Chile rides out

Chile is moving on from its reputation for producing quality but ‘safe’ wines as a new generation exploits modern techniques and diverse terroir, finds Christian Davis


THE FAMOUS QUOTE from master of wine Tim Atkin, that Chilean wine was like Volvos – reliable, safe, but boring, is correct on two fronts. But, crucially, not on the one that counts for the discerning, adventurous wine drinker.

Chile still produces great quality entry-level wines that are soft, fruity, easy to drink and represent excellent value for money. But boring? No.

Years ago, apart from maybe Apalta, nearly all the vineyards were on the flat central valley, producing ripe Merlots (with a bit of Carmenère mixed in), Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay – all the big guns in terms of global vol-ume varieties.

Now there are vineyards all over the place: where there is an incline, some altitude, half decent soils and, of course these days, a reliable source of water. The likes of Elqui Valley in the high north and Bío-Bío in the luxuriant south are teeming with viticulturists, winemakers and commercial estate agents trying to sell land for cultivation. There are even some trellises in the Atacama Desert.

Unabashed Chile lover Miguel Torres Maczassek – fifth generation and general manager of Spain’s largest wine maker, Familia Torres – says: “I think Chile today has two quite different messages.

“In the past decades Chile built up its first USP, namely that it was – and still is – very successful at making very good value wines. But during the past 10 years Chile has started to show a more exciting side – its amazing regional diversity with impressive treasures of different and rare wines.

“Take, for example, the Maule valley and Cauquenes where you have fantastic wines made from old Carignan vines showing an incredible acidity. Or the coastal Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from fantastic granite and slate soils.

“Or, the wines from the historic Itata Valley, where viticulture initially started in Chile about 500 years ago and where you can go back to the origins and find ancient grape varieties such as País, Cinsault or Moscatel.

“I love Itata,” says Torres, “and I see a lot of potential. There you can see the viticulture of the Old World but in the New World. Most of the vineyards are small and owned by families, not all of them have the resources to produce and bottle the wines, but I believe we are going to see great wines from Itata.”

Concha y Toro is Chile and South America’s largest wine producer. Corporate export director Cristián Lopez tells DI: “Chile has a fantastic diversity of vineyard sites, which means it can produce excellent examples of a wide range of wine styles. Some other countries are known only for one or two styles and, while Chile might have made its name with Cabernet Sauvignon, it is now becoming well known for leading the development of Pinot Noir, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and even Malbec. The Chilean wine industry has been export-focused for many years and is adept at and open to matching its wines to international consumers’ tastes.”

Santa Carolina chief executive Santiago Larraín agrees: “Remember that only 20% of the wines are consumed in Chile. All the rest must be exported so we know how to provide commercial wines to all different markets.”

Bodega Volcanes de Chile’s managing director Ben Gordon comes in: “Chile has often struggled to communicate its USP but I believe the consistent message of diversity is starting to ring true. It may be easier to market yourself as a one-trick pony but, over time, consumers stay loyal to a category if they see consistent quality but diverse styles emerging.

“It’s harder for wineries to pinpoint USPs but we at Bodega Volcanes de Chile have positioned ourselves as Chile’s volcanic wine producer and I think the link with Chile’s unique geography is often overlooked by producers,” says Gordon.

Santa Rita Estates chief executive Andres Lavados says: “Chile is capable of producing wines of the highest quality from an amazing diversity of places. Of particular note is the upper part of the Maipo Valley, where the terroir conditions lend themselves especially well to the production of some of the most exceptional Cabernet Sauvignons in the world.”

Emiliana’s sales director Andres Gillmore adds: “Chile has many USPs to compete in today’s global wine market.

“Among them we can highlight the variety of climates from desert such as Limari to cool, rainy Bío Bío that allow us to produce many types and styles of wines in a unique sanitary condition with not many global wine diseases. Still Phylloxera-free, that enables us to be leaders in the production of organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines today.”

