Wines of Chile sponsors the Chile Scholarship for excellence in the WSET Diploma exams, and the prize is a trip to Chile’s wine country. This year’s winner was Lily Hicks, who is a Wine Trainer & Brand Manager for Enotria World Wine in the UK. She provides us with some reflections on her trip here:
2010 in Chile: A year of disasters, miracles and building on its success
By Lily Hicks
Chile has been well and truly in the limelight during 2010 what with trapped miners and earthquakes – the impact of which currently seems to be having a very positive effect on its wine sales. My eight-day trip to the wine regions of Chile was action packed and extremely memorable for all sorts of reasons. Like the rest of the world I had been somewhat captivated by the Chilean miner saga and could therefore not believe we would actually be in the country during the rescue. In the days leading up to it Chile was full of expectation and excitement – indeed the first topic of conversation on a number of visits was one of miners and not of wine production! I was in the middle of MontGras’ Ninquén mountain vineyard when we listened to the final rescue on the radio-fortunately the karaoke was close by to ensure a rousing and heartfelt rendition of ‘We are the Champions’.
In fact we had already had one surreal experience that day when we felt a tremor during the MontGras tasting in the afternoon – it was very small by recent standards but nevertheless it was a clear reminder of the devastating earthquake and tsunami Chile experienced earlier in the year. I was very surprised by what little earthquake damage we saw at the wineries in the worst affected areas-a few bashed steel tanks was really it to my fresh eyes. After experiencing both the biggest and third biggest earthquakes on record the Chileans are used to dealing with large scale damage and are indeed well prepared with specially designed ‘earthquake proof’ racking in their cellars for example. They are very proud of their ability to cope and move on after such disasters and of the preparation they have taken to ensure the damage will be as minimal of possible. I certainly witnessed the resilience and overall strength of the Chilean character that I had heard about.
The Chilean wine industry has come along way in the past ten years or so-what we saw and heard during our visit showed us just how much work has been done to uncover the potential of Chile’s wine industry in this time. This work is clearly ongoing as a recurring comment was how much more there is to find. Our tour covered a lot of ground and took us to Colchagua, Leyda, San Antonio, Casablanca and Maipo, before we flew north to see the emerging wine regions of Limari and Elqui. Unfortunately we were a day short of being able to go down south to Bio Bio but at least this gives me an excuse to go back! It was particularly fascinating to visit the much newer regions of the Limari and Elqui. Both of these valleys, which are currently home to only one or two wineries, are a marked contrast to the areas around Santiago where expanses of vines and smart wineries are commonplace. From the windows of the bus we saw a very different landscape to the one we had become used to in the regions close to Santiago. The arid landscape makes that of further south look positively green and lush, indeed the abundant cactus plants seem much more at home than vines. You can also see why people thought Falernia were mad when they first growing started grapes for wine in Elqui in 1999. The importance of Chile’s two key geographical features of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range is no more obvious than in these northern regions. Elqui only receives between 70 and 90mm of rain a year spread over 3 or 4 days, however it is the melt water from the Andes which flows down the original channels hand crafted by the Incas that provide the crucial water. There is no doubt that others would love to exploit the potential of Elqui, however significant growth in the area is unlikely as it is doubtful landowners will want to sell these precious water channels, particularly when you take into account the importance of other fruits and pisco grapes.
I have always been well aware of the crucial benefits provided by Chile’s other key geographical influence of the Pacific Ocean, but again one only fully appreciates it when you physically feel it in the vineyard. In the similarly sunny and arid Limarí Valley the uninterrupted breezes that come from the coastline 29 km away ensure that the maximum average summer temperature during the day is only 240C and at night it drops to around 80 to 100C. Tabalí have recently expanded their range by planting a new vineyard only 12km from the sea which experiences even cooler summers days and nights. This crucial difference in the diurnal temperature throughout Chile as a whole ensures the longer ripening period needed for quality grapes as well as making it easier for everyone to sleep at night! Elsewhere in Chile, such as in Leyda, the ocean’s breezes and morning fogs create very slow and long ripening periods which ensure the potential for concentrated, complex wines.
