Long, skinny, bumpy Chile is studded with 14 (and counting) appellations. It’s currently the world's fifth largest wine exporter, behind France, Italy, Spain, and Australia. And it's not just exporting quantity, but quality. Chile's dropping serious cellar-worthy bottles, perhaps best exemplified by the major upset of the 2004 Berlin Tasting, when Errázuriz's “Seña,” an iconic Bordeaux-style blend from the Aconcagua region, placed ahead of both Château Lafite and Château Margaux. Just as exciting, Chile’s affordable varietals and blends increasingly surpass their wholesale average of $10 to $20 in value—and what sommelier doesn’t love a wine that over-delivers?
But even with all its value and variety, Chilean wine is still underrepresented on stateside wine lists. Long appreciated in Canada, the UK, and Asia, Chile is only now making inroads onto American wine lists and by the glass programs. So when we got the opportunity to visit Chile this April, we went straight to the heart of Chilean wine country to see—and sip—for ourselves.
Chile's many valleys are divided into regions, D.O.’s, appellations, and growing areas: 2008 Polkura, Marchigue (growing area), Colchagua (appellation), Rapel (D.O.), Central Valley (region) [click image to enlarge]
Exposure and conversation are the missing links between American wine lists and Chilean wines, according to Derek Mossman, co-owner of Garage Wine Company near Santiago, Chile and co-founder of MOVI Chile (Movement of Independent Vintners). The Toronto expat and Chilean wine industry veteran says "People still think of Chile as one country, whereas when you think of France, you think of 15 [wine] countries. Chile is seen as just kind of one more new world nation. But you can bring wine tourists to Chile for three or four days, you can do it six times over, and you still will not have seen everything."
As a consultant for Wines of Chile through his company Juiceman Consulting, Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer has been traveling with the American Guild of Sommeliers to introduce American somms to Chilean wine. "The perception from on-premise was that Chilean wines were cheap $6.99 Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay—otherwise known as 'first tier' varietals," says Dexheimer. "But I feel that among family and estate reserve wines, that [Chile] competes with any wine within that category."
Chile’s prime growing conditions have generated a restless new wave of Chilean winemakers, and a series of mini-revolutions have set off around the country over the past 25 years—including bio-dynamism, “terroir hunting,” and reclaiming "lost" grapes. In addition to Chile’s diverse microclimates—ideal for growing a variety of grapes—phylloxera never made it across the ocean, meaning the country’s wine traditions and varietals have developed uninterrupted.
In fact, longevity is one of Chile’s central selling points. Many of Chile’s 117,000 hectares are comprised of self-rooted vines, which have been in cultivation for nearly 500 years (making “old vine” wines with 90 years of heritage seem like pre-teen wannabes). "Some of these vines are six to seven meters deep," says Mossman, who goes on to describe how the soil around many old vines is best broken by horse-drawn plough, encouraging small-scale growers. Dexheimer points out that a side benefit of a heaven-on-earth growing climate, sturdy vines, and healthy grapes is that many wines are organic and biodynamic, even if the winemakers themselves don’t advertise it.
Of course, some winemakers are advertising it, and proudly. Mossman’s Garage Wine Company is among the new wave of "garage" revolucionistas of MOVI, a collective of winemakers like himself practicing natural wine production and changing the way we think about wine. After 11 vintages, Mossman still makes small lots, paints the labels, and waxes the wine bottle necks himself.
Founded in 2009, just before an 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile’s Central Valley, MOVI now comprises some 18 wineries spread throughout the country—all of them small, family-owned, and hippie-minded. Many of the winemakers have come from abroad, and together they make a colorful cast of characters of sculptors, musicians, and community builders (one MOVI member, the owner of Erasmo winery, dedicated himself to rebuilding neighboring homes destroyed by the 2010 earthquake)—not to mention an Italian count and even “a red-bearded, Malbec-growing Kiwi,” laughs Mossman. "[MOVI] likes to take a walk on the wild side."
And this wild-winemaker approach seems to be working: Wine author Jancis Robinson named winemaker Andres Costa Lagos’s organic 2005 Rukumilla from the Maipo among her top 10 favorite natural reds. Vino Von Siebenthal has taken multiple awards (including Best Red Wine) from the Concours Mondial Bruxelles and Gillmore Hacedor de Mundos has received consistent 88+ ratings from Wine Enthusiast.
Chilean winemakers are in the process of reclaiming wild, self-rooted, and long-forgotten vines. Other "lost" varieties continue to be discovered, often growing of their own accord in overgrown fields and sometimes simply mislabeled. The Carmenère grape, once used in French Bordeaux blends, fell into disuse in France due in part to its long maturation period, and was thought to have been extinct until a snooping French scientist discovered it as mislabeled Merlot in 1995. Since then, Chile’s experiment-loving vintners have been having a field day with it.