Vía commercial director Carlos Kuscevic sums up Chile’s USP in one word, ‘consistency’, while Aresti sales director Cristian Becerra, says: “We think the main USP Chile has is diversity. It’s thanks to that we can innovate continuously.”


Torres says: “The trend is to head south and to plant in cooler areas with more water to achieve wine with more fruit, less wood and less extraction, good acidity and freshness and of course a wine that expresses its origin. Another trend is to look for extreme areas, towards the north and south of Chile, the Andes or even the coast. Years ago, Chilean wines differentiated themselves mainly through their disparate climates.

“Today, however, not only the different climates are important, but also the origin, the specific valley/vineyard and the specific type of soil, thus highlighting the typicity of each variety in every special spot.”

Gordon says: “In Chile there are continued improvements, with the producers placing much more emphasis on planting the right grapes in the right areas but also using the right clones. This leads to a greater confidence in the grape quality for winemakers and, as a result, in Chile we are making wines that are less fabricated and offer a far greater expression of origin.”

Lavados concurs: “The trend in planting is to use the considerably more advanced technology now available to us, including soil mapping before replanting or starting a new plantation. Also the use of high quality genetic material (clones) from the very start, rootstocks and other new technologies are what the wineries in the forefront are concentrating on.

“Regarding styles, the key is balance. We have learned that ex-cess is not the way forward. We are looking for well-balanced wines that really express the character of the varieties and the terroirs.”

Santa Rita Estate’s Viña Carmen head winemaker Emily Faulconer says: “The trend is to renew vineyards with a better understanding of our terroir and viticultural maps. We have learnt from our mistakes. But also we are rescuing what has proved to work.

“We have gone from a classic, safe, production of wine towards a more authentic one. There is a greater understanding of what each wine or place needs to do to be able to achieve the best expression. Producers have the confidence to go out there and show their wines in this fashion more than trying to please the crowd,” Faulconer adds.

Gillmore says: “Wines that are both more approachable and easy to drink are an important trend. Cool valley wines, not highly interventionist nor highly oaked, elegant styles and sparklings are gaining market share and Chile has many terrors and varieties to suit this demand.”

Undurraga’s Andrés Izquierdo says: “We are trending towards rediscovering our roots, both in agricultural terms – old vines and traditional grapes, such as País and Cinsault – and in winemaking terms, where we have been focusing on giving more character to the wines, more authenticity.

“Also, there has been a trend to push the boundaries in terms of new plantings of ‘traditional’ grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, where we’ve seen that the winemaking map of Chile has expanded with brave, new people planting in what were once considered non-traditional areas,” says Izquierdo.

Santa Carolina Larraín reckons that Carmenère is finally being seen as “the Chilean variety, and emerging markets are demanding huge quantities of this wine”. He also believes bad harvests in Argentina have opened a door for Chilean Malbec.”


Torres says: “To deliver the message that there is another Chile is still a challenge. It is still not easy for a País or Carignan winemaker to deliver the message in the market. Many of these wines have little distribution and some wine buyers prefer to play safe with Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc. It is in the res-taurants were these wines are appreciated the most, thanks to the great work of many sommeliers.

“The other big challenge is climate change,” says Torres. “But that is not a specific Chilean problem, it is global one. If the rise in temperature and lack of water continues, a lot of wine regions in the world will probably have to replant grape varieties that are resistant to high temperatures and water stress, plant vineyards at a higher altitude or in cooler regions.

“Because of the unique geographical layout of the country, Chile has an interesting range of possibilities. We bought 230ha of land in the Itata valley in 2014.

“The climate criteria to decide for this area was not only the cooler temperatures but the fact that a river was flowing nearby.

“I am not a fan of irrigation – we try to avoid it. But in the future we will have to confront the reality and this is that water will be essential for vines to survive in certain regions,” Torres adds.

Carmen’s Faulconer calls for a “more specific appellation system that protects the great wine growing regions”. She adds: “For this, it is important to work harder in specialisation. In the past decade, the viticultural map of Chile has grown and continues to grow on a daily basis as trial plots mature and new wine styles and varieties emerge.

