Chile’s Cabernet Country is Ripe with Winemaking Innovation

By MICHAEL SCHACHNER (Wine Enthusiast)

Ever since the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were transported to Chile from Bordeaux during the 19th century, this sun-loving grape has been the driving force behind the country’s wine industry.

Today, roughly one of every three bottles of wine produced in Chile is varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. And while much of it is pedestrian and priced to sell, the country ranks among the global kings of Cabernet at the value-rich middle tier as well as the ultrapremium level. Ask winemakers what they believe are the world’s best regions for growing potentially great Cab, and you’re likely to hear three names: Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Chile’s Maipo Valley.

Maipo, you say? Let us tell you more.

About halfway between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, surrounding the capital city of Santiago, the Maipo Valley is Chile’s original commercial wine region. It’s blessed with warm days, cool nights, a prevailing dry climate, high elevations and alluvial soils that have been fed for millennia by the Maipo River.

Other regions in Chile, like the Aconcagua Valley to the north of Santiago and the Cachapoal, Colchagua and Curicó valleys to the south, also boast quality Cabs. But no place in this sliver of a country produces Cabernet like Maipo, just like no place in California does Cabernet Sauvignon like Napa, and no place in Europe makes it like Bordeaux’s Left Bank.

Cabernet Today

Photo by Matt Wilson

The signature Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is intense and generous, with firm yet pliable tannins, herbal overtones and loads of dark-fruit aromas and flavors. These wines are plusher than those from cooler climate Bordeaux, but less opulent and more spice-based than the fruit-forward Cabernet from Napa. The current vintage for high-end Chilean Cabernet is 2017, but wines from 2018, especially those priced from $15 to about $30, are now coming into the market.

The 2017 vintage was marked by intense summer heat and a very early harvest. But for some winemakers, it proved that established terroirs and vines of a certain age (30 years or older) impact the wines even more than weather.

“Vintages like 2017, ones that you know are coming in warm, force you to pay attention,” says Rafael Urrejola, winemaker for Undurraga. Its 2017 T.H. Cabernet, from an Alto Maipo vineyard planted three decades ago at about 2,200 feet, is tightly wound and a prime candidate for the cellar.

Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro / Photo by Matt Wilson

“If you understand the ripening process and pick at the right time, the results should still be good,” he says. “But if you are late in this type of year, you will end up with overripe, cooked and flat wines. The harvest window gets really narrow. For T.H. 2017, we picked by the second week of March, very early compared to other years.”

Only 7.6 inches of rain fell from May 2016 through April 2017, according to the Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero, a government agency. The prior year saw 17.5 inches of El Niño-driven rain, much of it in April when Cabernet Sauvignon harvests generally reach their peak.

As for 2018, Chile’s winemakers call it the best year in a decade or more, for all varieties and styles of wine. It was normal in terms of daytime and nighttime temperatures—meaning excellent for Cabernet—with an average amount of rainfall for the year, about 13.5 inches.

What made it especially great for Cabernet, according to Sebastian Ruiz, winemaker with Viña Tarapacá in the Isla de Maipo subzone, was that it allowed for a long hang time.

“The Cabernet grapes were so healthy, with beautiful berries and bunches,” he says. “The yield was 26% higher compared to 2017, but perfect temperatures during the maturation period determined a later than normal harvest. This always helps Cabernet Sauvignon wines to have good color, freshness of fruit, good natural acidity and elegant tannins.”

Marcelo Papa, technical director at Concha y Toro, called 2018 “fantastic, probably the best year in the last 10. The wines are refined, with great precision of fruit. They are juicy and display magnificent balance.

“Something I recall noticing was that the vines looked very comfortable throughout the season, and experience has taught us that a happy vine produces a happy wine.”

The harvest at Concha y Toro 

Winemakers noted that 2019 was a good year for Cabernet, but one where drought conditions returned. A mere 6.4 inches of precipitation fell during the May to April measuring period.

The 2020 vintage was one of the driest years on record with only 3.5 inches of rain, nary a drop during the growing period.

Lorena Mora, who heads the Terrunyo program at Concha y Toro along with veteran winemaker Ignacio Recabarren, says that until the past year, drought conditions in Chile have been manageable due to modern irrigation. But how long that can continue remains to be seen.

“We are getting to the point where we cannot replace the lack of rain,” says Mora. “In 2020, many vineyards had problems irrigating. It is a problem that has been intensifying year after year. In Maipo, the situation has us worried. We irrigated much more this past season, and we will have to adapt to this new reality.”

Fernando Espina of Viña Chocalan / Photo by Matt Wilson

With droughts come lower yields, something that hurts wineries that produce inexpensive wines designed for mass consumption. On the other hand, small yields tend to result in more concentrated wines.

Fernando Espina, head winemaker at Viña Chocalan in the Maipo Valley, whose 2018 Gran Reserva Origen Cabernet Sauvignon offers great value, put Chile’s reduced rainfall into terms we all can understand.

Rafael Urrejola of Undurraga / Photo by Matt Wilson

“Today, we can talk about lower rainfall like the coronavirus pandemic,” he says. “We are dealing with a new normal. But extremely low yields are not necessarily synonymous with good quality. Rather, it can translate into drying tannins, overripe fruit, dehydration and high alcohol.”

