During the first week of October I visited a score of wineries in Chile and tasted over two hundred wines from the country’s emerging coastal, central valley and Andes regions. Unsurprisingly, the ambition and innovation I saw there in 2004 have continued unabated.
Grapes have been grown and wine produced in Chile since the introduction of the Pais (Mission) vine by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. By 1851, European varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Semillon and Riesling were well established in the country`s vineyards. Many European vignerons settled in Chile after their home-vignobles were destroyed by Phylloxera in the early 1870s. They began exporting wine from their new home in 1877.
The modern Chilean wine industry got underway in the early 1990s when foreign investors like Catalonian mega-vigneron Miguel Torres established subsidiaries there and was soon followed by others of his ilk. Free from the kinds of hidebound regulations that often choked off innovation under European appellation regulations, the new Chilean wine pioneers introduced stainless steel tanks and other modern technology that permitted the production of the kind of fresh fruit-driven wines being lapped up in North America.
Chile’s initial success was founded on sunny six-dollar Chards and Cabs that sold on price rather than quality. Back then, the Chilean wine firmly ensconced itself in international markets as the go-to product for bulk wine, bottled and boxed wines priced under $10 a litre, and , ironically, niche wines that sold out every year despite (or perhaps because of) triple-digit prices.
Over the past decade producers worked steadily and successfully to improve Chilean wines. They have exploited the different altitudes, exposures and soil types available in their country. Wineries have assembled scores of vine clones to determine which work best in particular sites.
Chile’s familiar valley names are being supplemented with three climatically relevant appellations: Coastal, Central Valley and Andean. Coastal vineyards are sited on Chile’s west coast, near the Pacific Ocean. The cold Humboldt Current cools those vineyards enough that delicate acidic wines can be vinified from Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and “cool climate” Syrah grown there. The country’s viticulturists have made precise vine-site matches along the coast in regions like Leida and the future looks bright for Chile’s “coastal” appellation wines.
Central Valley wines come from vineyards east of Chile’s coastal mountain range and the much-taller Andes to the east. The soil types and heat favour Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals including Carmenère, the national sentimental favourite.
Andean vineyards produce fruit for “mountain wines,” distinguished by strong mineral influences from the local soils (think Howell Mountain in Napa) and moderation of temperature in proportion to elevation.
For the moment the situation is complicated by the evolving nature of the new geographical appellations. The Colchagua Valley has coastal, valley and Andean vineyards. Maipo has valley and Andean plots. There are negotiations in progress to determine who gets to call their wines what. Whatever emerges from that process, Chilean wines are gaining focus, elegance and varietal typicity as a result.
During my Chilean wine tour I tasted over two hundred different products. The wines evaluated below are my highest scoring whites and reds. They demonstrate the increasing success of the country`s industry in producing high quality varietally true wines at fair prices, including increasing numbers of bottles priced in that sweet spot between $15 and $25 to supplement their bargain-basement and penthouse offerings.
Matetic EQ Chardonnay 2011 Chardonnay ($25, score 90) is made from barrel-fermented Meursault clones. It has an elegant complex nose of toasted coffee bean, vanilla, sweet oak and mineral notes. It’s fresh and creamy in the mouth with sweetly ripe lemon and pear fruit emerging and persisting through a rich finish.
Miguel Torres Cordillera Chardonnay 2012 ($19, score 90) has sweet vanilla toffee and honey nuances with toasted coffee bean and mineral notes. It`s crisp creamy and rich with very rich ripe apple fruit in the mouth through a very rich ripe finish.
Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Aconcagua Costa ($21.95, score 90-) is elegantly grassy with fine pungent minerality. It’s fresh and satiny in the mouth. The minerals and elegant greenery linger.
Concha y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Puente Alto Vineyard, Maipo Valley (the 2008 is in stores now at $79.95, score 92) sports pungent minerality, a hint of pencil shavings and violet notes around attractive blackcurrant fruit with a eucalyptus note. It’s a sweetly ripe mouthful with firm fine ripe tannins and fresh acidity structuring the deep fruit through a long, astringent sweetly ripe finish.
Odfjell Aliara 2010 ($36.95, score 90+) is a blend of 32% Carmènere, 26% Malbec, 22% Syrah and 20% Cab Sauv. The nose is complex and well-integrated with black plum and mixed black berry fruit, sweet spice and wood violet with a pungent oak note and a kiss of vanilla. It has velvet grippy tannins and fresh acidity to support the deep sweetly rich ripe focused fruit through a tannic finish.
Odfjell Orzada Syrah 2008, Maule Valley ($19.45, score 90) entices with rich ripe black cherry blackberry fruit and a crushed oyster shell note. It’s finely grippy with fresh acidity to carry the tasty fruit through a drying finish.
Errazuriz produces three red icon wines: KAI (100% Carmenère, $140), La Cumbre Syrah ($35 to $110), and Don Maximiano Founders Reserve. The Don Maximiano Founders Reserve 2012, Valle de Aconcagua ($35 to $110 depending on market, score 90) is a Bordeaux blend with a very elegant nose of rich ripe black currant and loganberry fruit with sweet spice, wood violet and dusty brambly notes. Fine firm ripe tannins and fresh acidity structure the deep sweetly ripe fruit on the palate and through long astringent well-fruited persistence.
Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Pinot Noir 2012 Limari ($19.95, score 89+) has a ripe red berry nose with a beetroot note and hints of pungent minerals. With very fine tannins and fresh acidity for structure, the red rooty fruity character hangs on through a long fresh finish.
Miguel Torres Cordillera Carignan 2009 ($19.95, score 90) has a nose built around warm raspberry blackberry fruit with mineral and floral aromas. On the palate those characters are carried on a creamy finely grippy texture with delicious black fruit notes through a lingering finish.
Errazuriz Wild Ferment Pinot Noir 2012 Aconcagua Costa ($17.95, score 90-) is a sweet-spicy wine with very Burgundian smoky and sandalwood nuances around cherry red-berry fruit. It’s fresh, light and velvety with deep tasty fruit and spice through a layered well-fruited drying finish with a late toast note.
San Pedro Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 “1865,” Maipo Valley (Andes) ($19.95, score 90-) offers a complex sweetly ripe blackcurrant nose with some spice. On the palate it’s joined by firm fine ripe tannins and fresh acidity through a mouthfeel of e=deep focused blackcurrant fruit through a long well-fruited grippy-velvet finish.
Casa Silva Carmenère Los Lingues 2011 Andes ($19.95, score 89) has bright black cherry blackberry fruit and pungent minerals on the nose. It has firm ripe tannins, fresh acidity, rich ripe fruit and sustained minerality through a long finish.
[For more information about Chilean wines contact Lisa Ulrich, Wines of Chile Ontario Project Manager at ANDROS COMMUNICATIONS, 2 St Clair Avenue East, Suite 1206Toronto, Ontario, M4T 2T5, Direct Tel: 905 637 2100, firstname.lastname@example.org]