“I feel as though the country has moved on to producing an exciting range of quality wines and styles from a number of new and diverse regions. We are making wines from the south, from the Andes, and from the coast, to the Atacama desert.”


According to CyT’s Lopez: “There is a real sense of optimism and innovation around Chilean wine. Many new and exciting wine styles are being produced, and Chile continues to perform strongly in international markets around the world.

“The opportunities lie in building successful wine brands which consumers can trust, enjoy and readily access. This will encourage them to try and buy even better and more interesting wines.”

There’s also a need to talk up premium wines in the mature markets of Europe, says Lapostolle owner Charles De Bournet Marnier Lapostolle: “We need to get the consumer and the wine trade to think beyond the idea that Chile is just a safe and cheap source of wine. We must talk more about regionality and what makes Chile special.”


“I believe that organic viticulture has a great future in Chile,” says Torres. “The natural climate conditions – very dry in the summertime – make it a paradise for organic viticulture. Chile has far fewer plagues than other wine countries so organic viticulture is far easier.

“I believe that wine lovers not only want to drink a great wine, but to know how that wine is made. More and more we are conscious that our decisions and choices as consumers have a great impact on our planet.”

He says there is a great opportunity in terms of promoting sustainable local development and speaks of his admiration for the Vignadores de Carignan (Vigno), a group of producers whose goal is to create an appellation of origin for wines made from old Carignan vines from Maule and Cauquenes.

“We need more Vignos to show the true potential of Chilean wines,” he says. There are not many co-operativas and especially in valleys such as Itata it would be great to see a movement in that direction. This would allow us to create value for vine-growers with grapes that otherwise end up in generic blends of wines with no origin”.

Looking to the on-trade is what Volcanes de Chile’s Gordon thinks could reap rewards.

“Chile’s biggest opportunities lie in producers taking the on-premise more seriously where Chile is considerably under-represented.

“With fresher styles and more long-term strategies, I think Chile will start to become an interesting category for leading sommeliers.”

He adds: “Chile’s way forward remains relatively unchanged, with a focus on communicating the diversity and great value that exists. Smaller producers, lesser-known varieties and new regions will only help this and I do sense that you will start to see a greater separation between the large producers and their route to market and the smaller, more quality-driven producers whose wines offer a real point of difference for consumers who are willing to experiment.”

Definition and consistency are the main points Chile’s wineries need to consider, according to Undurraga’s Izquierdo.

“Each one of us needs to define what we want to be, what wines we are able or want to offer, what is the positioning we want to have as a brand, and to be consistent and realistic in the actions we make towards this goal.

Emiliana’s Gillmore would like to see greater co-operation among Chile’s wine producers, with more organisations to protect DO and quality denominations.

“That will help us greatly and give a more consistent and clear message to the world about the aim to increase quality perception, and also take a stronger position as a country to be leaders of environmentally friendly viticulture. That can also have a greater impact on the overall image of the country.”

Vía’s Kuscevic says: “We need to believe in ourselves. If you go to any fair in the world and you ask 10 Chilean wineries, half of them will be willing to sell wines below $20 FOB (free on board) per case. This would be impossible to think of in New Zealand or California, as an example.”

“Chile needs to keep investing in image to be recognised as a producer of higher end wines,” says Mont Gras marketing director Pilar Peñafiel. “Today it is still very difficult to have a higher participation in this price point as people are not looking for Chilean wines in this segment.”

But, as Marnier-Lapostolle points out, Chile doesn’t give up: “Chile, as a producing or exporting country, is a fighter. Whether it was the 2010 earthquake, the rouble crisis, the 2014 frosts, the 2016 devaluation of the pound, the 2017 fires, life carries on and more, importantly, the Chilean wineries carry on.

“There will always be hiccups on the export road, but the Chilean mentality is to carry on. Sell the dream, sell the terroir, and don’t just sell wine below a certain retail price, ” he sums up.

So, there’s nothing wrong with Chilean wine, or Volvos, for that matter.