By Jennifer Delaloca
Why is Chile so perfect when it comes to planting a vineyard? Or considering buying wines as a consumer? Be it excellent value for money wine or premium quality?
Analyzing and discussing some essential viticultural factors like weather & climate, soil, grape varieties and general wine making, points it out pretty well. Here is some you might want to know if you’re looking to become better at buying Chilean wines.
- Historically in short
- Regions and wine law
- Weather, climate, soil & viticulture
- Grape varieties
- What to look for when buying Chilean premium quality wine
Historically in short
Chile has been a wine producing country since the 16th century but didn’t get into the global match until full democracy came along in 1990. And this even though Miquel Torres was up on his toes already in the 1970s as a front runner wanting to ensure the world discovered what he declared Chile to be, nothing less than a “Viticultural Paradise”. Torres, and people like the Grand Marnier family (with Alexandra Marnier in front) & the Lafite-Rothschilds’ in Bordeaux, invested hugely in Chile and have had a significant impact on the wine industry, as we now know it. When the political renaissance starting in the late 1980s came along the way for that of the wine was paved as well. During the late 1980s and 1990s enormous investments were made in technology, equipment and expertise (mainly French winemakers were hired) facilitating a great development -a revolution- in both quality and quantity while Chile went from being a third wine producing country to the Bordeaux of South America. Still at pretty good prices. In fact, Chile has now for more than 20 years been well known for making excellent value for money wine. The trigger here is -what many might yet not know (or refuse to know)- Chile is also a great choice when it comes to premium quality wines.
As of 2015 Chile ranks sixth among wine-producing countries world wide
Regions and wine law
In 1994 a wine law was formalized, the Denominación de Origen (DO), covering the wine producing regions. A fifth region (the Atacama) to the original four principal ones -with each their sub-regions (before 13, now 15 in total)- are from North to South:
The northernmost desert like: Atacama (Cociapó Valley, Huasco Valley) + Coquimbo (sub-regions: Elqui, Limarì, Choapa Sub-regions)
In the middle (Chile’s historic wine center and where most of the best wine districts are found): Aconcagua (sub-regions: Aconcagua Sub-region, Casablanca, San Antonio Sub-regions) + Central Valley (Maipo, Rapel, Curicó, Maule. Rapel Valley subdivided in two zones; Cachapoal & Colcagua)
The coldest: Southern Regions (Itata, Bio Bio, Malleco)
Further, a preliminary geographical division of the wine valleys to better enhance terroir effects vs grape plantings is on the drawing board, dividing the regions into three; Andes, Entre Cordilleras (between mountain ranges) and Costa (coastal) (do note that Reserva and Gran Reserva labelling doesn’t have any formalized restrictions on how much time the wines need to have aged in oak)
Weather & climate
Chile benefits from a warm, dry and sunny Mediterranean climate (in the growing season with more than 30 degrees) with moderating temperatures due to a high range of diurnal temperature (up to 20 degrees) thanks to the cold air descending the Andes and the cool winds coming off the Pacific. The cool winds may also result in morning fog, which attributes to the development of complexity and natural acidity in the grapes throughout the growing season (in Southern Regions though, climate is wetter and colder due to heavier rain). Geographically Chile is indeed, like Torres once said, a Viticultural Paradise when it comes to wine production (as well as growing a number of other kinds of crops) situated with the splendid Pacific Ocean to the West, the Majestic Andes bordering Argentina to the East, The Atacama Desert up North, the South covered by the magnificent Patagonian Ice Field (with more than 600 km across the water of frozen masses of ice from the Antarctic, impressive), the cold Humboldt Current flowing up the Antarctica along the Pacific Coast to the west blowing cool air inland along the river valleys and the river valleys punctuating the low-lying range of mountains referred to as The Coastal range which are fed with water from the melting snow on the Andes, making irrigation easy and almost cost free. Thus, wine production costs lower. And bottle prices better.
