Chile’s transformation from a supplier of value wines to a world player in the premium wine category is a remarkable success story. A national revitalization began when the people rid themselves of the punishing Pinochet regime and returned to democratic rule in 1990. Since then, Chile’s citizens, with the added infusion of foreign investment, have built the most stable and dynamic economy in Central and South America. And no business segment has benefited more from the renaissance than Chile’s wine producers.
In 1990, 90 percent of the domestic wines were consumed by Chileans; today, over 60 percent of the nation’s wines are exported—the highest percentage of any country. Thanks to a considerable investment by the leading wine producers in human talent, both native and foreign, and in technological improvements in the vineyards and wineries, Chile’s wines are qualitatively better at every level.
Chile’s wineries now number well over 100, and many have winning stories to tell. But for the scope of this story, Chile’s rise to the top level of the wine world will be viewed through the progress of five of Chile’s leading producers—Casa Lapostolle, Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, Montes, and Veramonte.
Wine Grape Paradise
A grower would be hard-pressed to find a better country in which to cultivate wine grapes than Chile. Between the climatic extremes of the searing Atacama Desert in the north (the driest place on Earth) and the treacherous bone- and soul-chilling Cape Horn at land’s end in the south lies a temperate 700-mile stretch of wine-grape- growing country. Many good vineyard sites can be found between the coastal mountains bordering the Pacific and the foothills of the Andes within the latitudes 30°S and 40°S (in North America, these latitudes correspond to Mexico’s Baja and California’s Mendocino).
Overall, Chile’s wine country enjoys a Mediterranean-type climate, with a long, sunny, and dry growing season and a short, cool, rainy winter. Vineyard planting began in the fertile soils of the Central Valley, which runs about 300 miles from north of the capital, Santiago, to south of Linares (roughly between the 33°S and 37°S latitudes) and includes the Maipo Valley, the historic heart of the Chilean wine industry. Ample amounts of spring and summer runoff from the Andes is available for irrigating the vines during the dry summer months.
Without proper vineyard and water management, cultivating grapes under these growing conditions naturally leads to abundant yields and diluted, insipid wines. To counter this, Chile’s leading producers have halved the crop yields in the traditional growing areas and developed new vineyards in poorer, well-drained soils on hillside locations that are more suitable for raising superior grapes. In addition, they have developed vineyards in Pacific-cooled areas near the coast—the Limarí Valley in the far north; Casablanca Valley and San Antonio’s Leyda Valley west of Santiago; and the cooler, rainier Itata, Bío Bío, and Malleco Valleys in the south—for cultivating cool-climate varieties, particularly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.
Phylloxera- and Graft-Free
Besides having a highly favorable grape-growing climate, Chile has a geographic isolation from the rest of the agricultural world that has left the country’s vines with few natural pests. Chile remains phylloxera-free; the destructive louse has never gained a foothold, and producers seem unconcerned about a possible disastrous infestation in the future. Aurelio Montes, Montes’s founding partner and winemaker, expresses the view held by many: “If we were going to have a problem, we would have had it by now.”
Healthy, ungrafted vines have natural advantages. They develop more quickly than vines on grafted rootstock. And ungrafted vines will enjoy a longer productive life span; for instance, grapes from 50- to 80-year- old vines in Apalta are used in Casa Lapostolle’s top cuvées.
More than 90 percent of all Chilean vines are on their own roots, but all five of the aforementioned leading producers have planted vines grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock—mostly in new plantings where they are seeking wine complexity via clonal diversity rather than a hedge against the ravages of phylloxera.
Quest for Quality
The expansion of the nation’s vineyards west, north, and south has been made possible with foreign capital and newly created homeland wealth. For example, in 1994 Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle parlayed some of the Grand Marnier bounty into founding Casa Lapostolle in Apalta, a stunning south-facing, mountain-ringed, horseshoe-shaped valley cut off from the rest of the Colchagua Valley (the southern part of the larger Rapel Valley) by the Tinguiririca River. The hands-on owner has spared no expense in refurbishing old vineyards, planting new blocks, and building a state-of-the-art winery. The renowned Bordeaux enologist Michel Rolland has worked with the owner from the beginning.
Investments have been made in new vineyards that require costly irrigation systems to sustain grapes where traditional Andean runoff is unavailable, and in expensive development of hillside vineyards where extensive grading and erosion control are necessary. A dramatic example of this bold development is the sensational La Finca Estate project in Apalta, an all-Chilean effort by Montes’s founders. To take advantage of Apalta’s unique mesoclimate, soils, and setting, Montes has developed vineyards on Apalta’s steep slopes at heights more than 900 feet above the valley floor, planting Bordeaux varieties and gambling on Syrah, a variety never before cul- tivated in the central part of the Colchagua Valley where Apalta is located.
Casa Lapostolle, Montes, and Veramonte, all less than 25 years old, developed new or underperforming wine regions in their quest for distinction. Errazuriz, founded in the Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago in 1870, and Concha y Toro, begun in 1883 in Pirque, a high, cool section of the Maipo Valley south of Santiago, were both industry pioneers dedicated to wine excellence. Each chose superb vineyard sites for red wines, and wines from these original estates remain among the best in Chile today.
The single-estate Veramonte, nestled in the easternmost part of the cool Casablanca Valley and possessing the largest contiguous vineyard in Chile (nearly 1,000 acres), is uniquely able to grow cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc in its valley floor blocks and ripen Bordeaux varieties in the warmest sections of its hillside plantings. Casa Lapostolle, Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, and Montes have all developed multiple properties, matching grape variety to site, to provide a full spectrum of top-quality wines for their portfolios.
In addition to its historic estate vineyard at Panquehue in the Aconcagua Valley, Errazuriz, under the vigorous direction of Owner Eduardo Chadwick, developed vineyards in Colchagua, Maipo, and Casablanca valleys for its Caliterra label, which was launched in 1996. In 1998, Chadwick’s partnership with Robert Mondavi led to the planting of Cabernet, Merlot, and Carmenère vineyards in the Aconcagua Valley specifically for the “super-Chilean” Seña and to the purchasing of vineyards and building a winery in Colchagua for the new Arboleda label.
Casa Lapostolle owns two-thirds of its 790 vineyard acres in three different sites: one in Apalta, for its high-end Bordeaux-type wines; and two in Rapel, where Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Merlot are cultivated. Concha y Toro owns 7,400 acres of vineyards on 12 estates in four different regions (Maipo, Maule, Rapel, and Casablanca), including the famous Tocornal vineyard in Puente Alto just south of Santiago, the source for the producer’s superb Cabernet, Don Melchor. Montes’s more than 1,200 acres of vines are spread among five estates—three in Curicó and two in Colchagua.
Cabernet, Carmenère, and More
Chile has built markets in the United States, Europe, and Asia on the strength of its high-value red wines and has quickly adjusted to patterns in foreign consumption, which have shifted away from white wine to red in recent years. From 1997 to 2001, Chile’s red vines acreage increased more than twofold, while acreage of white varieties grew by only 7 percent. Cabernet Sauvignon is cultivated on 36 percent of the land devoted to red grapes—ahead of Pais (Mission), Merlot, and Carmenère, which skyrocketed from 330 acres to over 5,400 during this period.
Cabernet has long been Chile’s best wine. This may be because historic Maipo Valley wineries such as Cousiño-Macul, Carmen, Concha y Toro, and Santa Rita were established in the Alto Maipo section of the valley, arguably the best area for growing Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile. An ideal Mediterranean climate; well-drained, stony, alluvial soils; and a large diurnal temperature range all combine to produce low-yield, small-berried crops of Cabernet that create concentrated, complex, elegant wines. Excellent Cabs are also made elsewhere in the country; Errazuriz’s Don Maximiano from Aconcagua and the Apalta Cabs of Casa Lapostolle and Montes are fine examples.
In less than a decade, the “super-Chilean” Bordeaux blends have gone from curious ingenues on the world wine stage to established superstars, taking their bows front-and-center and carrying off the wine critics’ “flowers”—90-plus ratings. Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, the Concha y Toro/ Ch. Mouton-Rothschild Almaviva, the Errazuriz/ Robert Mondavi Seña, Montes Alpha’s M, and Vera- monte’s Primus are five good examples of this new breed that have forged solid international reputations for excellence.
Carmenère, a Bordeaux grape introduced to Chile in the mid-nineteenth century before phylloxera struck the French vineyards, may be the next Chilean wine nova. The Bordelais never replanted the problematic, poor-fruit-setting, late-maturing grape variety after the phylloxera problem was remedied. In Chile’s dry climate, however, Carmenère vines thrived. But few growers were aware of the grape’s true identity; until quite recently, Carmenère was thought to be a selection of Merlot, and the two Bordeaux varieties often were interspersed in the same vineyard, harvested simultaneously, and bottled as Merlot. Once Carmenère was identified, the country’s top winemakers focused their considerable talent on extracting the best from the grape, incorporating it into their Bordeaux blends and bottling it as a varietal. In a very short time, the top Chilean wineries learned how to manage the vines and fully mature the grapes, making the much-maligned Carmenère a tangible symbol of Chile’s vinous success.
Finally, Chilean whites are making breakthroughs in quality as the vineyards mature in the newer cool-climate regions. Stunning bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc and crisp, balanced Chardonnays are now available in the US market, expanding Chile’s very palatable portfolio.
These are the best of times for American restaurant wine wonks and their wine-loving customers. And Chile’s delicious, value-laden wines have earned a place on their table.
Above the entry-level and below the high-end offerings, Chile’s white and red wines are easy-drinking with ripe, bright fruit aromas and flavors and moderate tannins—comparable to pleasant, value-laden, if not distinctive, California coastal wines.
Whites of distinction are now coming from top estates with cool-climate vineyards in Casablanca and other Chilean regions. Syrah, Malbec, and Pinot Noir all show promise. Top Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from the Alto Maipo vineyards, and Bordeaux blends are world-class wines—deeply colored, concentrated, elegant, and age-worthy.
At its best, Chile’s own Bordeaux grape variety, Carmenère, is deeply colored with spicy-earthy aromas and soft red-berry flavors. Carmenère offers a Chilean-only dimension to Bordeaux blends.