For so many wine consumers Chile is renowned for easy drinking, value for money Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet. However for a number of years the Chilean’s have been working hard to prove they can do so much more. Since they began in the late 1990′s early 2000′s many wineries have been experimenting with different varieties and this continues as they increasingly understand the different soils they have available and the clones they can use. Viña Leyda, for example, started with Cabernet Franc and Merlot but quickly realised it would not ripen fully in their vineyards. They turned their attention to Pinot Noir, for which they have become so famous, and had their first vintage of Syrah in 2007. They and others in the coolest regions are also working with aromatic varieties such as Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Certainly the Rhone varietals have caught the attention of the Chilean viticulturists and winemakers. We tasted some fantastic cool climate Syrahs from wineries such as Viña Leyda and Loma Larga which had plenty of Rhone-like ripe but fresh fruit character, peppery spice and floral notes. We also discovered that some are now working with Marsanne, Rousanne, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre. I will certainly be looking out for these when they start to come to the market.
In addition to trialling new varieties, many have also been working with the already established grapes and the styles of wine they make. For example we saw a number of different styles of Sauvignon from the easy drinking, fruit forward ‘New World’ examples to some very impressive food friendly examples. The combination of the cooling breezes and calcium carbonate soils result in some intensely minerally and steely wines like Viña Leyda’s Garuma Sauvignon. There has also been some interesting experimentation with barrel fermentation that has produced lovely wines such as Amayna’s Barrel Ferment Sauvignon and Valdivieso’s Single Vineyard Wild Ferment Sauvignon. It was also interesting and indeed pleasing to see a shift in the overall approach to oak. They have realised that big, oak driven wines will not necessarily achieve acclaim with critics and consumers, particularly in markets like ours. This resulted in us tasting some truly elegant wines with lovely fruit character and balance – reflected in ranges such as that which we tasted at Ventisquero.
The new plantings, and indeed those that will take place in the future, are not the result of a whim but of carefully planned work in the vineyard concerning the soils, positioning, planting densities and the selection of clones. Casa Silva, for example, recently commissioned a research project with the objective of finding the best soil for Carmenere, which is now reflected in their impressive range of this variety. In addition they are the first to do clonal work on this grape by planting rows of different clones of Carmenere, the results of which they will know in five or six years. Loma Larga is also very proud of all the research they have done to help them achieve optimum phenolic ripeness in their Casablanca vineyards – they have all the facts and figures to justify their vineyard layout. To fresh eyes it is hard to appreciate the extent of the work that has been done to create the vineyards, particularly those planted on the hillside. At Ventisquero’s Apalta vineyard the winemaker told us that ten years ago the area was completely undeveloped and looked almost un-plantable-he quoted a cost of $30,000 per hectare to plant on a hillside! Our visit to Ventisquero also helped us comprehend the variety of soils in the country-from huge stones amongst the vines to vibrant red clay soil with granitic particles. Many are working carefully to match the right soil properties to the correct variety. Experimentation and learning is also evident in the alteration of planting densities in Chile. Originally a density of around 3000 plants per hectare was favoured but many have now realised that for quality wines a density of around 9000 would be more beneficial and making the adjustments going forward.
Unquestionably the experimentation and exploitation of Chile’s potential has relied on significant investment from some very wealthy parties. A number of wineries have been set up by visionary wealthy individuals and companies with funds made in other areas. They possessed the enthusiasm and foresight to become involved an emerging Chilean industry. Visit after visit we experienced the ‘wow factor’ – to give you an idea Haras de Pirque is designed as in the shape of a horseshoe which alludes to the high class stud farm they also own, Casa Lapostolle blew up the part of a hill to so they could build a winery in it and Falernia moved a whole river! Every day we saw beautifully designed, state of the art wineries based on gravity fed principles with abundant French barriques and the latest high tech machinery. The question is has it all been worth it? The answer, which was well and truly answered during my trip, is yes. Chile has proved itself to have all natural qualities along with the financial support and passion to make really great wines at a variety of price levels. The question now is how Chile can emulate it’s off trade and entry level on trade success in the much sought after premium on trade sector where the breadth and depth of Chilean wines clearly deserve to play a role. Viva Chile!