Soil and viticulture
Generally, the vineyards of Chile are planted on flat, fertile land (in the Central Valley all though mainly infertile) with -thanks to the climate- shallow irrigation (half of Chile needs irrigation while some areas suffer from poor drainage and need no irrigation at all). In Aconcagua alluvial soils predominate and from south of Curicó in Central Valley to Bio-bio in Southern Regions soils are volcanic. Within the Central Valley soils of granitic mainly hug the hillsides spanning the five sub-valleys Maipo, Cachapoal & Colchagua (the Rapel Valley), Maule and Curicò. For the rest soils are mainly alluvial, clay, sand and loam. Because of the country’s physical isolation very few vine diseases see daylight (phylloxera for instance has never occurred) making the need of almost all sprays and chemical treatments unnecessary; these circumstances have encouraged organic winemaking essentially! Fertilizers (products rich in plant nutrients) are employed but their use is regulated to avoid too much vigor. Rootstocks are mainly European Vitis Vinifera (which is normally really difficult to experience in the New World due to V. Vinifera’s lack of resistance to phylloxera). The first rootstocks were Spanish varieties planted back in the mid-sixteenth century by Spanish missionaries. The rest are all new plantings deriving from the 1970s till today. Grafting is hardly necessary (no phylloxera threat considered) again making viticulture a little less expensive (and so wines even more economic).
White grape varieties are dominated by three, the first two are true traditional international ones; Chardonnay & Sauvignon. The last, Muscat de Alexandriawith North African origins, is mostly used to make Chile’s famous and traditional distillate Pisco (originally developed in Peru). Premium quality Sauvignons are now quite common in the cooler coastal sites, notably Casablanca and San Antonio. They have benefited greatly from being planted in cooler vineyard sites. This together with the fact that producers seek to avoid excessive herbaceousness (e.g. green bell pepper, jalapeños, grass), allows much more fruit and alcohol to thrive in the wines (lemon juice/zest, white peaches, passion fruit). Some have even gone through lees stirring and oak ageing adding more richness and structure. Chardonnays are frequently made in an international style with typical dairy flavors from malolactic fermentation, nutty and toasty notes from oak ageing and ripe fruit from the sunny climate. Aromatic grapes such as Viognier, Gewurtztraminer and Riesling also starts to get some recognition.
Among the black varieties, Pais (or listán prieto, originally known as criolla chica) dominated the plantings until the late 1990s when French fellows like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Carmenére and later, even Pinot Noir, was brought in. Today it is estimated that near to half the plantings of red varieties is Cabernet Sauvignon frequently Bordeaux-blended with merlot or with Syrah/Carmenére varieties – all are made in styles that go from simple and fruity to premium quality examples, full-bodied with ripe fruit, high tannins, acidity and excellent ageing potential. On the second place of the most planted variety Merlot is officially in but Carmenére, which wasn’t identified until 1994, has showed to be what is actually planted in many sites thought to be Merlot-plantings! The n. 2 sought after variety right after Cabernet Sauvignon is Syrah, which has almost become a success over night. It comes in a range of different styles depending on the site it’s planted in. The premium quality examples are from the coastal or cooler sites such as the Elqui Valley in Coquimbo or San Antonio in the Aconcagua. And finally the class’ everlasting fragile and delicate boy, Pinot Noir, is despite of shyness showing to have joyous days when planted in cooler locations, also like e.g. San Antonio.
What to look for when buying Chilean premium quality wine
The explanations about the grape varieties paired with the premium sites in Aconcagua; San Antonio and Casablanca. Do also look for wines from the up-coming Leyda Valley inside San Antonio and all five sub-valleys in the Central Valley, specially Maipo and Colchagua which are napping Napa Valley in California at its heals.
But also Bio Bio in Southern Regions + Limarí in Coquimbo are growing good reputations for Chardonnay while Elqui, also in Coquimbo, show good examples of Sauvignon and Syrah.