Grape cultivation for wine began centuries ago in Chile, immediately following the 16th century conquistadors. Priests and missionaries came to Chile to bring the message of Christianity to the Americas and of course they needed sacramental wine. Grapes were planted and wine was made. Fast forward a few centuries. In the mid to late 1800's, the phylloxera epidemic was destroying vineyards throughout Europe. Many vineyard workers and winemakers became unemployed and moved to other areas of the world to practice their craft. The established chateaux in Europe thought grape production might be over on the continent and they started to look elsewhere for suitable sites. Chile became extensively planted with mostly the noble varieties from France. Moving forward another century, with increasing consumer demand for high quality wine and high value wines, in conjunction with increasing knowledge of terroir, cultivation and wine production, it became clear that Chile could make quality wines that could appeal to wine folks all along the price continuum.
I just returned from a trip to Chile where we visited 13 wineries and vineyards. With the exception of carmenere, all the wines were made from well known grapes. Carmenere was one of the grapes used in bordeaux blends and was thought to have been lost to the phylloxera plague in Europe but in 1994, DNA testing of some “merlot” plots in Chile were discovered to actually be carmenere. It is used in blended wines or by itself and can add dimension and texture to a wine as well as bell pepper, black pepper and spice.
Chilean vineyards and wineries that carry “Certified Organic” or “Certified Biodynamic” designations must adhere to a very strict set of rules with documentable and inspectable proof that they follow these standards. It takes several years with a very difficult-to-implement philosophy, to attain this designation and to be able to display the “Organic” and “Biodynamic” stickers on the bottle. There are several producers who have adopted these vineyard and winery practices. Koyle winery (pronounced Koy' lay) and Cono Sur have embraced the organic/biodynamic lifestyle in an obsessive way. Koyle has encouraged “biological corridors” throughout the vineyard. A stream crosses the vineyard on the diagonal and they have encouraged wetland flora to prosper. Along this corridor, in the heart of the vineyard are small trees, bushes and flowers following the stream. This encourages pollinators and other beneficial insects and animals to live there. This helps to restore the balance of nature in the vineyard. Cono Sur Winery has taken their “Organic” designation beyond the requirements. Among other things, they are now using lighter bottles and are buying carbon credits to help offset its shipping costs in an attempt to become completely carbon neutral, including shipping costs.
Beyond this, there are very few rules regarding the wine. In Spain, to be called a “Crianza” a “Riserva” or a “Gran Riserva” means something. There are minimal oak aging requirements for each designation. Each also requires resting time in the bottle prior to release, essentially ensuring their wines are ready for consumption at release. Spain also employs juried blind tasting to ensure quality. The Chilean wine industry has not instituted any of these standards. We tasted wines called “Riserva” that retailed for around $10 US. Another producer was selling a “Gran Riserva” for around $14 US. Welcome to the Wild West of wine production.
So how does one choose which Chilean wine to buy? Most people are not very familiar with Chilean wines meaning most of their wines must be attractively priced to command shelf or wine list attention, and are clearly in the good “value wine”category. It helps to be familiar with some of the producers. El Principal, Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, Koyle, Via Wines, J Bouchon, Cono Sur, Alpaltagua, Casa Silva, Lapostolle, Matetic, San Esteban and Almaviva are all wineries I visited and all are making delicious wines. Chilean wine production is dominated by a few huge and well financed producers. Indeed, 84% of the wine made Chile is made by three wineries; San Pedro, Concha y Toro and Santa Rita. Most of Chile's producers are making several styles and lines of wine at different price points. Find a good store with more than a few Chilean wines. Choose by the dominant grape you want to drink. And then choose by price. Because there are no national or even regional standards, the pricing is what you have to use as a benchmark for quality. Wines around $10 or $12 dollars will typically drink well but will be short on structure and complexity. Each five to ten dollar price increase will present better grapes from better sites, better wine making techniques, better oak aging and will create a more polished wine with texture, depth and finesse. Chilean winemakers are all moving in the right direction. Some are even on the path to greatness. Take advantage of the value pricing and explore the wines of Chile. Just remember this saying as you enter the store. “Donde estan los vinos de Chile”?