Beth Willard, one of our intrepid wine buyers, has recently returned from her adventures in Chile. Here are her top five reasons you need to get the delicious and exciting wines of Chile in your glass right now!
1. It’s EXTREME
I’m not one to go in for extreme sports: bungee jumping, sky diving, black piste runs … there’s a reason we have a fear mechanism, and I’m very happy to live safely within its constraints. But I do like a spirit of adventure, a struggle against the elements, people trying to get on in the craziest of conditions. Extreme viticulture that results in a stunning glass of wine and a pretty decent view, now that’s my idea of breaking boundaries and pushing limits.
Chile is all about overcoming the limitations of its environment. Were you one of those kids who loved it when it was time to study volcanoes and get out the papier mâché kits and bicarb of soda? Me too. Almost as cool as dinosaurs. Well Chile has around 500 active volcanoes, and along with the glacial rivers and millions of years of shifting mountain formations, these contribute to the dramatic landscapes, varying altitudes, and incredible soils that add complexity to the country’s wines.
The dramatic diversity of landscapes – from the Atacama desert to the glaciers of Patagonia – means that vines are planted on a myriad of different soils, at different altitudes (from almost sea level to 2,000m) and in the many varied valleys with their unique set of climatic influences: no one valley is alike. But all have faced similar complications.
The 2017 harvest was extreme. In January and February the country was ravaged by fierce wildfires. Many producers lost vines, some also equipment and others infrastructure. These fires came on the back of a persistent and possibly permanent drought with water management being the main preoccupation for most growers: dry farming is the new hope, sprung from old traditions.
2017 also brought some frost, hail and of course all of this as the Chilean wine industry had just got back on its feet after the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. With nature throwing everything at the Chilean growers, the most common phrase I heard involved the words “difícil” and “complicado”, neither of which need translation. Yet through these adverse conditions, both vine and grower worked harder, so while the resulting crop may be smaller, it is of the most outstanding quality. From the heights of the Elqui Valley to the southernmost vineyard in the world in Patagonia; from Sauvignon to Chardonnay and Cabernet to Syrah, Chile in 2017 offers it all.
2. Chile is cool!
Cool … mountains and waters. The influence of glacial rivers and winds from both the Andes and the Pacific Ocean cannot be emphasised enough. Imagine fresh mountain streams rushing down from the height of the Andes from ancient glaciers: the vineyards are completely dependent on the amount of water generated by the snow melt each year. And then, from the west, think of the cooling effect of the Pacific; its sea winds and the morning fog.
Cool … as in chilled, understated. Think laid back Bogart, smooth and classy. In the same way the wines are smooth, sophisticated and aren’t forced. Lots of fruit, spice, crunchy acidity; true reflections of the vineyards. There is a general move away from oak, instead winemakers are focusing more on ripe red fruits or silky dark berries. Highlights: keep an eye out for the arrival of new vintages of Montes Alpha Cabernet from the Colchagua Valley and Antakari Syrah from Elqui. And then there is Sauvignon Blanc. This trip has made me fall back in love with the variety: highlights include the more green and racy Pago Centro, and the fun and fruity Los Rosales Chapel Vineyard. Very different but typical of the two delicious styles of Sauvignon Blanc coming from Chile.
Cool … people. I like casual people; winemakers who prefer to be out in the vineyards, who like having a laugh during a tasting because it’s wine and it’s fun and it’s meant to be enjoyed. This is Chile. I think this honest approach to winemaking shines through in the wines: full of fruit, with a sense of place. Either hot from the warmer regions where ripening is so easy, or cool and salty from the influence of the Pacific.
3. Old History, “New World” Wines
Did you know that vines were first planted in Chile in the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores? In 1554 grapes for wine production were first planted in Santiago. Hardly a recent history! During the 18th century, exports of Chilean wine exploded and in 1831 there were nearly 20 million planted vines. There are still very old vines in Chile, some over 100 years in the Elqui Valley and down in the south in Itata. This use of the term “New World” can be very deceptive, no?
Let’s take the example of our most popular wine: Tarapacá Sauvignon Blanc. The vineyards were founded in 1874. They have been winning international awards since 1876. Maybe now we should rethink this idea of “Old World”, “New World”?
4. It’s Not About the Money, Money, Money
Value. How does Chile fly under the radar when we talk about quality wine? I would have packed my cellar with so many wines if I had been able to pack my suitcase with enough bottles! From seductive Sauvignon to creamy Chardonnay, pretty Carmenère to rich Cabernet, and then finishing with the sexiest of wines in Syrah.
I really like the combination of fruit concentration with silky smooth tannins. Highlights: new vintages of Cinco Manos Pinot Noir and Los Vascos Grande Reserve. Spend just a few £ or $ more in Chile and you get wines to rival the best in the world for a fraction of the price.
5. Expect the Unexpected
It’s nice to be surprised (pleasantly of course!) and Chile is full of surprises. Driving through a small town – only 5 or 6 houses – I spotted a giant model of R2-D2 on top of a makeshift wooden bus stop. Not what I was expecting driving through Chilean vineyards. Unfortunately we were driving past so quickly I didn’t get my phone out in time to take a shot. But I did take extensive notes on the wines, and there were some just as surprising as that Star Wars statue.
From old vine Pedro Ximenez producing startlingly good dry white wines in the Elqui Valley (I tasted a 2009 which was as fresh as last vintage’s wines) to Cinsault fermented in traditional tinajas (clay pots) it is like the whole world of wine can be found here in this narrow bit of land squeezed between mountains and ocean. Every winery is producing something different and exciting.
So even though I was nervous on my first night after being shown the earthquake evacuation point (my question: how will I know it’s time to evacuate; answer: you’ll know) I overcame any anxiety about this strange and different country with the excitement I felt about the wines. Whether from the foothills of volcanoes, on the slopes of the Andes, or a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, Chile’s vineyards are full of the unexpected.