Chile Wises Up

Paul Blow

Chile has a lot going for it, wine-wise: a dreamy climate much like California’s, with enough heat to ripen grapes, cool nights, and not much harvest-time rain. The country’s prephylloxera vines were brought over from France in the 19th century. But the missteps have always outnumbered the successes. Chile’s wine industry has felt more like a high-volume imitation factory than a place for innovation. That seems to be changing.

Marketing itself as the world’s source of cheap wines may have helped Chile get its industry going, but as a long-term strategy it was myopic. Around five years ago, Chile decided it needed a go-to grape, something unique, to better market itself. New Zealand has Sauvignon Blanc; California has Zinfandel; and Argentina has Malbec. Chile chose to promote the grape Carmenere. Bad idea: First, Carmenere had for generations been treated like Merlot, but it never got ripe when Merlot did, leading to what people claimed was an underripe, vegetal taste—one that became associated with Chilean wines. Even when planted in better spots and allowed to ripen properly, Carmenere doesn’t make a compelling wine. When fully ripe, it becomes monolithic and impenetrable, hardly appealing to today’s demand for food-friendly wines.

There’s been lots of foreign investment by wine powerhouses like Mouton Rothschild and Mondavi, but these firms have seemed more interested in trying to make cheaper versions of the wines of their home countries. A host of expensive Cabernet blends got high scores from critics. However, these wines never tasted like they were expressing anything original, and only reflected the markets they were chasing. Finally, the majority of Chile’s wine is exported, and with very little Chilean wine being consumed at home, the industry has lacked its most immediate and authentic source of feedback.

Now, the good news. Land planted to vines has more than doubled in Chile since 1995, and lots of those plantings have been in new regions with new grapes. Winegrowers are pushing into more cool-climate valleys. Primary among these are the valleys of Casablanca and the even cooler Leyda area (in the San Antonio Valley). The most famous winery in Casablanca is Veramonte (owned by the Huneeus family of California’s Franciscan and Quintessa wineries), which for years punished us with its underripe Cabernet and Merlot blends. But recent bottlings of cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have shown great promise. Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, has made an impression. It’s tangy, flavorful, and imbued with life. Huneeus makes another Sauvignon Blanc under the duo label, which zips with flavors of bright lemon peel and lime juice. Veramonte’s neighbor, Casas del Bosque, also makes a crisp, sharply defined Sauvignon. My favorite, however, is from the winery Terrunyo (owned by Concha y Toro), which showcases the best of the bright fruit but adds a sophisticated restraint and a mineral note rarely seen in Chilean wines. This wine is a true original and worthy of consideration with the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world.

Syrah is also making great strides here. The Folly from Montes is full of minerality and wild blackberry. It’s as delicious as it is expensive (around $70). But there are other, more affordable Syrahs, led by Casa Lapostolle’s Cuvée Alexandre, which gets at the meaty, earthy side of the grape that I find so intriguing. The Matetic Vineyard’s EQ Syrah from the San Antonio region captures the savory notes of the grape with black and white pepper notes and a violet intensity. These wines are sharp departures from Australian Shiraz—they’re leaner, prettier, and more aromatic.

And even Pinot Noir is showing some potential in these cooler Chilean climes, which mimic California’s Santa Barbara and Sonoma coasts. Cono Sur is leading the way in the Casablanca Valley with a supple and acidic wine with sweet flavors of cherry and raspberry. It’s still a bit simple but shows the grape’s potential. That potential is realized by bottles like Matetic’s EQ Pinot Noir, a well-structured but gulpable wine with lots of bright fruit and juicy acidity. The Leyda Lot 21 Pinot is another good find, with classic tart cherry and raspberry notes and a fine dusting of spice.

After years of being a factory for the wine titans of Europe and America, Chile finally seems to be finding a voice of its own. It’s a work in progress, but the progress is encouraging.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.