A famous wine reviewer wrote a few years ago that wines from Chile have great potential, and they always will — a clever but snippy thing to say about the wine offerings from a whole country, particularly a country as big as Chile. The interesting thing is that he was half right when he said it.
Chile is a big place in length. In width, not so much. From the northern border where it touches its neighbors — Peru and Bolivia — all through the eastern spine it shares with Argentina — the Andes Mountain Range — to the far south where the land ends in an icy world in proximity to the Antarctic, the diversion of the Chilean climate is literally from one end of the temperature spectrum to the other. And all within an average width of 177 miles, but more than 2700 miles in length.
Think New Orleans to Pensacola, Florida, as a perception of the country’s width. Then think New York to Los Angeles as the length distance.
In the north of Chile is the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. To the south, glaciers and fjords. To the east are the dramatic mountains of the Andes, and to the west, the Pacific.
What makes the wine industry happen is the moderate middle, where a multitude of valleys, each influenced by the Pacific, but with grand vistas of the Andes, have become the center of a maturing agricultural effort.
Chile’s relative isolation played a role in its late entry into the world wine market as a producer. Probably around the early 1500s the first vines were brought by the Spanish to the region. This was similar to what happened in Argentina and in California. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish explorer who had to be more than one person given the scope of his travels, brought grapevines to Chile, probably pais, a hardy black grape varietal. Into Argentina, he brought criolla vines, and to California he introduced mission. Cortés was the Johnny Grapeseed of his day.
Anyway, the land and the climate liked the grapes, and vice versa. Owning a vineyard and making wine took on an air of respectability and community stature. Then a curious thing happened. Rich landowners in Chile decided to showcase their wealth and status by building Bordeaux-like chateaux. After all, if you want to appear rich, find out how the rich appear already. And what better area to emulate than the home of the greatest bankers and grape growers in France?
The grapes of Bordeaux soon replaced the grapes of the Spanish explorers, and with resulting winemaking success. Oh, they could not compete with the aromas and flavors of Bordeaux wines, but they were certainly adequate for local consumption. Vine cuttings had been brought into Chile from Bordeaux and the presence of an industry was taking shape.
Then, nature, being such a fickle lady, pulled another fast one, but this time on the Bordelaise. Phylloxera is a very small louse, an aphid, that lives in the soil and one of this bug’s favorite delicacies is the sweet nectar of grapevines as contained in the root system. Thriving in the same types of soil that vines love, damp and with a good dose of limestone, phylloxera was on its way to devastating the vineyards of Bordeaux in the 1880s.
It takes the wine industry about 10 to 12 years to recover from the ravages of phylloxera. The wines don’t immediately die, but they slowly degrade, providing less fruit, and less quality fruit, with each successive harvest.
To remedy the problem, all the vines have to be ripped from the soil and destroyed, usually by fire. Then the soil has to be treated with lye and must lay fallow for at least three years. During this time, the industry has to try and find a rootstock that is phylloxera-resistant, which usually requires research and plant nursery involvement. Only then can the newly created vines be planted, not bearing decent fruit for at least three vintages.
As France was fighting the debilitating effects of the phylloxera epidemic toward the end of the 1800s, Chile was growing a wine industry with French grapevines and no aphids. The vast ocean to the west and the longest mountain range in the world to the east, along with the northern desert and the southern ice, were protecting the grapevines of Chile from devastation through isolation.
Several red varieties were now showing great promise, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Beautiful seasons, with long ripening towards harvest, allowed the grapes to develop structure and satisfying acids, making the creation of fine wine only a matter of supervision and care.
But nothing is easy, and certainly nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to making wine. For Chile, this was going to be an important lesson.
First of all, that beautiful Chilean Merlot was turning heads around the world. Gold medals were awarded, and with good reason. It was an excellent wine, with the trademark values of deep, black color; velvet on the palate; and a long, satisfying finish, all enhanced with the aromas of black cherries.
Only one problem: it was not Merlot. Someone’s suspicions were aroused, possibly a winery that was tired of losing competitions to the southern upstart, and lab tests were executed. The result was a definitive answer. The grapes were most certainly not Merlot, but were Carmenere.
Carmenere was one of the grape varietals used in the classic Bordeaux blend, but after phylloxera, it fell out of favor with the Bordelaise and was never really planted to any appreciable extent again. Yet, it was one of the grapes that the Chilean winemakers took to their country when they were focused on copying Bordeaux, even to the architecture.
Okay, easy fix. The wines were still quite good, even excellent in many cases, so the Chileans would enter the wines into competitions as Carmenere. Good result, because no one else was really doing anything with the varietal so they literally had the competition to themselves.
The second factor in the rise in the quality of Chilean wines is when the winemakers looked to see what was going on in California in the 1960s. The California wine industry was all about hygiene. Cleaning tanks, floors and walls several times a day to help assure a scrubbed environment meant that bacteria, molds and fungi could not get a grip inside the winery or on the equipment, thus could not get into the wine and ruin the stock.
Chile cleaned up its act, too. The difference in the Chilean wines of 20 years ago and now is amazing. They are world-class in every sense of the term.
And Chile has one more good surprise for you. The wines are incredibly reasonable in cost. To be sure, they are more expensive than they were. As the quality has grown, so have the prices. Still, you won’t pay anywhere near what a fine French wine, or in many cases even a middle-tier California wine, costs.
The Chileans are producing wines that can be enjoyed without a big hole in your wallet.
The reds are coming into their own, with maturing vines and more winemaker knowledge of the soils and the climate as regards wine-making. The whites are just beginning to take hold as the Chilean wine industry diversifies and puts more money into research, learning about placing the right stock into the right place.
In wine, it’s not about what you are supposed to like; it’s about what you really like. Chile is sending us wines that we can really like. The cost is lagniappe.
Wine-growing regions of Chile, from the north to the south:
Elqui Valley: Syrah
Aconcagua: Cabernet Sauvignon
Casablanca: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
San Antonio/Leyda: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Maipo: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet blends
Rapel/Cachapoal: Carmenere, Carmenere blends
Rapel/Colchagua: Carmenere, Carmenere blends
Curicó: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Maule: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Bio Bio: Pinot Noir