A refresher on Wines of Chile

Taking a look at the where, what, whys and whens of Chile

 


Here at Snooth, we've loved wines of Chile for a long time - since we started the site back in 2008. And now, ten years later, we still do. Take a refresher course on the wines of Chile before you pick up a bottle this weekend.

Chilean wine has had an interesting past few decades in the established markets of the northern hemisphere. The UK in particular has enjoyed these wines for decades, taking advantage of their modest prices and rather large capacity to satisfy the needs to both regular wine drinkers but more importantly those new to the pursuit. In hindsight it has proven to be a great strategy, with the UK remaining the most important market per capita for Chilean wine exports.

Chile’s wines appeal to the UK crowd, as well as wine lovers around the world, because they offer great value but beyond that there is something familiar about these wines that a European audience can relate to. Blessed with fine weather, there is more fruit here than on might find with a European wine but at the same time the underlying structure and framework can trace its lineage right back to the old world. 

Geography

Chile is a narrow strip of land on South America’s Pacific coast that stretches some 2,600 miles from north to south with the Pacific coastline forming its western edge and the spine of the Andes mountains creating a formidable frontier on the eastern side. Most of Chile’s vineyards lie roughly within the bottom half of the top half of the country. Yes, a little confusing but the point is that although we know Chile is a long country the real source of the country’s wine diversity comes not from moving north to south, where the vineyards are between the 30th and 36th parallel south, which is of course that same magic swath that includes many of the great wine regions of Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa and Australia. 
 
No the real magic happens as one moves from ocean to Andes within Chile’s wine producing regions. yes there are differences in the regions as one moves from north to south but the fundamental character of the wines and the suitability for various varieties is determined primarily by their microclimate, which is determined by altitude and distance from the ocean. In fact, Chile has gone so far as to define their wine producing regions as Coastal, Entre Cordillera ( between mountains), and Andes to help identify the terroir associated with each. 

 

From the Start

While recognizing that within each wine producing region one will encounter variations, there are some regions that stand out for a particular variety or style of wine.
 
In the north of the country vineyards in the ocean cooled Limari Valley are proving particularly well suited to Chardonnay and Syrah, which has also found a home further north in the adjacent Elqui Valley.
 
As you move further down south through Chile you come to the historic heart of wine production in the country, and the source of some truly outstanding Cabernets, Bordeaux blends, and the Carmenere that are emerging as Chile’s true stand out wines. Maipo, Cachapoal,  Curico and Maule valleys are the key regions, though on the coast in both Casablanca and San Antonio fabulous white wines are being produced, primarily from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. 
 

Cool Climate

In Leyda, a subzone of the San Antonio Valley there is even promising Pinot Noir being produced, helping to further illustrate how diverse and productive this region of Chile is. There’s even a wine or two for geeks being produced from old vine Carignan in Maule, long consigned to use in jug wines these are turning out to be fascinating an unique additions to Chile’s vinous portfolio.
 
Of course a large part of the consuming public today is focused on what we term cool climate wines. With better work in the vineyard, improved clones, and a finer understanding of what happens in the cellar, regions that used to be dismissed as barely being able to ripen fruit and now prized for the crisp, pure and fresh wines they produce. There’s a lot of excitement in Chile centred around the Southern regions precisely for this reason. Itata, Bio Bio and Malleco may be little known valleys today but old vine Pais (aka Mission grapes), lots of Muscat and cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are attracting a lot of attention 
 

History

One of the reasons for Chile’s success is that they’ve used the Old World as their model, France in particular. Chile of the late 19th century had a thriving economy due to the agricultural and minable resources that were discovered there. Along with wealth, the success of early Chilean settlers brought a taste for the finer things in life and even two centuries ago and halfway around the world France was recognized as the epicenter of fine wine. 
 
Not surprisingly winemakers were dispatched to fFrance, bringing back with them the rootstocks that would form the backbone of the Chilean wine industry for decades to come. As it turns out these rootstocks were also vinous treasures that fell to the phylloxera root louse throughout Europe at the close of the 19th century though they continue to thrive in Chile’s dry, rocky, and phylloxera free soils. 
 

Today

Today it is those ancient clones of Cabernet, Merlot and Merlot that produce some of the greatest wines in Chile. Yes, I wrote Merlot twice because Chile’s greatest wine, Carmenere, had been mistaken for Merlot when the original vines were imported and was only discovered to be something other than  so-called early Merlot in 1994. And while we’re at it early Merlot is an odd designation for a grape that may ripen early than Merlot but never achieves the richness and lushness of fruit that Merlot does. 
 
Chile is successful in the marketplace with some powerful Cabernet based wines, but their more recent successes are being built on more elegant wines. Bright and easy to drink and pair with food, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere are appealing to a new generation of drinkers who look for something other than yet another Cabernet Sauvignon.  
 

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