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Chile: Momentum Through Innovation

Posted on  | September 27, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Diversity, quality and novelty keep the Chilean wine industry moving forward.

Los Vacos in Colchagua Valley

Call it the “I” word: Innovation. Granted, the term is easy to fling around—not unlike politicians use the word change. But in the case of Chilean wine, so much is happening in so many areas that it is reasonable to say that innovation is the new normal.

 Vineyards have been planted—or, in many cases, replanted—to position the right grapes in the right places. As for the grapes themselves, the Cab/Chard comfort zone is being stretched by Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, even Rhône varieties and Malbec! Creative blending is taking place at every price level, while signature wines are angling to grab the attention of sommeliers and connoisseurs. And complementing experimentation in the vineyards and labs, marketers are crafting new projects that appeal to the modern American consumer.

 Moreover, the Chilean wine industry has fostered a culture of cross-pollination that promises to place this long, narrow country firmly in the mainstream of the U.S. wine market. And on the retail and restaurant frontlines, the best news of all is that this wave of innovation can translate directly into selling points for the wines.

 Leaving the Past

 To put modern Chile in perspective, it is instructive to take a quick look back. Perhaps no U.S. importer is more mindful of how far Chile has come than Alex Guarachi, who founded TGIC in 1985 and helped write a new chapter for Chilean wines by introducing Montes to the U.S. Back in the 1980s, he recalls, the nation’s reputation was based almost entirely on low-priced wines that were “just drinkable, simple, overcropped.” Quickly, however, Chile saw an influx of investment (Lafite, Mouton, Robert Mondavi, Antinori, Torres), widespread implementation of new technology and, most importantly, a fresh commitment to “learning about appellations and clones.” He asserts, “Chile is like California in the Southern Hemisphere,” and capable of making wine that can compare favorably with the best of the world. 

 It took time—and a lot of education, Guarachi notes. Gradually the wine media and the trade took notice. He points to a blind tasting of the 2004 vintage, in which Montes showed well against higher-priced Bordeaux and California wines as a key moment. Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta being selected as Wine Spectator’s “#1 Wine of 2008” was another. While Chile did not experience anything quite as dramatic as California did with the 1976 Paris tasting, in two decades’ time, Chile achieved a fundamental shift in perception—from price orientation to quality. As Guarachi puts it, Americans began to “equate Chilean appellations and producers with
great wine.”

 Going Vertical: Chilean Terroir

Great wine begins in the vineyard, goes the saying, and talk of vineyards inevitably turns to the concept of terroir. Fortunately, Chilean terroir is every bit as valid as European terroir, but for two basic reasons it’s a whole lot easier to grasp: 1) European wine zones are complex patchworks, featuring hundreds of subdivisions and qualitative designations; Chile has just over a dozen wine regions, all valleys, and thanks to the country being long and narrow, they are basically stacked north to south, framed by desert to the north, ocean to the west, mountains to the east. 2) While European terroir quickly tilts toward minutiae, Chile keys more on simple climatic and positional factors, namely latitude (warmer toward the equator); proximity to the coast (with beneficial cooling breezes); and elevation (think: hillside or valley floor).

 Whereas many 20th-century Chilean wines emerged generically from the “Central Valley,” today’s wines proudly declare a sense of place. The delicious irony at work is that it was Old World savoir-faire that has empowered Chilean growers to match grapes to microclimates in their wine regions. Certainly the learning is still ongoing, but the patterns that have emerged are being shared—accelerating the process. Sauvignon Blanc is thriving in cool pockets of Casablanca, coastal Colchagua and San Antonio valleys, for example. Further inland, Maipo is king for Cabernet Sauvignon and Colchagua and Cahchapoal do well for Carmenere. (One revelation about Carmenere: it fares better on valley floors than hillsides.) Syrah shows promise in both warmer and cooler areas (as it does in other parts of the New World). Way south in Bío Bío, Pinot Noir is proving to be a great match.

 As fruitful as the past decade or so has been in terms of terroir-targeted plantings, the best may still be yet to come. Case in point: Concha y Toro’s brand new Gran Reserva Serie Ribeiras, or “Riverbank Series”—six varietal wines, each grown on terraces and hillsides along Chile’s four major rivers. These vineyards benefit not only from the mineral-rich and free-draining soil, but also from the river corridors that bring cool breezes to complement the naturally sunny landscape—ideal for slow maturation of the fruit.

 Diversity, with Quality

 Planting the right grapes in the right places is neither magic nor guesswork; it’s agriculture and science, and the system is working in Chile. This is very important in the big picture: Moving forward, Chile is well positioned to avoid the potential pitfall of becoming a one-trick pony, à la Shiraz in Australia or Malbec in Argentina.

 On one level, Chilean wine diversity is subtle, evident in how many wineries produce multiple varietals. But on closer inspection, producers are exploring variations within this theme, via single-vineyard, reserve and proprietary bottlings. Los Vascos, Santa Rita and Concha y Toro are established wineries which, for many years, have done a nice job of producing varietal wines on distinct tiers, where intensity and complexity ascend with price. Today it’s hard to find a winery that doesn’t produce and market in levels. The net effect is that Chile has more than avoided a sense of sameness; the modern Chilean portfolio—whether at the importer, distributor or retail/restaurant level—rivals the selection you could assemble from any wine country on earth.

