My Chilean Wine Adventure

This story includes two stories I did for the Telegraph Journal Provincial Edition from when I was in Chile in the late fall of 2013. I have added some additional pictures that did not run in the print edition.

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The gorgeous Santa Rita estate

PART I  – The Diversity of Chile’s Wine Regions

Having recently spent two full weeks in Chile, the first on a Wines of Chile sponsored trip for journalists to key wine regions, and the second on a holiday with my wife, my article this week is focused on the diversity of terroir and grapes in this impressive wine country. I will also do a follow-up column on some specific trends, but this week is more of an overview.

Chile is a long, skinny country, only averaging 177 km in width, and covering an awesome amount of latitude – from S 17° to 56° – a total of over 5,000 km. Not surprisingly, a country that size, with an agreeable Mediterranean climate, has a lot of suitable terroir for grape growing. Adding to that, the country is blessed with two long mountain ranges running parallel to each other – the towering Andes and the ‘shorter’ Coastal range – a large number of valleys, and the cooling influence of winds from the Pacific Ocean to the east and the high altitude Andes mountains to the west. As a result, Chile has a seemingly endless number of choices for vineyards when it comes to temperature, altitude, angle to the sun, slope, and soil. Granted, there isn’t much rain, but they use irrigation where needed, and for now there is enough water.

There isn’t wine made from tip to tip, but there are wine regions as far north as the Elqui Valley at 30°, and as far south (that’s colder, remember) as the Malleco Valley at 38°. More extreme regions are being considered. That said, the bulk of the wine production centres on a much tighter area, mainly in the valleys around and just south of the capital Santiago, namely Aconcagua, Maipo, Casablanca, San Antonio, Leyda, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curico, and Maule. I visited all of these except Maule on my trip.

We in the wine business have traditionally classified Chile only by these valleys, but their industry has very recently reorganized their appellation system, recognizing Costa (Coastal), Entre Cordilleras (the flatter area between the mountain ranges), and Andes areas. They did this to reflect the fact that where you are in relation to the ocean and mountains is as or more important as how far north or south you are. Costa areas are cooler and sometimes foggy, the flatter areas are hotter, and the Andes areas can be quite cool, especially if they are planting at high elevations. The cool Costa areas are typically planted with white grapes, plus Pinot Noir; the flatter areas are basically red wine territory, and the Andes has a mix, as the big difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures can result in both elegant red and white wines.

In terms of grapes, the most common red varieties for quality wines are: Cabernet Sauvignon ~ 41,000 hectares (ha) planted, Merlot ~ 10,000 ha, Carmenere ~ 9,000 ha, Syrah ~ 6,000 ha, but there are also significant amounts of Malbec, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Carignan, plus 12,000-15,000 ha of El Pais, the original European wine grape brought to Chile by Spanish Conquistadores almost 500 years ago, and known as the Mission grape in California. There is also a large amount of grapes, including muscat, grown for making Pisco, the nation’s main spirit, often used in the Pisco Sour cocktail. For white grapes, they have: Chardonnay ~ 13,000 ha, Sauvignon Blanc ~ 12,000 ha, plus a bit of Viognier and Riesling. Although there is more Chardonnay planted, Sauvignon Blanc is often the only white wine available by the glass at everyday restaurants, based on my week as a tourist. As an aside, wine is relatively inexpensive in Chile. We rarely paid over $20 Cdn for a bottle of good wine in a restaurant, and a glass of wine that would cost $8-12 here is only $5-7 there.

We had a fairly busy schedule, first visiting Santa Carolina, one of the oldest wineries, right in Santiago, part of Maipo, then heading to the other big producers, Concha Y Toro – Chile’s largest winery – then Santa Rita, also in Maipo, all on the same day. Although large producers, these wineries all make a wide range of quality wines, from good value $10-12 juice right up to super premium $100+ “icon” wines. Highlights included the great value Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon from all three wineries, as well as some of their oddballs and specialties, like the potent Gran Reserva Petit Verdot from Santa Carolina, a three vintage vertical (96, 02 and 09) of Chile’s first icon wine, the fantastic Don Melchor Cabernet from Concha Y Toro, and the floral 2010 Bougainville from Santa Rita, which is made from Petit Sirah, common in California but rare in Chile. The estates were gorgeous too.

