Cultivating change

Chile is focusing on its image and product quality, particularly from new places and with new blends. Christian Davis reports


ON THE EDGE OF BEING quite exciting were the opening remarks of Richard Hemmings MW at his Redefining Chile masterclass at the recent London Wine Fair.

A contributor to, Hemmings prefaced the tutored tasting by saying he did not claim to be any expert on Chile, but he has visited. He said he had consulted with Peter Richards MW, an acknowledged Chile watcher, plus a MW student who is doing his dissertation on the emerging “most exciting new region in Chile”, Itata. They all concurred that Chile is on the cusp of “being exciting”.

Hemmings went on to showcase three Chardonnays, a “benchmark comparison” for a wine-producing country with aspirations to join the great and the good. He showed a wine made with País grapes taken from wild vines in a forest; an old bush vine Cinsault aged in clay amphorae; a Pinot Noir and a top-of-the-vine Chilean icon wine, Conch y Toro’s Don Melchor, a classic Cabernet Sauvignon.

Casa Silva’s Mario Pablo Silva, the current president of Wines of Chile, is equally excited – but then he would be. He tells Drinks International: “Producers understand today that terroir is key. We are looking to express the real fruit of each small piece of land. The diversity of Chile is one of the most important advantages of our country.

“We can produce freshness, elegance, soft tannins, from the foothills of the Andes to the Pacific Ocean, and also today excellent wines in the very north of Chile – Atacama – or in the very south – Austral region, Chilean Patagonia,” adds Silva.


According to Wines of Chile, sales are growing in the US, albeit slowly. The UK is Chile’s number three export market but sales have decreased. “The UK market is not easy and the prices are very low, not only for Chile,” says Silva. China is growing fast for Chile, Japan as well. “The Asian countries like the style of Chilean wines and also the relationships are very good. With China, for example, we have a free trade agreement,” he says.

Concha y Toro is the largest wine producer in the whole of South America. Corporate export manager north zone, Thomas Domeyko, says: “Chilean wines have grown steadily in international markets. Exports of US$1.8bn and 877m litres in 2015 have positioned Chile as the leading New World wine exporter. It is important to note the average price of Chilean wine has increased together with volume, showing stronger growth in the higher value premium categories.”

He adds: “Our major focus is on building strong brands, outstanding in their categories and with global reach. The wine industry is very fragmented and competitive so brands play a key role in defining the consumer’s buying decision. We believe in brand value and consequently we have invested in our brands for years.

“We believe we have succeeded with Casillero del Diablo. In 2015, Casillero global sales grew 12.6%, reaching a total of 5m cases,” says Domeyko.

The view of managing director and chief winemaker of the boutique Tabalí winery is less rosy. Felipe Müller East says: “Our position, in my view, is not so good. We are known for good value for money but not for more serious and high quality wines. The mistakes were made by the Chilean wineries decades ago when they made the decision of making the easiest thing, selling a lot, but cheaply. They didn’t create an image. They only wanted fast profitability of their projects. They didn’t have a long-term view of the Chile brand. Now it is quite difficult to change that in consumers’ minds.

“In Tabalí we have to deal with this cheap reputation and it makes it very hard to succeed. Chile has to change this, urgently. Support smaller wineries and grape producers that have good quality and that show terroir wines. I think my generation is taking the challenge of changing the Chile perception in the global markets. Of course the big brands will always dominate the sales numbers with cheaper wines, but we must have a large group of wineries delivering very good quality and character in their wines, then Chile would start to be taken more seriously in the higher level of wines,” says Müller East.

Felipe Bravo, commercial director of the ACW group, adds: “There is still a gap in labour costs against Old World growers but Chile is rapidly reaching their costing standards. Even today growers are converting inefficient plantations with new technologies which in the end will lead to more efficient estates.

“We are still the great value-for-money producer country. Trying to keep that message but on upper ranges should be our flag to push. In the current world economic situation, we are in an excellent position, receiving consumers who are trading down.”

But Bravo adds that bulk exports are damaging to such aspirations.