Chile’s sun-warmed Central Valley gives Carmenère the extra-long growing season it needs. It’s the last grape to be picked during the autumn harvest, which is taking place now, south of the equator. Mossman’s describes the grape’s color as “deep black,” and its flavors typically comprise red fruits like cherry and ripe strawberry, as well as humid earth, spice, and vegetable notes, recalling the sun-drenched Aconcagua, Maipo, Rapel, and Maule valleys (the four regions from north to south comprising the Central Valley) where the grapes are grown.
In a recent tasting of MOVI wines at Starry Night Vineyard on the Central Valley's Maipo coast, we tried a 2008 Vino von Siebenthal Carmenère from the Aconcagua valley (a high altitude valley north of Santiago). We thought that the wine’s enthralling inky deep color and smoky aroma, with a hint of ash, expressed starry nights on the vine high in the Andes. We also thought it would pair deliciously with grilled lamb and were reminded of the culinary world’s current love affair with smoke’s alluring properties.
At Starry Night, we also tried a 2008 Hereu Syrah, Malbec, and Carignan blend from the Central Valley, and fell in love with its mint and eucalyptus notes and its balance between fruit and acidity. Carignan, another Mediterranean variety, also fell into disfavor in France but has found renewal in Chile. Its deep and ponderous roots "make very different wines than the Cabernet and Bordeaux style varieties commonly available from Chile,” according to Mossman. Although it’s dismissed as coarse or astringent in France, Mossman says, "for some reason dry-farmed in Maule, it simply rocks. This is something that Chile can do better than any other country on the planet—old-vine, dry-farmed Carignan!" Chilean Carignan is known for terrific color and an "acidity that’s like vibrancy for life!" touts the Toronto transplant.
Chile’s rain-shadowed Central Valley, particularly the Maipo D.O. surrounding Santiago, has long been known for its iconic big-shouldered Bordeaux blends. But on the cooler coast, a peaceful, though clamorous—and prosperous—revolution is taking place with Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Dexheimer says “winemakers are pushing as far as they can make it to the coast … and there are even experiments in aromatics like Pedro Ximenez, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer.”
The experimental phase in Chile stretches as far back as the 1980s, when Pablo Morande of the Concha y Toro winery departed from the centrally located valleys near Santiago and started planting vines in a cool, windswept, coastal depression—virtually in the middle of nowhere—and essentially founding the Casablanca appellation. “Everyone was saying he was crazy,” says Dexheimer. Morande’s bet on the cool coast paid off and kicked off a new kind of winemaker in Chile, the Terroir Hunter—perhaps best embodied in bottle form by the Undurraga winery’s “TH: Terroir Hunter” estate wine. The wine hails from the Leyda growing area of the then new San Antonio region.
Winemakers followed in hot pursuit of Morande’s Casablanca "discovery," planting vines further north and south along Chile’s coast and up into the cooler foothills of the Andes. In the wake of these modern day conquistadors, the cool and rainy south saw new appellations in Bío Bío and Malleco, while running down the coast from north of Santiago, the Elquí, Limarí, Choapa, Casablanca, and San Antonio appellations—freckled with numerous sub-regions and loosely defined "growing areas"—were born.
MOVI winemakers like Felipe Garcia of Bravado Wines (pictured here with his 2007 Facundo Garcia Schwaderer blend of Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon) work to produce wines on a human scale.
But a wine isn’t defined by its D.O., affordability, or age. It’s all about what’s in the glass and, most importantly, how it pairs with cuisine. And it turns out that Chilean coast-hugging wines love food just as much as their interior-grown cousins. At Boragó in Santiago, Chef Rodolfo Guzman's Asparagus, Bell Pepper, and Potatoes served in Miniature Bucket with Smoking Embers of Tepu Wood and Rosemary was paired with a clean Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc from the Casablanca region. The wine’s roundness and minerality stood up to the wafting embers and bitterness in the grilled bell pepper, and its peach and grassy notes teased through the smoke to clasp with the flavors of rosemary and charred asparagus.
We tried a few Syrahs from the central coast with the MOVI vintners at Starry Night. From Marchigue, a growing area in the Colchagua Valley south of Santiago, a Polkura 2008 Syrah stood out for its balance, body, aromatics, mineral edge, and spice. Mossman compared it to a football player who’s also a teddy bear. "It could be left open for a week, easily—it’s that big!"
A Syrah from Trabun winery in the Cachapoal valley (just north of the Colchagua) had nice fruit, was delicate and smooth, and had a lovely, smoky nose. Says Mossman, "Syrahs in the new world tend to be overly or very mature. But not here. This is a ‘stinky’ French-style Syrah; there is evolution in the bottle here. Decanted, it’s beautiful. This is what garage wines are like: you’re seeking a purity of fruit. Less is more."
Call it terroir off-roading, call it liquid adventure: the sommelier who laps up the ebb and flow of wine trends is rewarded with pleasurable, drinkable research. Bloodless (and quaffable) revolutions like the one taking place in Chile are a cause for celebration for sommeliers, best begun by a toast. ¡Viva la uva! Long live the grape!