Chilean wine steering a new course

Chile’s reputation as the Volvo of the wine world has been consigned to the scrapheap. Jamie Goode reports on the new wave


BACK IN THE EARLY NOUGHTIES, UK WINE WRITER TIM ATKIN FAMOUSLY DESCRIBED CHILE AS "THE VOLVO OF THE WINE WORLD", drawing a parallel between the safe but dull image of the Swedish car manufacturer and Chile’s reputation for being a safe but dull choice

In a later column for UK newspaper The Observer in 2006 he backtracked and suggested that Chile was now a sports car, admitting that he regretted making the Volvo comment. But the reason this metaphor stung the Chileans so much was that it contained enough truth to make it hurt. 

Given its amazing array of terroirs and conditions so benign for the growth of the vine, Chile has been a relative underachiever. It has delivered what the market wants: affordable, tasty wines with no nasty surprises. But it has struggled to make compelling fine wines. 

And Chile’s reds may have come from a range of terroirs and be made from different varieties, but they have a tendency to taste alike. 

Change is coming, though. It looks as if Chile’s wines are about to take a significant step forward in terms of interest. Commercially, they are already a success, so you may ask why there is a need to fix something that isn’t broken. It’s because the changes that take place in the fine wine dimension often trickle through to more commercial wines. 

If Chile breaks the image of being a dull country with a limited fine wine dimension, then all Chilean wines are likely to benefit, and there’s a good chance that a higher proportion of Chile’s wines will be able to move away from the bottom end. 

New regions

There are three key factors in the growing interest in the fine wine dimension. The first is the move to new wine regions. This has been taking place for a couple of decades now, but it has recently begun to gain pace and have more traction in the marketplace. 

The first of the new cooler-climate areas to be explored was the Casablanca Valley. Then there was a move coastal with Leyda and San Antonio, a move south down to Bío Bío, and a move north to Limari, Elqui and most recently the Huasca region in the Atacama desert, where Ventisquero has been a pioneer. 

As well as the new regions, however, there is the rediscovery of the treasure trove of old, dry-grown vines in regions such as Maule and Itata. Even the lowly Pais variety, a Mission grape that usually ends up in cheap jug wines, is now getting some love and attention. Torres and Concha y Toro have both recently started working with Pais. 

“In the Itata and Cauquenes area we have old vines of Pais, Carignan and Cinsault,’ says Marcelo Papa, winemaker at Concha y Toro. He is using 100 to 120-year-old Pais bush vines and 60-year-old Cinsault to make a new wine for the Marques de Casa Concha label. “Why not use this heritage of very old vines?” asks Papa. “They are currently going into Tetra Paks, sold very cheaply.” 

“We are always looking for wines that express unique personality and character,” says Casa Silva winemaker Mario Geisse. “That’s why we look for new regions: to plant the same varieties, with the same excellent quality, but having different wines as a result. 

“An example of this is our Lago Ranco Sauvignon Blanc from Futrono. It is more elegant and light in comparison to our Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc from Paredones. They are both high quality wines, but with distinctive characteristics according to each terroir.”

Casa Silva was a pioneer of developing the coastal Colchagua region with its Paredones vineyard. “Due to wind, altitude and granitic and quartz soils, the vines – which are planted just seven kilometres from the Pacific ocean – need permanent supervision,” says Geisse. “The ‘vaguada costera’ (coastal trough) phenomenon creates special conditions for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Gris, bringing them a high class acidity and minerality. The proximity of the ocean regulates the daytime temperatures within the vineyards, helping to preserve the natural aromatic flavours and distinctive attributes of each variety.” Casa Silva started out here as recently as 2009, and so far the results have been impressive.

Boutique producers

The second is the emergence of smaller, more boutique producers, together with larger companies starting smaller, more terroir-focused side projects. For a long time, Chile’s safeness in terms of wine flavour was partly a factor of the dominance of large companies. 

Typically, rich individuals would own a huge 300ha vineyard and winery, often as a side activity to their main business interests. It’s hard to be innovative when you are operating on such a scale, especially when conservatism pays in the marketplace. 