Which countries are Chilean’s best export markets? Domeyko says: “The main markets for Chilean wine are the US, UK, China, Japan, Brazil, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Ireland and South Korea. Although each of these markets presents export opportunities, certainly the highest growth rate is shown by China, a new market for wine that ranked as the second destination for Chilean wine exports in 2015, in value terms. Nevertheless we believe a great potential for our premium wines lies in Europe, Canada and the US.

“China is undoubtedly one of the most attractive emerging countries for Chilean wine producers. However, to be present in this Asian market it is necessary to understand the cultural, economic, legal and political barriers the country presents, frequently more complex than those of other markets. Also, the sheer size of the country and differences between provinces make it a fragmented market and a huge challenge for any producer and any brand to achieve nationwide and multi-channel presence,” he says.

“Another important point is wine consumption, which in China is less developed than in other countries. Consumers tend to seek simple wines and this is where New World producers, including Chile, have managed to take advantage of simplicity as a strength.

“The wine industry in China is at an early stage, so another challenge is to educate consumers on how to drink wine and its different varieties,” says Domeyko.

Grupo Vinos del Pacifico managing director Ernesto Muller concurs: “In China it is all about understanding the best route to market to find the best opportunities to sell premium wines – brand building is key and it is a long term strategy. There are no short cuts and it takes time and resources to become successful in this market. We opened offices in Hong Kong and Shanghai to be able to be close to the market and understand the fast-moving dynamics of China.”

What are the key trends in plantings, wine styles and consumption patterns in Chile? Viña Leyda was one of the pioneers of coastal plantings in the Leyda valley, planting in high density cool-climate varieties such as Riesling and Sauvignon Gris and using different clonal material.

Chief winemaker Viviana Navarrete tells DI: “In the early 1990s the style was for strong, ripe and oaky. Today, it is totally opposite, giving birth to wines with character, fresher, lower alcohol and less oak.”

Rodrigo Plass, Viña Errazuriz commercial director for Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Africa, says: “Chile is roughly the size of Bordeaux, 120,000ha. We could go to 150,000ha but long term it is not volume – that is taken by Australia and Argentina. We would rather go quality and we are looking for a cool-climate orientation.” He points to the company’s Manzanar vineyard in the Aconcagua Costa region, 12km from the Pacific coast, as the way things are heading. He says the temperatures are similar to Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc country in New Zealand. Combined with the slate/schist soils, the wines are refined, restrained and elegant, even its Syrah. No fruit bombs here. Its ‘icon’ Las Pizarras Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs obtained 98 and 96 points respectively from James Suckling in the first harvest.

Portuguese wine producer Sogrape owns the Château Los Boldos range of wines. Brand manager for premium wines Chris Appleby says: “Chile is increasingly looking at being more serious, provenance and longevity with clean, expressive fruit, balanced by blending.”

Being Portuguese, the company has planted Touriga Nacional, says Appleby and European area manager Alexandra Adler. We will have to wait two to three years before we find out whether the major grape variety in port likes Chile.

Marcelo Papa, CyT chief winemaker for Casillero del Diablo and Marques de Casa Concha, says: “Over the past few years it has been sparkling and rosé wines that have been accounting for much significant growth in the overall wine category. We find very good Carignan in the Maule Valley, excellent expressions of Pinot Noir in Leyda and Casablanca, and exceptional Chardonnays in Limarí.”


Tabalí’s Müller East says: “I think Chile has been moving into more extreme areas. The new projects left the Central Valley and started moving towards the coast, north, south and, just recently, a couple of them in the altitudes of the Andes mountain range. More extreme climates and different type of soils, slopes, and sun exposures. Also new and high-quality clones, especially Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

“This means Chile has a promising future because the exploration of better places, better DNA in the vineyards, slope plantations and more knowledge about climate and geology will bring very good quality in the near future.”

Müller East adds: “This is the only way to build names and brands, quality, consistency and character. In terms of challenges I think this a hard business – it normally requires big investments so we need to make it a sustainable business for the small wineries and producers, so they can have profits and live from the activity. If they don’t have a space in the market they will end up closing and leaving all the market for the big wineries.”

Spanish producer Torres has invested US$4m over 20 years in its Escaleras de Empedrado project to produce what it claims is the first slate soil Pinot Noir from Chile.

