Three decades ago, there were no vines in Chile's cool Casablanca and San Antonio regions. Today, wine professors still say some of the vineyards should never have been planted - but the wineries making a name for themselves with premium, cool-climate wines, and their UK drinkers, can't get enough of them.
Many of the wineries in these two appellations, a short drive from the capital Santiago, define themselves by their distance from the sea.
Just 4km inland, San Antonio's Casa Marín is the closest to the ocean. Former bulk wine broker María Luz Marín founded the company in 2000, funding it herself because nobody believed a winery could work in such an extreme area. Dutch winemaker Jan Bloem joined Casa Marín this year, straight out of Chilean university - where he was taught that this vineyard would never work. "It was one of the reasons I wanted to work here so much," he says. "It is nice to prove them wrong and do something different from what your professors are teaching you."
Marín says: "All the Chileans were working in the Central Valley in a nice , warm climate with good, rich soils, so all the grapes are very happy and produce a lot of wine. All the producers were sure that if they planted there they could produce good wine, very intense, with a lot of flavour and all the typical varietals we have in Chile.
"I was looking for something different. The only place was to go to the extreme conditions and extreme areas. No one at that time was looking so close to the sea as we have - 4km is the closest vineyard to the ocean in South America."
Viticulturalists have avoided Chile's coast because cold breezes from the icy Humboldt Current that runs past its shores mean marginal conditions for grape growing. But, inspired by coastal vineyards in New Zealand, South Africa and California, Marín pressed on.
As her critics predicted, she has been beset by problems. Last year frost ravaged two-thirds of her Pinot Noir production; humidity is a continuing threat and botrytis wiped out nearly 8,000 litres of Riesling in 2006; birds eat 15 per cent of each harvest; and her pet Alsatian, Bacchus, loves eating bunches of Gewürztraminer.
But, undeterred, Marín is busy w ith plans to build a bed and breakfast and restaurant to go with the wine spa already operating in her vineyards. "I would love to try varieties such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Albariño. That is what makes me happy - to experiment," she says.
Further inland, neighbouring wineries Garcés Silva and Viña Leyda were half of a pioneering foursome that clubbed together to lay pipelines from the Maipo River to San Antonio's Leyda Valley and plant cool-climate vineyards there.
Viña Leyda started out in 2000 with the aim of making bright, fresh , fruit-driven Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays for early drinking, as well as sought-after Pinot Noirs. Managing director Gustavo Llona says customers are demanding three times the 5,000 litres of Pinot Viña Leyda currently produce d in a year, and the winery recently planted another 30ha to bring production up to 15,000 litres. The wine is produces under three labels and for Marks & Spencer's £6.99 Secano range, which also includes a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir rosé.
Llona says: "The soil here is quite poor, so there is more character and terroir in the wine. We believe we have real potential in varieties such as Pinot Noir. We are planting new clones, new vineyards with different exposures and different densities, to work a little bit more deeply in this variety."
Garcés Silva has 120ha of vineyards, of which 30ha go towards four premium wines under its Amayna brand: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The rest of the grapes are sold to Montes. Head winemaker Francisco Ponce is also looking at Syrah and experimenting with Gewürztraminer and Riesling.
The Amayna wines, which sell for £12-£18, are listed in Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Oddbins. European sales director Claudia Gomez says: "Chilean wine is also cheap wine, so it is not easy for us to raise the price." She says Amayna is one of the most expensive Chilean brands, after Altaïr and Almaviva, both joint ventures with Bordeaux producers.
Anakena released its first wine from new vineyards in the Leyda Valley, next door to Viña Leyda and Garcés Silva, at last month's London wine fair - a 2006 Sauvignon Blanc. Export manager Marcela Herrera says: "Anakena was looking for more specific wine from more specific terroirs, and looking for proper land for white varieties. We found 128ha in Leyda and almost 120 are planted already with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Noir."
The vineyard is 10km from the ocean and is designed to produce mainly fresh, unoaked wines for Anakena's Single Vineyard range. "We have three different Sauvignon Blanc styles, and Leyda is good for proper acidity," Herrera adds.
World class quality
Luis Felipe Edwards is another winemaker who has spotted Leyda's potential. He has bought 160ha of land on rolling hills 9km from the ocean and aims to produce 65 per cent Sauvignon Blanc, 25 per cent Pinot Noir and 10 per cent Chardonnay when it is fully planted next year. "We should be the closest plantation in Leyda from the sea," he says. "We are aiming to produce very high quality wines. Our consultant, Alberto Antonini, believes the quality of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir could be world class." Most of LFE's wines, which are listed in Tesco, Asda and the Co-op among others, retail at £3.99-£5.99, but the wines from Leyda are aiming at the £7.99-£9.99 mark.