This is beginning to change. Of particular note is the MOVI movement, which has banded together many of the interesting small producers across the country. 

“I would like to highlight the current growth of little wine producers in Chile,” says Mario Geisse. “Only a few years ago Chilean wine was based on huge wineries; today you can find a high range of little and medium wineries. From garage projects to cooperatives, the market is growing and it is a very exciting time. 

“These producers are more involved with the community, bringing them closer to the wine industry and nurturing the local wine culture with a different perspective,” says Geisse.

Picking earlier for reds

The third factor is the move away from picking late and using lots of new oak, something that has caused Chilean reds to take on a samey sort of character. The journey that one of Chile’s most important winemakers, Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro, has been on is particularly interesting in this regard.   

“My concern is that for the past 10-12 years, we in Chile and also many producers worldwide have been pushing maturity further,” says Papa. “We have been making wines with higher alcohol levels, more extraction and more new oak in order to make a blockbuster wine, not sweet in terms of sugar but sweet in terms of feeling.” Papa says he grew a bit tired with this style, and in 2010 he began experimenting, first of all with picking earlier, and then with using large Italian botti of 5,000 litres rather than small oak barrels.

“In Chile, 20 years ago we picked the grapes earlier and used less oak. There was much higher diversity of styles of wine. When you pick earlier you get a bigger diversity of flavours. When you start to push maturity further and further, at the end a Cabernet and Merlot and a Syrah are pretty similar with sweet fruit character.”

So in 2010 he decided to make a special bottling of the Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon with the techniques of the 1970s. “I got an old block of Cabernet from Puente Alto that we normally pick in the last week of April, depending on the year, and I picked it in mid-March,” says Papa. He picked 20 tonnes. 

“When I went to the vineyard I tasted the grapes and the seeds were green. So I closed my eyes and picked anyway. The wine was full of colour and flavour, but very tannic. I put it in vaguada costera old barrels of 400 litres and left it. Each time I tasted it it was getting better, but for the first year it was undrinkable.”

This wine was bottled a year later than he normally would bottle Marques. “I showed it to Patricio Tapia [a leading Chilean wine critic],” says Papa. “It was 12.6% alcohol and the acidity wasn’t adjusted. He thought it was fantastic.” The wine ended up winning best Cabernet in Tapia’s Descorchados Wine Guide 2014. 

This success led Papa to consider moving the picking date for all the Marques de Casa Concha wines. “In 2013 I was pretty much convinced to move to early picking, but I could only pick half early and then the other half in the first week in April for logistical reasons.” 

In 2014 he moved all the picking to the earlier date. In addition, he has gradually increased the proportion of the wine aged in botti rather than barrels. As these are expensive, this takes time. For the 2015 vintage he was up to 50% botti. 

Papa has noticed an added benefit of picking early. “When we ferment these lots, they go quickly. When we pick later we need to add more yeasts and more nutrients. In the mid-1990s I would pick grapes with 23.6-23.8 Brix and I put 5-7g/hl of yeast and 10ppm DAP and this was all. Fermentation went fine. In 2009 which was the peak of late harvest, we used 20g/hl of yeast, 60-70ppm DAP plus a battery of nutrients. Even like that, the fermentation was slow and you’d need to pump over and extract. 

“With early picking you feel more free to leave some lots fermenting wild. The wines will show much more diversity than the wines today.” 

This philosophy of picking earlier has even extended to the mass-market wines. “In the same vein, I am doing Casillero. Four years ago we picked with 24.5 Brix, today less than 24. It is getting jucier and more drinkable.” 

Papa thinks this is a direction the whole Chilean wine scene is beginning to take. “There is a move today in the country towards these types of wines. They show a different way and many people have opened their eyes and are beginning to make some changes.” 

Improved sparkling wines

Finally, there’s another interesting development in Chile, which is the long-awaited focus on sparkling wine. “I think the most important innovation in the Chilean wine industry at the moment is the current upgrades on sparkling wines,” says Mario Geisse. “Every day, Chilean wineries are making huge efforts to improve techniques and progressively locating vines in better regions to produce sparkling wines with more character and quality.”