of the country. Each region displays a diversity of soil conditions and microclimates, and three new complementary indications of quality distinguish finer growing niches within each region. The terms “Costa,” “Entre Cordilleras” and “Andes” adorn new wine labels.
Costa, meaning coastal influence, refers to cooler sub-regions lying closer to the coast. Wines from Chile’s Costa sector have lively fruit, fresh acidity, and delightful balance and elegance. The Entre Cordilleras geographic indication runs between the Andes and the Coastal Range. Fertile flatlands and a Mediterranean climate produce elegant and fruity Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The Andes geographic indication houses vineyards at the foot of or alongside the Andes Mountains. Exceptional ventilation creates large differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures and the height of the Andes regulates sun exposure.
In Chile, winemakers are experimenting with cooler climates, broadening the range of reds and exploring uncharted territory. According to Vines Magazine editor Chris Waters, “there is a restless energy to find new terroirs and create premium wines at every price point. Only recently has Chile begun to challenge the hills.” The search for new places to plant bodes well for Chile’s stellar repertoire of reds.
A full repertoire of reds
The most commonly planted red varieties in Chile are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere, according to Aurelio Montes Sr., International Vice-President of Wines of Chile and co-founder of Montes Wines. “Coming from Chile, Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most well known and popular red variety. Merlot is second best, and gaining ground are Pinot Noir and Carmenere,” he says. Montes also notes that there is a beginning trend towards Carignan. “In our terroir it can give really good and elegant wines.”
Since 1994 when the old Bordeaux variety Carmenere was identified among Merlot vines, the interest in and quality of the grape and its blends has grown. Other fine reds from Chile now include Syrahs, Malbecs, old vine Carignan from Maule and red blends such as Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chile’s star grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Bordeaux variety imported from France in the mid-19th century, accounts for more than one third of all plantings in Chile. This late-ripening grape favours the dry warm valleys of Aconcagua, Maipo, Cachapoal and Colchagua and produces rich red fruit, and berry, blackcurrant, and fig aromas. Chile’s first, largest and most prominent wine region, the sprawling Maipo Valley, encompasses the capital Santiago and produces premium Cabernet Sauvignon. Plantings in Alto Maipo in the foothills of the Andes display a distinctive eucalyptus edge. More complex versions often feature notes of tobacco, chocolate, black tea, black olive, liquorice and tar.
Chile’s signature grape Carmenere, also an old Bordeaux variety, was widely planted in France but was not replanted following the phylloxera outbreak of the 1880s due to a tendency towards late ripening. Before the outbreak, wealthy Chileans transplanted cuttings of unaffected French vines in Chile, including ones they mistook for Merlot. For many years, it was thought that Carmenere was extinct. In the early 1990s, French scientists visiting Chile were surprised by the appearance and character of Chilean Merlot and found that much of the Merlot in Chile was really Carmenere. Chile is now the major world producer of this almost forgotten grape.
Carmenere has a deep red colour and with gentle tannins and rich flavours of plum, blackberry and spice. According to Marcela Burgos, Chilean wine expert, “Carmenere is more like a teenager, but not a child. It’s come a long way in the past 20 years since its discovery. People have worked to plant it in the right sites not necessarily where it was planted when they thought it to be Merlot. Also, we are seeing more single varietal Carmenere than ever before.”
The second most harvested variety in Chile, Merlot is a smooth bodied, easy-drinking fruity wine with soft tannins. Originally from Bordeaux, Merlot arrived in Chile in the mid-19th century, but didn’t hit its stride until the early 1990s and now resides in most valleys such as the Apalta region of Colchagua, Curico, Casablanca and Maipo.
Syrah is not a complete newcomer to Chile. As Montes explains, “There were some old, undefined clones of Syrah and Pinot Noir giving poor wines. No origin was known. They were good varieties, but after so many years there was some virus contamination and no clone selection was made, so we thought it was time for a change. So we [Montes Wines] were the first to bring to Chile selected clones of these varieties in the early 1990s.”
The classic regions for Syrah are the North and South Rhône. Chile produces two types of Syrah, warm climate and cool climate. In cool climates, such as San Antonio or Elqui, Syrah develops a black-peppery spiciness that melds with fresh fruit and crisp acidity making it food-friendly and age-worthy. In warmer climates, such as Colchagua, the wines are often big and juicy, attracting lots of attention. Burgos notes that, “Cool climate Syrah has higher acidity, and is not so jammy. It has some peppery notes and tremendous aging potential. The aging potential is still being discovered because cool climate Syrah was first planted four or five years ago. The advantage of cool climate red varieties is the acidity and aging potential.”
Finicky Pinot Noir demands the right growing conditions to prosper. According to Burgos, Pinot noir is a “relatively emerging variety.” She notes that plantings are quite low because Pinot needs a very special terroir to thrive. “Chilean viticulturists and winemakers are feeling more confident about the results every year,” she says. Burgos explains that Bio Bio and Limari have good Pinot Noir and the right cool-to-moderate sites. She explains that Pinot is grown in the coastal areas or in the south where the climate is not so Mediterranean and is quite cool. “Pinot Noir has evolved as new regions have evolved,” she offers. “In traditional regions such as Maipo and Rapel Pinot Noir doesn’t grow well.”
Although most commonly associated with Argentina, some suggest that Malbec first appeared in Chile. Known as “the black wine” and partly wiped out in France by phylloxera, Malbec is seeing a resurgence of interest in the New World in Chile, Argentina, the US, Australia and South Africa. Chile’s Malbec is influenced by the cooling nature of the coast and mountains, which slows maturation and creates higher acidity and freshness. Viu Manent in Colchagua makes Malbec from 120-year-old vines.
Carignan, a varietal first established in Chile’s Maule Valley over 70 years ago, is being reborn. Established in 2009 by 12 founding wineries, Vigno or ‘Vignadores de Carignan’ is an organization of growers and winemakers marketing and promoting Carignan from the Maule Valley. The aim of working with Carignan was to support local wine growers and re-evaluate the potential of this region.
Originally grown in the Mediterranean regions of France (Languedoc) and Spain (Priorat), Carignan thrives in dry conditions and was primarily used for blending. It exhibits good acidity, ripens late in the season and grows well in the hot, dry Maule Valley where mildew is not a problem.
More recently Chilean winemakers realized that these dry-farmed, hand-harvested vines produce good wines in a variety of styles. Some wines exhibit pure red berry fruit and toasted oak, while others tend towards darker red plum, mulberry and black fruit. While most are aged in French and American oak, others are produced with little or no oak and reveal considerable earthiness and terroir.
Chile’s making great gains all across its red wine spectrum. Reds range in colour, tannins, taste, temperament and origin. Old vines are being rediscovered preserving a piece of Chile’s long history. New locations, combinations and styles give us alternative offerings to sip and sample. Looking forward, enhanced geographic indications will achieve much in describing and sharing the full and rich potential and diversity of this long, narrow, South American nation.