Matetic is 20km from the sea, on the border between the San Antonio and Casablanca appellations. Owned by a wealthy Croatian cattle-farming family, the low-rise winery is made of natural materials designed to blend into the surroundings . The 9,000ha estate is also used to farm livestock and blueberries, and just 90ha are under vine.
"There are no vineyards close to here; this is the first in this area," says winemaker Paula Cárdenas. "When they planted they put in some Cabernet Sauvignon and some Carmenère, but they don't exist now - they took it out because it was so difficult to ripen."
The winery has been certified organic since 2004, and is this year starting a two-year process to be certified biodynamic. Although Cárdenas seems slightly dubious about biodynamic methods, which she explains as treating the farm like a living organism, she says she has already seen results. "It seems the fruit ripens first when we put preparations on plants. It is not very scientific, but I believe there is a difference," she says.
Neighbouring Casablanca is warmer than San Antonio, with less frost risk, but limited, expensive water rights mean production is limited, so many producers are focusing on premium wines.
Viña Ventisquero's 300ha Casablanca vineyard grows Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and there are plans to try out aromatic whites such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Viognier. Winemaker Alejandro Galaz-Viñals has a positive take on Casablanca's expansion difficulties. "I think that in the future this may be better for the value, because it is going to be easier to sell wine around the world if it is good quality wine and doesn't have a lot of volume - it is more exclusive."
Viña Casablanca is one of the closest vineyards to the sea in Casablanca, and it is experimenting with Riesling and Viognier alongside Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, many of which are grafted onto Cabernet Sauvignon vines . The "boutique winery" of major player Santa Carolina, it produces wines under the Colleción Privada range at £5.99-£6.99 and the Nimbus range at £8.99.
Pablo Morandé was the pioneer of the Casablanca Valley, planting its first commercial vineyards in 1982 when he was winemaker for national giant Concha & Toro. He still manages vineyards for the company as well as running his own family winery, Morandé, which he founded in 1996. His main varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and he has made a point of planting his vineyards very densely.
He explains: "By having small vines you have the possibility to produce a smaller quantity per vine, which means much more flavour concentration. The idea is to have vines without stress, just to have a very good balance between vines and wines. Normal density in Chile is 3,000-4,000 vines per hectare, but I think there is potential for more density. We use 10,000 ." Morandé recently appointed Bottle Green his UK distributor, and also produces wines for Marks & Spencer.
But he has his doubts as to how well premium wines can do here : "The UK is a big market, but no profitable market. That is the problem for the industry ."
Matetic EQ Syrah 2005, £15.99
Opaque and purple with a nose of char grilled peppered steak and smoke, with floral notes and plenty of black fruit, this Syrah is a dinner in a glass. Smooth and big-bodied with lots of pepper on the palate and a long pepper, flower and fruit finish. Sadly it is now in short supply - but look out for the 2006.
Casa Marín Single Vineyard Sauvignon Gris 2006, £11.99
Sweet citrus, white peach, chalk and asparagus on the nose, plus a hint of cream from 20 per cent barrel fermentation. The palate shows lime, kiwi and spice, with lots of fresh acidity and vibrant minerality. Concentrated flavours leave a floral, melon and peach finish that stays with you.
Amayna Sauvignon Blanc Barrel Fermented 2005, £18
Ageing in 100 per cent new oak makes this Sauvignon mid-gold, with a nose of cream, butter, vanilla, tropical fruit, stone fruits and San Antonio's characteristic asparagus notes. Soft and creamy oak balances the fresh and zingy fruit.
Viña Casablanca Colección Privada Pinot Noir 2006, £6.49-£6.99
Bunch-pressed, fermented as a white wine and then blended with 2.5 per cent Viognier, this Pinot Noir has a spicy nose of red and black berries and vanilla, with floral and apricot notes. Medium body, light tannins and ripe fruit on the palate.
Morandé Reserve Gewürztraminer 2006, £5.99
Lychees, roses and a hint of smoke on the nose. Full, oily, off-dry palate with balancing acid and a nice long finish.
Where to get them in the UK
Anakena: Stratford's Wine Services 01628 810606
Casa Marín: Boutinot 0161 908 1300
Garcés Silva (Amayna): Paragon Vintners 0207 887 1800
Luis Felipe Edwards: D&D Wines International 01565 650952
Matetic: WineXcel 01685 871384
Morandé: Bottle Green 0113 205 4500
Viña Casablanca: Source Wines 01672 519390
Viña Leyda: Great Western Wine (south) 01225 322800; Playford Ros (north) 01845 526777
Viña Ventisquero: PLB 01342 318282