It is almost 20 years since I first visited Chile. Apart from the sheer excitement of visiting a country that I had known only from books, crossing the Andes, and the prospect of winter sunshine, I was thrilled to be able to set the geography of the country in my mind. Since that first trip I have been fortunate enough to revisit several times, most recently just before Christmas, and that has made me reflect how far this beautiful country has moved on, in its quality of wine production.
Chile is a long thin sliver of land running down the west coast of South America. It is over 2,500 miles long, with its feet in the icy seas around Antarctica and its head in the heat of the desert. Its eastern border is formed by the majestic Andes mountains, while the waves of the Pacific ocean lap the long coastline in the west.
This ocean looks blue and inviting, but it is bitterly cold. A current runs north from Antarctica and hugs the coast of Chile, bringing cool water to otherwise warm climates and chilling the air along the coast. This Humboldt current has a distinct influence on the climate, causing a blanket of morning fog to form in valleys, and even in summer there is a chilly wind as soon as you get near the coast.
Grapes have been grown in Chile since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, but it was an invasion of another kind that really had an impact on viticulture. During the 19th century there was a fashion for all things French so many French winemakers were appointed to make wines in Chile and they brought vine cuttings with them and planted them in the fertile valleys of Chile. These winemakers were not to know the impending disaster that was soon to sweep through Europe’s vineyards. Just a few years later a pest known as phylloxera chewed its way through France then Europe, wiping out vineyards and ruining the wine industry for decades.
Over in Chile, isolated by the Andes, the desert, the sea and the ice, phylloxera never got established and so those cuttings flourished and they still provide the backbone of today’s grape-growing industry. One variety lost its label on the journey to Chile and was wrongly identified as Merlot for over a century. This is now known to be the variety Carmenère, which used to be widespread in Bordeaux.
At first the major estates were clustered around the capital, Santiago. With good agricultural land, a ready supply of water running off the mountains and a thirsty population, it was the right place to be. Grand old estates such as Cousiño Macul, Santa Rita, Santa Carolina and Concha y Toro were all established within easy reach of the city.
Now there are vineyards and wineries stretching north and south from Santiago over a distance of around 600 miles. The landscape has been carved out by rivers running off the Andes. These run from the mountains in the east to the ocean in the west, cutting through the central valley and winding through the coastal range, dividing the long central valley into different areas. Each one has its own individual climate and suitability for particular grapes.
The last 20 years have seen massive developments in Chilean vineyards and wineries. During my first visit there was flood irrigation, high trained vines and big, old wooden vats. Now there are clean, bright, shining wineries, the vines are planted and pruned to precise standards and some wineries play music to their barrels to make sure the wine matures in perfect harmony.
As well as the long stretch of Central Valley, incorporating Maipo around the capital, then running south into Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó and Maule, there are newer regions which have opened up as water supply and technology allows. Casablanca, which lies to the west of the coastal range of hills, was found to be suitable for grapes once bore holes could supply water. Now this cool region is close-planted with vines, in particular Sauvignon Blanc. Close by, San Antonio had to wait for water to be delivered by a pipeline and it is home to several vineyards and wineries, where Pinot Noir is a particular speciality. From here it is an easy stretch to the coastal-influenced part of Aconcagua, a cool, breezy place now being actively developed for white grapes and Pinot Noir.
Two hundred miles north, where daytime temperatures are high, Limarí and Elqui have developed into high quality wine regions, as well as growing the local grape, País, for the local spirit Pisco. Heading south from Santiago, there is a preponderance of red grapes grown in the Central Valley, but as the valley widens, rainfall increases and temperatures gradually drop, the regions of Itata, Bío-Bío and Malleco are now showing extreme promise for white grapes such as Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Experimental plantings continue even further south.
Like all new wine regions entering the UK market, Chile started out at the bargain end of the shelves, providing big-flavoured, good value wines. But now Chile has moved on. It still can produce great value wines, made with rather more care than those wines of two decades ago, but it has stretched up the quality scale and now makes wines that can challenge the very best in the world.
This week’s homework is to go look at the wines available from Chile and try a few, noting their fresh, clean fruit, their concentration of flavour and the newer more precise balance of oak.
Here are a few to try:
Matetic Coralillo Sauvignon 2014, San Antonio Valley, Majestic, currently £7.99 on multi-buy: Crisp, citrus and herb-spiked flavours, lively and fresh.
Tabalí Encantado Reserva Chardonnay 2013, Limarí, Waitrose, £9.99: Ripe, yet lively melon and baked apple flavours. Try it with roast chicken.
Cono Sur Pinot Noir, 2013, Asda, £7.50: Often reduced to around the £6 mark, this is the best first step on the Pinot ladder. Juicy, fragrant and terrific value for money.
Mayu Syrah Reserva 2011, Valle de Elqui, Sainsbury’s, £10: Lush, pure, black fruits with a soft edge of spice.