What should Chile do next?

I was fortunate enought to spend a lovely week in Chile earlier this year with a group of other independent wine merchants courtesy of Wines of Chile. We’d been selected as winners of a competition they ran for indies to run the best Chilean wine promotion. As it turns out it seems something I get right is how I promote Chilean wine – I’ve participated in the promotion for four years – but only  two of the seriously and won twice with a runner up spot thrown in too.

On the first evening Alvaro Arriagada, European manager for Wines of Chile did two things that stood out. First he asked us what Chile should be doing in the UK market, and second he opened a bottle of wine (that it turns out he made) that for me was one of the finest Chilean wines I have tasted (and following the trip it still is).

The question set my mind thinking, in a process that has be gently fermenting in my brain for some considerable time, and the latter was proof to me, possibly for the first time, that Chile has a future in trying to compete with the rest of the New World in making premium fine wines. Here was a wine where the fruit was kept in check, it has purity, elegance and finesse, it was fresh and textural with grippy fine tannins. I left wondering whether Alvaro’s exposure to Europe and therefore to a more international wine scene than perhaps winemakers themselves experience was the catalyst here for a wine of real quality.

And so to the question – Chile is where it is, if they want to increase market share, if they want to be more important in the wine world what is it that they need to do next.

The first thing to say of course is that Wines of Chile have done a tremendous job of marketing Chilean wine in the UK, I remember back 10 or 11 years ago stumbling into a supermarket just as I was beginning to explore the world of wine and seeing a promotion on Montgras Merlot so deciding to take the plunge and part with at least £3.99 of my own money. It was incredibly cheap, so it wasn’t going to be any good right? Well at least I could use it to cook with if I didn’t like it.

Turns out for £4 it was really pretty good, and so began about a year of drinking Chilean wine, I soon decided I didn’t really like Merlot but Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc were fine by me. When a new brand appeared in the supermarkets (as they invariably did back then) I grabbed a bottle and tried it. But from those humble beginnings £6 on a bottle of wine was quite a lot to spend on Chile.

And that is one of the roots of Chile’s problems in the UK. The incredible success of promoting Chile as a source of good value wines has detracted from more premium offerings – so that in my last job the average price of a bottle of Chilean wine sold was on average £2 less than from any other major wine producing country. Wines of Chile have recognised this and are making plans to make inroads in rectifying the situation.

But until I had tasted Alvaro’s wine I doubted the potential for Chile to make wines of absolute quality. This trip however changed my outlook entirely – rather than thinking of Chile as a country that would forever remain a place for good value, solid wines I think  that what you can see now are the green shoots of Chile becoming one of the most exciting and dynamic wines producing countries. I’ll try and explain why.

Historic wine production in Chile has centred around Santiago and the central valley in places like Maipo and Colchagua and for a number of very good reasons the vineyards were planted along the floor of the valleys. Here mechanisation and irrigation are easy, planting can be dense and large crops of ripe grapes can be harvested economically. But the downside is that the potential quality of the grapes harvested is severely limited.

A relatively recent trend has been for producers to move further up onto hillside locations at the food of both the Andes and the Coastal range of mountains. One of the clearest examples of this is in Apalta where Montes produce their top wines from small hillside parcels of vines, or at Ventisquero where wines such a Pangea and Vertice are similarly made from individual parcels – and in fact Ventisquero’s Apalta holdings are entirely hillside sites. The government of Chile doesn’t make planting on hillsides easy however requiring all manner of permits and assurances from producers before allowing planting to take place. These hillside sites  are also increasingly dry farmed which is a boon to their overall health and quality.

It is also true that in the past if a vine was Pinot Noir then that was good enough – clonal selection was almost unheard of – and that means there are plenty  of unsuitable clones planted in Chile at the moment – but this too is changing as the right clones are passed through the strict quarantine arrangements designed to protect Chile from Phylloxera.

The other more established trend is to cooler climate areas which is already reaping rewards in areas such a Casablanca, whilst other cooler areas such a Limari or Bio Bio are more recent.

So producers are now beginning to grow vines on the right sites – but these vines are still young and so have so much more potential to give – vines may start producing grapes for wine at around 5 years old but it’s not until they are around 15 that they really  start hitting their stride and at 30 they really begin to become an interesting proposition. So what we have here is really  a huge amount of as yet unavailable potential that will begin to be unlocked over the next 10-30 years!  And with new sites being planted and explored all the  time on new soils and new areas Chilean producers are breaking new ground every year. I find that really exciting.

Within the vineyards themselves one striking thing  was the different philosophies for each producers vineyards. Neighbouring vineyards growing the same varietal are training them in very different ways – now I am not a viticulturist so please bear with me – I could easily be saying something completely daft here – BUT – every other region I have visited has shown some degree of homogeny in it’s vine training and it’s canopy management – but not  in Chile. Some strip leaves to allow light at their grapes, others choose to leave canopy on because of the intensity of light found in Chile, still more strip leaves from  the centre areas of the canopy to create air flow tunnels – each viticulturist (to some extent rightly so) has their own philosophy and management plan. What is says to me though is that nobody is really 100% certain of the very best way of doing things yet – they are experimenting and working out what works best – but I think it will be some time before there is any  real consensus by region (or sub-region) about what works best.

The big reason for this,  I think, is the completely  unique nature of the Chilean climate. International winemakers and viticulturists will come across with their own ideas based on their experience – but Chile is so unique. Cool nights and in many areas cool breezes during the daytime are matched with an intensity of sunlight that is almost unbelievable. Getting the exposure and vine stress right is a complex thing here – but it is something that I believe Chilean viticulturists are beginning to get a handle on. They are also looking to pick earlier – Marcelo Papa at Concha Y Toro has started to pick grapes a month earlier than he was – a whole month! – he experimented and loved what he found and so is now doing it more and more – bringing added freshness and vitality and interest to his wines. I think we’ll see a trend across Chile to see more of this – they don’t have an issue getting sugar into their grapes what they have an issue with is too often having baked fruit or a lack of freshness all in the name of ‘phenolic ripeness’.

I wonder too how many producers have the right vines growing on the right sites – but again this is something that you can see Chileans working on – perfectly good vines are being grubbed up because they are not on a site that is well suited to them. Where in the past the vines would have been left and producers made do with them – now the hunger for the most exceptional fruit is growing growers are having to think again.

So if  you ask me why I think Chile is exciting – it’s because I think we are right at the beginning of a brand new phase in Chilean wine production :-

The right vines are beginning to be grown, on the right site, being trained the right way and harvested at the right time, and those vines are going to become better and better with  each year at producing exceptional fruit.

One area I’d like to see some more experimentation with is growing ‘other’ varieties in the cooler climate areas that so far are the preserve of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay and aromatic white grapes. If Chilean Cabernet is often jammy – would somewhere like Limari or Casablanca be capable – on the right site – of producing something more restrained in a (and I hesitate to say this) French kind of way?

In terms of winemaking itself – I actually believe that Chilean winemakers are generally  a pretty talented bunch – some will make wines that  I prefer of course – and I’d certainly like as many of them to taste more international wines with international cuisine to give them a broader outlook.They are at least willling to experiment and are humble enough to listen to international tasters and learn from them.

Having established that we’ve got an exciting product to market – we’ll look at that in the next piece I write.

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