Fortunately, the best of Chile’s Cabernet Sauvignons deliver plush tannins, perfectly ripe fruit, juicy acidity and alcohol levels of about 14%. Wines like these are plentiful and calling your name.

A Dozen Stellar Chilean Cabernets

Pick up an old favorite, or try something new.

Six Well-Known Names

Viña Don Melchor 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (Puente Alto); $120, 95 points. A full, spicy nose is packed to the brim with smoky, toasty oak and earthy black-fruit aromas. A ripe, full and chewy palate is smooth in feel, while this classic Cabernet from Puente Alto in the Maipo Valley tastes of coffee, rich chocolate, toasty spices and blackberry. A lush, bold finish runs long, indicating that this will age well. Hold through 2040. Fetzer Vineyards. Cellar Selection.

Concha y Toro 2017 Terrunyo Cabernet Sauvignon (Pirque); $40, 93 points. Dark berry, rubber and brambly notes of wild brush open this well-built, saturated Cabernet. Spicy blackberry and herbal flavors are pure Maipo-Pirque, while this shows integrated oak, chocolate and a mix of ripeness of fruit and freshness on the finish. Drink through 2028. Fetzer Vineyards. Editors’ Choice.

MontGras 2017 Intriga Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $40, 93 points. Hefty dark-fruit aromas are earthy, moderately complex and exhibit total ripeness. On the palate, this is full but fresh, with a nice balance between tannic grip and purity of fruit. Blackberry, dark cherry, oak spice and chocolate flavors are focused on a dry, firm finish. Drink through 2030. Guarachi Wine Partners. Cellar Selection.

Undurraga 2017 T.H. Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Alto); $30, 93 points. Patented Chilean Cabernet aromas of spices, purple flowers, fine herbs and berry fruits form a fine nose. On the palate, this is juicy and air tight. Herbal berry flavors are lightly oaked and spicy, while hints of wood spice and clove on the high-energy finish suggest that further aging will only help. Drink through 2029. Undurraga USA. Cellar Selection

Santa Rita 2017 Medalla Real Gold Medal Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $20, 92 points. Plum, berry and cassis aromas give this single-vineyard sibling of Medalla Real Gran Reserva a riper nose than its brother. A fruity palate is fleshy and bursting with plum, berry and chocolaty flavors, while this Cabernet is medium in depth on the finish. Drink now through 2024. Delicato Family Wines. Editors’ Choice.

Viña Tarapacá 2018 Etiqueta Negra Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $35, 92 points. Full and complex aromas of hot stones, black fruit, wood spice and char are compelling in front of a youthful palate. Blackberry, coffee, chocolate and peppery wood-spice flavors hum with residual ripe-berry notes on a deep finish. Drink from 2021–2028. MundoVino–Winebow. Cellar Selection

Six Names to Know

Casas del Toqui 2017 Court Rollan Pater Alto Totihue Cabernet Sauvignon (Cachapoal Valley); $45, 93 points. This small-production Cabernet is muscular on the nose, with dusty, spicy berry aromas. A full yet fresh palate is balanced and healthy, while this tastes of spicy currant and plum. A smooth finish with silky tannins isn’t overly demanding, indicating that this is more or less ready to drink; enjoy through 2025. Via Pacifica Imports.

François Lurton 2016 Hacienda Araucano Gran Araucano Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley); $35, 92 points. Spicy plum and berry aromas are just ripe enough to include a note of prune. On the palate, this wet-year Cab is chewy and showing good body and ripeness. Plum, berry, spicy oak and cocoa flavors end with dry notes of oak spice and residual berry fruits. Drink through 2026. Atlas Imports.

Maquis 2017 Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley); $20, 91 points. Aromas of plum, cherry, oak and leather require airing to find their stride, while this is concentrated on the palate. Mild oak flavors frame black fruit, resulting in spice and chocolate notes. A tight finish with a grip of tannins is lasting and structured. Drink through 2023. Global Vineyard Importers.

Siegel 2016 Single Vineyard Los Lingues Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley); $30, 90 points. Berry and plum aromas include notes of spicy oak, and overall, this Cabernet opens with good ripeness for an El Niño vintage. A fairly tight body is more racy than dense, while spicy berry and plum flavors are a bit chocolaty prior to a finish with prune notes. Drink through 2024. Kysela Père et Fils.

Viña Chocalan 2018 Gran Reserva Origen Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $18, 91 points. Spicy cherry and berry aromas come with common Chilean sidenotes of eucalyptus and mint. A juicy palate shows a firm grip, good structure and slight tannic bite. Black-fruit flavors come with spicy oak accents and a finish with mocha and clove notes; drink through 2022. Chocalan USA.

Haras de Pirque 2018 Hussonet Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $15, 90 points. Wiry berry aromas include herbal notes and a hint of animal on what amounts to a fresh, welcoming nose. A tight and direct palate is well balanced, while this everyday Cabernet arrives at excellence via ripe blackberry and cassis flavors that are lightly oaked and warm on the finish. Drink through 2021. Michelle Wine Estates. Best Buy.

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