Torres boss Miguel Torres Maczassek says: “Chile has a 400-year history of viticulture and winemaking before Cabernet Sauvignon arrived. But it’s time now to look back and to see, with the new technology, how we can show other sides, other regions and recuperate ancient wines.”

He says Torres is looking at País in its sparkling wine, Estelado, and also in the “mono-varietal red wine, Reserva de Pueblo”.

Rodrigo Soto, director of winemaking at Veramonte, has a slightly different perspective. He says: “In general the trend is to work with the same varieties, but with more precision. We are in a positiday where we have developed more knowledge of soils, climate, clones, etc. So there is much room for improvement working with the traditional varieties.

“Also, traditional wine growing areas are being explored and brought back into the scene, such as Bío Bío, Itata and Cauquenes. We are replanting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, given the deeper understanding we have gained of our own terroir, its soils, climate, and the best way to manage them. Instead of doing more, we want to do it better – be the best at what we do and what we know.”

“We are learning and understanding more and more each time about our soils and winemaking regions. We hope our positioning is always moving towards a respected producer, with quality wines at all price ranges,” says Soto.


GVP’s Muller achieves both cool, classic and sparkling with his Undurraga brand. He says: “Cool-climate planting is a clear trend today as Chile is looking for more diversity, authenticity and quality new sites in coastal as well as higher-altitude regions.

“Classic red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère still represent the bigger share of our sales. However, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from cool-climate vineyards are getting very interesting growth and international recognition.”

“I see Chile also competing in the sparkling wine category – our wines are extraordinary. It is perhaps the best keep secret in Chile,” adds Muller.

And so to conclusions. On the slightly negative side Alliance Wine’s senior wine buyer Liz Donnelly says: “In the UK Chile is still struggling to be viewed as anything more than good value, reliable, varietal wine. This is unfortunate, but with four or five big players dominating the industry it is inevitable.

“I think Chile should have lots of opportunities – I think the work that is being done by [the collaborative project] VIGNO, MOVi [the Movement of Independent Vintners] and other small wineries is critical to getting the right image of Chile across to journalists and consumers.

“Chile does not need to have one strapline or motto – nor should it try to emulate Argentina’s success with Malbec – the Carmenere campaign was flawed and didn’t work. Chile needs to exploit its quirky-side and emphasise what it does well from coastal area and what it does well in the hotter areas… The message needs to be that Chile is ‘cool and exciting’. The challenge is the marketing of it, especially when the four or five big players dominate so much and need to sell,” concludes Donnelly.

Tabalí’s Müller East adds: “Chile urgently needs diversity in terms of appellations, style of the wines, sizes of the wineries, etc... if only the big ones survive we will be a very boring country in terms of our offer, probably with lots of correct wines but much more on the commodity style, all of them very similar in price and flavours, and that would be very sad.”

Whereas, on the positive side: “I see Chile growing and bringing up our current positioning. I think there’s every day more specialisation and knowledge and, as you can have heard.... Chileans are hard workers,” blasts Bravo.

Müller says: “If we are able to change the actual image of only good value for money it would be a great step. We need to be considered by the global wine industry as serious and potential high-end wine producers.

“We have nature on our side in this country and, with the help of the new generations of entrepreneurs, winemakers and viticulturists, I’m sure we can and will do it.

“I’m optimistic because every year we have more new wines with very good quality, coming from old abandoned areas such as Maule and Itata and also from new areas such as Limarí, Huasco, Elqui and also in the deep south of the country such as Traiguén and its surroundings.

“The Andes mountains will be the next big discovery for high-end wines,” he says.

Torres Maczassek says: “I believe that reviving certain ancestral varieties can help differentiate Chilean wine by making it more unique, thus allowing us to work with higher prices.”

WoC president Mario Pablo Silva says: “We are working in the new strategy 2016-2025. We need to work hard and invest in the country image, where the wine is the most important ambassador of our country.

“We need to be close to the consumer and the experts. If we do this, working through the association and also

each winery following this main guide, I am sure we will continue growing

and being a most important player in this beautiful industry around the world, reaching the goals set,” concludes Silva.

Richard Hemmings’ final remark at the masterclass was: “Interesting wines is what the wine trade likes to get energised about.” The point being: If they can get ‘excited’ then maybe they can excite their customers.

Are you excited? We live in hope.