 Even within the palette of well-known grapes, there is both breadth and depth. Listening to Brand Manager Javier Guinazo talk about the Chilean brands at Winebow, for example, is like listening to a proud father introducing four children. The eldest, Cousiño-Macul, specializes in high-elevation Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo Alto as well as solid Chardonnay. Leyda (in the San Antonio Valley just eight miles from the coast) is the young whiz kid, proving Chile’s promise in cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. TerraNoble is like the child who’s good at everything, with vineyards in the Maule, Colchagua and Casablanca valleys yielding six different varietals bottled in distinct Classic, Reserva and Gran Reserva levels. (TerraNoble is also deeply involved in trials with Carmenere.) Root:1, the simple child, is a throwback to Chile’s bang-for-buck era, but in a self-aware way as the brand name ties in to Chile’s heritage of phylloxera-free vines planted on ungrafted rootstock. Root:1 has become an emblem of modern Chilean value—the success of their $10 Cabernet has enabled the brand to extend into Carmenere, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

 Chile’s diversity is also happening in a more overtly innovative sense via surprising grapes. At the Wines of Chile “Tapestry of Terroir” walkaround in New York City in June, there was excellent Syrah (De Martino “Legado” is a stand-out). There was Malbec (Calcu) and Riesling (Meli) and Gewürztraminer (Cartegena). I sampled commendable Pinot Noirs under $20 (Llai Llai, Cono Sur). There was a late-harvest wine and rosé wine and wild-yeast Chardonnay…even a single-vineyard País. Biggest eye-opener of all? Carignan. There were a handful at the trade tasting. I was later able to try several Old Vine Carignans in a separate tasting; these are serious wines with tremendous aromatics, structure and spicy intensity.

 New Toys: Carmenere & Blends

While typical and atypical varietal wines capture some of Chile’s evolving innovation, what is happening with Carmenere and blends is even more exciting.  Carmenere, of course, is the “forgotten” grape which disappeared from France in the 19th century but grew in Chile, mistaken for Merlot until genetically identified in 1994. It is a challenging red grape, late to ripen and prone to a green character. But that’s a challenge the Chileans are embracing, with results that improve each vintage. Personal favorites include Casa Silva, Emiliana and Santa Carolina in the $12 range; Viu Manent “Secreto,” Montes Alpha and Santa Rita “Medalla Real” in the $20 range. Few expect Carmenere to become a star in its own right, à la Malbec, but it has filled an important role as a point of distinction in the market. It’s a bit like a new toy—a tasty one at that—and as Chile’s third most-planted red grape, we can expect plenty more new twists in Carmenere vintages to come.

 Who knows—ten years from now, we may find out that Carmenere may become more successful in blends than flying solo. This much is certain: blending is rampant in Chile already. At the Tapestry of Terroir tasting, the 36 producers were pouring 30 Carmeneres (not a surprise)—and 44 wines with Carmenere in the blend (hello!). Just as Chilean wine regions have no rule for what can be planted where, the country enjoys no constraints on blending—leading to an almost dizzying array of combinations, many of which follow neither Bordeaux nor Rhône models.

 While many of Chile’s “icon” wines are blends, many are very reasonably priced. MontGras’s Quatro, for instance, is a mid-teens combo of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Syrah and Malbec; lovely ripe fruit, balancing tang and just a touch of grip. On the white side, Anakena’s “Ona” is a lush, tropical mix of Viognier, Chardonnay and Riesling.

 Of course, given that Chile produces mostly red wines (75%), it’s no surprise that most of the blends are red. While Cabernet Sauvignon still represents the #1 bottled import from Chile, innovative blends—particularly ones that break tradition with standard European recipes are on the rise, at all price points.

 Statement Wines

 A quick scan of the Chilean section at a good retailer reveals that many of the ultrapremium wines reaching us today are proprietary blends—Almaviva, Montes “M,” Clos Apalta, Seña, Santa Rita “Pehuen,” Los Vascos “Le Dix,” Domus Aurea and Altair, to name a few. These wines are crafted (and priced) to make a statement. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is the growth of “statement” wines at lower price points—ones designed to stand out in other ways. Take Casa Silva’s “Cool Coast” Sauvignon Blanc, or Undurraga’s “Terroir Hunter.” Terra Andina was redesigned with vivid labels that present “fresh” Sauvignon Blanc, “bold” Cabernet Sauvignon and “scandalous” Carmenere. And the Friday Monkey Group is importing two literally fun-themed wines: Lucky 7 (with labels based on dice) and The Deck (based on poker).

 Meanwhile, Montes’s latest red blend adds a solid dash of cute to their $14 offbeat blend of 50%-50% Malbec and Cabernet. It’s called “Twins,” and features artwork by Ralph Steadman, just like its sibling rosé, “Cherub.” Montes made the wine, but the name was Alex Guarachi’s idea. He says, “Consumers want something new, exciting and different.”

 Fortunately Chile is proving that there are a lot of ways to be innovative, while still staying grounded in the wine culture that brought the country this far already.


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