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Wonderful Chilean Petite Sirah

 

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Santa Carolina, right in the city of Santiago

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The historic cellars at Santa Carolina

On day 2 we hit up Anakena, a modern, organic winery in Cachapoal, making a range of precise, great value wines;  Miguel Torres in Curico, an offshoot of Spain’s Torres wine business, making highly respected wines in all price ranges; and the historic San Pedro – also in Curico – the winery with the largest single vineyard in South America at 1200 ha, and producer of the large volume Gato Negro wines, as well as several premium brands, including Tarapaca. One of the more interesting wines from this day was the refreshing Miguel Torres Santa Digna Estelado Rosé sparkling wine, made from 100% El Pais grapes, from vineyards ranging from 50 to over 100 years old. I want the ANBL to seek out and list this wine. It is like drinking history. Again, all three estates were impressive.

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San Pedro has a huge single vineyard

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Organic specialists Anakena in Cachapoal

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The tasty rosé bubbly made from Pais at Miguel Torres

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Cellar at San Pedro

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Traditional Chilean dancers at San Pedro

On the third day we started with an epic tasting at Montes’ premium winery in Colchagua, in the Andes foothills, a modern design using Feng Shui principles, highlighted by a spectacular tasting room overlooking the vineyard slopes. Tasting their icon wines – Folly Syrah, “M” Bordeaux Blend, and Purple Angel Carmenere – was a great experience, but I was also intrigued by their Outer Limits CSM, a beefy Carignan, Grenache and Mourvedre blend made from the higher altitude vineyard we could see from the room. We finished the day at Casa Silva, also in Colchagua, enjoying their wonderful polo themed restaurant, great hospitality, political discussions (!), and rustic wines.

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The “Big Three” reds at Montes


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Magnificent tasting room at Montes

In the morning we headed back to Maipo to visit Odfjell, a new, modern winery owned by a transplanted Norwegian, and operating using biodynamic farming. It is a beautiful estate with quality wines that would look great on our shelves, or in my cellar! The next day was a visit to another biodynamic producer, the renowned Matetic in San Antonio, a cool climate specialist making excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Syrah and one of the best Chardonnays I’ve had in recent memory, their 2011 EQ Chardonnay. I can’t believe this sells for under $30 in Ontario. A special order may be…well…in order. We also made a short stop at the Leyda property owned by San Pedro. They are close to the ocean, in a very cool area, and are hoping to make the best Pinot Noir in Chile. The vines are young, but they are well on their way. The Chardonnay is good as well.

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Biodynamic vineyards at Matetic

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Biodynamic preparations at Matetic

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Terroir of Leyda

My last winery visit was the next day at perhaps the most visually stunning estate, Errazuriz in Aconcagua. Almost desert-like terroir results in big, serious red wines from their estate, but they also bring in grapes from cooler areas to make fresh whites. Their “Max Reserva” line of wines are excellent step-up brands, and their icon wines: Kai Carmenere, La Cumbre Syrah, and Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve Bordeaux Blend are all world beaters, winning blind tastings against much more expensive European and American wines.

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Wow – Errazuriz estate

Stay tuned for my next column, where I’ll dig deeper into the intriguing history of Chilean Carmenere and Carignan.

Wines of the Week

Red: Errazuriz Estate Carmenere, $14.99

A basic Carmenere made with ripe grapes and using a fair amount of oak aging to make a smooth, easy drinking, consumer friendly wine.

White: Santa Carolina Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, $13.29

Great value Sauvignon Blanc, with wet stone, lemony citrus, and gooseberry notes and a fresh crisp finish.

