By Tom Hyland
Each time I visit the wine regions of Chile-this past April was my third trip there-I come away impressed at the constant maturation of the country’s producers. There are so many wonderful wines made in several different areas and the results are clear evidence that the country’s vintners have married new technology with marvelous climatic conditions.
Think about Chile’s wines from twenty years ago-pleasant, clean, and fruity, but rather simple in the final analysis. Now compare those wines with today’s glorious offerings from the country’s best wine zones; the contrast is startling. The finest red and white wines from Chile are not only well made with beautiful structure and depth of fruit, they also brilliantly reflect their terroir and offer a true sense of place.
Many of themost highly praised reds emerge from the Alto Maipo district, just south and east of the city of Santiago. Here a few dozen estates have crafted impeccably balanced reds-usually dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon-with powerful fruit and the promise of drinkability for a decade or more. Yet these wines have soft, round tannins that give these wines an approachability upon release, unlike many iconic reds from other parts of the globe.
Carmenere, a variety brought to Chile from Bordeaux more than 150 years ago, is starting to become a force as well, especially in the Colchagua Valley, a few hundred miles south of Santiago. This is a variety with plenty of spice along with some herbal components, so it needs a very warm climate to fully ripen and display its red fruit and a bit of tanginess. A bit more rustic than Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Merlot, Carmenere is Chile’s own and has the potential to become a very popular wine, especially as consumers look to new flavors in their wines to pair with various styles of foods (Carmenere is especially good paired with roasts, stews, game and grilled poultry).
But while there is so much focus on the country’s great reds, vintners have been concentrating on elevating the quality of the country’s white wines as well, especially over the past 10-15 years. Casablanca Valley, which is located west of Santiago, and thus closer to the Pacific Ocean, is a cool climate zone that is ideal for many white varieties, such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The moderate temperatures help preserve acidity and are critical to a long growing season that results in finely tuned wines with the structure to drink well for a few years. Incidentally, Casablanca is also a model growing district for a few red varieties, especially Pinot Noir, Syrah, and even Merlot.
Farther west in the Leyda Valley, a few producers have been excelling with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay over the past five to seven years. This is a somewhat extreme climate, as many vineyards are within five miles of the ocean, meaning that temperatures are quite cool. It takes a lot of work with vineyard management to get the grapes to ripen here, but the results have been spectacular. Sauvignon Blanc has been the standout, offering gorgeous aromas of pink grapefruit, lime, and kiwi, usually with only a trace of the herbal components that are often associated with this variety in other cool climates. The Sauvignon Blancs from Leyda-and a small sub-zone of the San Antonio Valley-are today recognized as some of the finest Sauvignon Blancs produced anywhere in the world. Now a few vintners here are experimenting with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Riesling, and even Gewurztraminer; the initial results have been promising.
Chile has several other emerging wine zones, such as the Limarí Valley in the far north, especially with Sauvignon Blanc, and Bio-Bio in the far south, another cool climate (some very nice Rieslings have emerged from here). The result is that vintners throughout the country have done the necessary research to discover the best growing zones for particular varieties. Today’s finest Chilean wines are a pleasure to drink, offer excellent varietal character, display the proper balance for pairing with any number of foods and perhaps best of all, are priced much more reasonable than many comparable bottlings from other countries. Quite a nice combination, wouldn’t you say?
Tom Hyland, the man behind the “Reflections on Wine” blog, has written on Chile a number of times, including the following posts on his visits to Chile and experiences with Chilean wines: