Thursday, December 16, 2010

A few of Chile's wine regions.

I will be traveling in Chile for the next month, exploring the wine regions of Aconcagua, Casablanca, Maipo, Leyda, and Colchagua. Here is a little overview of Chile as a wine producer in general:

Chile's wine regions (

Chile’s current wine production mainly comes from an approximately 900-mile region between 31.5 and 38 degrees latitude. The country, being elongated, contains many different climates, allowing a wide variety of grapes to be grown. Its isolation due to the Atacama desert in the north, the Andes mountains to the east, Antarctica to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west protects the vineyards from many internationally feared pests and diseases, so no rootstock is necessary in general. Irrigation is usually needed but easily accomplished in many regions with fresh runoff from melting snow in the Andes. Northern regions focus mainly on Pisco production but are beginning to dabble in fine wines; the southernmost areas are the coldest, and tend to be best for high-acid wines. Chile’s vineyards are often said to have similar potential to California.

Don Silvestre Ochagavia (

Chile has had a wine industry since the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors planted Pais and Garnacha Tintorera (aka Alicante Bouchet), examples of which can still be found as decor in some fine wine vineyards such as MontGras. Simple wines, mostly made for the church, were produced by the Jesuits for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the 1800s that fine wine grapes were brought to the country by influential figures like Don Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta, who brought the first wave of vines from Bordeaux and planted them in the Maipo region in 1851 and founded Viña Ochagavía. Don Maximiano Errázuriz did the same in the Panquehue region in Aconcagua, where he established Viña Errázuriz. The growing wine industry led to investments in the railway system; California wood was brought to Chile for construction purposes, and with it came (hidden away in the bark) poppy seeds. Evidence of this is strewn about through most of the Chilean wine regions: California poppies grow wild like weeds in the vineyards, on the sides of roads and highways, and in fields.

Estates such as Cousiño Macul and Viña Errázuriz continued to produce fine wines throughout the 1800s and 1900s. But it wasn't until the 1980s that Chile gained international recognition as a purveyor of some of the world's finest wines. Foreign investment in Colchagua, Casablanca, and Maipo led to vast improvements in winemaking and viticultural technology, and wineries like Pablo Morandé's Viña Morandé and Aquitania sprang up. These ventures came about after the socialist government of the 1960s and 70s forced a land reform that required large estates to split their holdings, leading to huge losses for some of the biggest landowners. In the 1980s, as a result, Pinochet’s encouragement of foreign investment led the Mondavis, the Rothschilds, Miguel Torres, and many others to give Chilean agriculture a boost by buying land or shares in vineyards. Now their influence can be seen in much of the industry.

French grapes dominate the Chilean wine scene. Red Bordeaux blends are most popular in Maipo, Aconcagua, and Colchagua; Pinots, Chardonnays, and Sauvignon Blancs (some blended with Semillon in true Bordeaux fashion) take the lead in Casablanca and Leyda. It is no coincidence that the industry favors the French varietals: In 1810, Chile's desire to disconnect from Spain after gaining its independence opened the floodgates to French immigration. Many wealthy Chilean landowners vacationed in France. During their stays, they became particularly enchanted with the structure and elegance found in Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and developed a desire to mimic these great wines at home. Chilean winemakers became understudies in the French regions and brought back winemaking techniques and clones. These clones were thriving in the period prior to World War II, but a huge tax levied on the wine industry mixed with an unfavorable change of social attitude toward alcohol consumption during and after the war formed a disastrous situation for the industry. Few new plantings were made, and Chilean winemakers continued to work mainly with only the French grapes they already had growing in the vineyards. Now other varietals such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel can be found throughout Chile, but Chilean winemakers tend to be most comfortable with those their country knows how to produce so well.

The varietal most commonly associated with Chile is Bordeaux’s missing grape, Carménère. How this came to be is an interesting story. Carménère once represented a significant percentage of Bordeaux vineyards. Chilean growers imported large quantities of it along with the Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The vine’s similarity to Merlot and some mixed up tags eventually resulted in some Carménère being mistaken for a clone of Merlot (called “Merlot Peumal” after a valley near Santiago) and vinified as such.

When the phylloxera epidemic hit Bordeaux the Carménère vines were decimated. For the next few decades the grape was assumed to be completely extinct. Eventually some was discovered in France but not replanted widely: Carménère is particularly to coulure, making it difficult to grow in cool, wet areas. In the meantime Chile was pumping out Merlot with intriguing characteristics; in 1994 the notable difference between Chilean Merlot and other Merlots prompted an investigation by Prof. Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier. Bourisquot determined that Chile’s “Merlot Peumal” was in fact Carménère. Now Carménère is inextricably linked to Chile and grows primarily in Maipo, Aconcagua, and Coalchagua.

The quality of Chilean wines was put to the test on January 23, 2004, the day of the Berlin Tasting. Sixteen wines were tasted blind by a panel of 36 of Europe’s wine industry elite at Berlin’s Ritz Carlton Hotel. Six of these wines were Chilean, six French, and four Italian. Among the French entries were the Bordeaux behemoths Margaux, Lafite, and Latour, and featured in the Italian lineup were Guado al Tasso, Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia. Vina Errázuriz contributed some of its finest to the faceoff. And the results? The top two wines came from Errázuriz: the 2000 Viñedo Chadwick and the 2001 Seña. Third place went to the 2000 Chateau Lafite. It was a landslide victory. Since the Berlin Tasting interest in Chile has been piqued, and at the current moment wine regions are being discovered left and right throughout the country. Chile's wines are now reaching new levels of international acclaim. The next few decades should be a very exciting chapter for Chile’s wines and producers.

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