PART II – Cabernet, Carménère and Carignan: The Three C’s of Chilean Red Wine

When I go on a trip to one of the world’s wine regions, I am lucky that I get to taste hundreds of wines, but there are always highlights, wines that strike a chord and are memorable. On my recent visit to Chile, the red wines that stuck in my mind the most were the three C’s: Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Carignan.

I won’t dwell too much on Cabernet, since it is very much a known commodity here in New Brunswick. It is the most planted red grape by far in Chile, and makes great value wines. Indeed the best value Cabernet in the world, in my opinion. You can find Reserva Cabernets with fruit and structure for under $20. Or, you can buy super premium Cabernets or Cabernet based blends, like Don Melchor from Concha Y Toro, Medala Real from Santa Rita, “M” from Montes, Almaviva, or Don Maximiano from Errazuriz) that challenge the most expensive wines in the world, for one quarter the price or less.

 

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 Some of the great reds at Concha Y Toro

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Impressive vertical of the great Don Melchor

Yes, Chilean Cab is great, but it is Carménère that really intrigues me. This grape is almost forgotten in its Bordeaux homeland, where it had trouble ripening, was prone to coulure (which prevents vines from flowering) and thus was abandoned, but it thrives in Chile. The curious story is that they didn’t even know they had Carménère in Chile until the 1990’s, because it was mixed in with Merlot in many vineyards. This resulted in vegetal tasting wines labelled Merlot, since Carménère is a notorious late ripener.

Since 1998, the grape has received increasing focus both from Chilean wine producers and the world’s wine critics. The early versions released as single varietal wines at the ANBL in the early 2000’s were notoriously “green” tasting, more green pepper than grapes. Currently, growers are planting Carménère where it has time to ripen – such as in the Cachapoal Valley – sometimes picked around three weeks after Cabernet Sauvignon, which we’d normally consider a late ripener. When picked ripe, the wines turn out very nice, with purple colour, savoury spice, delicious dark fruit flavours, and easy tannins. Not only are wineries producing great value Carménère at under $15, they are also making premium versions, with some wineries even making “icon” wines costing close to $100 or more. Examples include the stellar Kai from Errazuriz, Herencia from Santa Carolina, Concha Y Toro’s Terrunyo, Pehuén from Santa Rita, Alwa from Anakena, Montes Purple Angel, and Microterroir Los Lingues from Casa de Siva. There is some question whether these wines are ageworthy, since Carménère left to ripen will drop in acidity, so some wineries add a small amount of more tannic grapes, but I tried some 100% versions on the trip that were aging nicely. Personally, I’d prefer it if wineries made 100% Carménère.

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The last “C” grape of interest is Carignan. This southern French variety is not planted in huge amounts in Chile, but the ones I tried on this trip were excellent, deserving more production. The bulk of the Carignan is planted in the hot, dry Maule Valley, where it existed for decades without much interest from quality wine producers, ending up in jug wine blends. It has become trendy though, and many wineries now produce Old Vines, dry farmed, bush trained Carignan. I tried a number of these, and loved them all. They are very dark, with attractive anise and cassis fruit aromas and flavours, with lots of texture, as well as good acidity.

In 2001, Odfjell, a winery very near Santiago, took over a vineyard in Maule with 100 year old Carignan vines that was not being farmed. They now produce an excellent, low yield, premium wine. They are part of VIGNO (Vignadores de Carignan), a newish group of Carignan producers, who self police in terms of the way these vines are farmed and made into wine. We do not currently have any dry farmed Chilean Carignan at ANBL, but Odfjell would be a great place to start.

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Biodynamic vineyards at Odfjell

Next time you go red wine shopping, you can’t go wrong with Chile’s Three C’s.

Wines of the Week

Value Red: Concha Y Toro Trio Merlot Carmenere Cabernet Sauvignon $15.99 at ANBL

This is excellent value, with great body, dark plum and savoury flavours. Enjoy on its own or with grilled meats.

Premium Red: 2007 Casa de Silva Microterroir Carménère, $46.79 at ANBL

A terrific example of premium Carménère, with some age. Savoury, peppery, smooth, oaky red with an elegant finish.