Chile's Volvo days are over

09 February, 2007

Tim Atkin MW once called Chile the "Volvo of the wine industry" - now he says wines from both new and established producers are often "spectacular"

Eduardo Chadwick has been clocking up the air miles over the past couple of years, travelling from his native Chile to Germany, Brazil, Japan and Canada to organise a quartet of comparative tastings. On each occasion his aim has been the same: to prove that Chile generally and Viña Errázuriz in particular can compete with the best red wine-­producing nations on the planet, namely France and Italy.

The original event, held in Berlin in January 2004 as a Chilean variation on Steven Spurrier's landmark 1976 Judge ment of Paris Tasting, when a bunch of upstart California wines beat some very swanky French names, was an unexpected triumph. Chadwick put up six of his own wines (the 2000 and 2001 vintages of Viñedo Chadwick, Seña and Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve) and found that they came first, second and ninth out of 16 against the likes of Tignanello, ­Sassicaia and Châteaux Margaux, Lafite and Latour. Cue celebrations in Santiago .

He's since repeated the exercise (with minor vintage variations) in Río de Janeiro, Tokyo and Toronto and, while he's never done quite as well as he did in Berlin, Chadwick and his wines have more than held their own. It may be a slight exaggeration to call The Berlin Tasting (complete with the now-obligatory capital letters) a "milestone in the history of the Chilean wine industry", but it certainly helped to undermine the impression that, when applied to Chilean super-premium reds, the term "icon" should be two words rather than one.

Chadwick has done Chile a big favour. The country has a well-merited reputation for producing flavoursome, well-priced wines, but many consumers remain unconvinced of its potential to produce world-class bottles.

I once described Chile, with some justification, as the "Volvo of the wine industry", a remark that is quoted back to me every time I visit . Today, Chile is much more than that. It might not be a Rolls-Royce , but it's far less predictable than it once was. And at the top end, it has begun to deliver some spectacular results.

Chile's transformation has two main focuses: grape varieties and vineyard sources. The country's traditional strengths (Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, Carmenère) are still there (and getting better by the vintage), but Chile has broadened its varietal base. In two weeks travelling through the country, I tasted wines made from Riesling, Viognier, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Marsanne, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Malbec and Alicante Bouschet. Chile doesn't have as many varieties as Argentina (few countries outside Italy and France do) but it is definitely moving away from the tried and tested.

Planting new grape varieties is one thing; planting them in the right place is something else altogether. Few ­companies have done as much research into this as De Martino in Isla de Maipo, where ­winemaker Marcelo Retamal has become an expert on terroir. As well as owning 280ha of organically-farmed vineyards around the winery, the company buys grapes from 400 different sites, from Elquí in the north to Bío Bío in the south. In the space of a decade, Retamal reckons he's vinified 350 different wines, always searching for the ideal match between variety and location.

As the work has progressed, so Retamal has changed his vineyard sources. "I'd rather transport good grapes for six hours," he says, "than bad ones for one minute." The source of his Chardonnay, for instance, has moved from Maipo to Casablanca, to Leyda and now to Limarí. His tentative conclusions are that the best marriages are as follows: Syrah from Choapa (in the northerly Coquimbo region), Pinot Noir from San Antonio, Malbec from Maule, Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca and Carmenère from Isla de Maipo. I say tentative, because Retamal points out that "you should never generalise about areas in Chile, because it depends where your vineyard is situated in that area. There is more than one Casablanca Valley, more than one Maule".

The man who has worked alongside Retamal at De Martino, and who kept popping up all over Chile on my travels, is the French-trained viticultural consultant Professor Pedro Parra, of the University of Chile. Parra seems to spend most of his time digging holes up and down the country and prodding at soil samples with a small hammer to discern their suitability for vines.

"We are just beginning to understand our terroirs in Chile," he told me from the bottom of a red soil ditch. The fact that he works for some of the leading names in Chile (Concha & Toro, Matetic, Montes, Casa Lapostolle and Tabalí) speaks for itself.

Most Chilean wineries are going through the same process. As a result, the country's viticultural coordinates are changing at a rapid rate. Wineries are looking north, south, east and, most commonly, west in search of new and generally cooler climates. The thing to remember in Chile is that the east/west axis is more important than the north/south one. Limarí and Elquí (exciting areas for Chardonnay and Syrah, respectively) are both on the edge of the desert, but their proximity to the Pacific means that they have cool climates, capable of producing wines of remarkable elegance.

There is cool and cool, mind you. One thing on which everyone agrees is that Casa Marín in Lo Abarco (San Antonio) is the coldest vineyard site in Chile. Marilu Marín's pioneering operation is located only 2.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. "It can be boiling hot in Santiago," she says, "and cool and overcast here." People called her mad when she planted in 2000, but she was convinced that she'd found a special area for elegant, minerally Sauvignon Blanc and intense Pinot Noir. My hunch is that she's right, and that, wind and bird damage notwithstanding, Lo Abarco has the potential to make great Riesling and Syrah too.

In a small plane, Bío Bío is three hours due south from Santiago. I took off in factor 20 sunshine and landed in cloudy drizzle. If Casa Marín is one of Chile's smaller operations (at only 40 ha of vineyards), what Córpora is doing in Bío Bío is one of its most ambitious. The plan is to have 380ha in the ground by the end of this year, making it the region's biggest producer by far.

The company that owns the Viña Porta, Agustinos, Gracia de Chile and Veranda brands is hanging its panama hat on an area that used to specialise in lowly País and Moscatel. Like Lo Abarco, Bío Bío is cool and windy, but it's also wet (with the attendant risk of rot in the vineyard), yet Córpora is producing some very promising Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

Even more exciting is its Pinot Noir, especially the vines planted on the slopes of its Miraflores vineyard, where Burgundian consultant Pascal Marchand has advised Córpora to plant four different clones for extra complexity. "Our aim," says chief executive Jorge Goles, "is to be recognised as the biggest and best producer of Pinot Noir in Chile."

Most of the talk in Chile at the moment is about new developments in cooler areas such as Elquí, Limarí, San Antonio, Bío Bío and better-known Casabalanca - but that doesn't mean so-called ­traditional areas are being left behind in Chile's march towards more complex wine styles. One warmer area that impressed me was Maule, where J Bouchon, Calina, Gillmore and Casa Donoso are all making some excellent reds, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Malbec, Carignan and Syrah the pick of the varieties. Randy Ullom, of the Kendall-Jackson-owned Calina, says : "Maule is an area where French varieties meet País. Too many of the vineyards are high yielding and on the flat, but if you plant on slopes and push the boundaries a bit, it's amazing what you can achieve."

Even in the Maipo, the heartland of the Chilean wine industry and the source of so many of its top Cabernets and Cabernet blends, there are new names to look out for, such as Odfjell and Antiyal. The second of these, owned by bio-dynamic specialist and star winemaker, Alvaro Espinoza and his wife, Marina, is a 7ha property in the south-eastern corner of the Maipo. 2007 will see the first crop from the couple's own vineyard, although releases to date (from bought-in fruit and the 0.5ha around their house) suggest that this has the potential to become one of Chile's best reds.

In time, I am convinced that Antiyal will join the likes of Montes Folly, Almaviva, Don Maximiano, De Martino Gran Familia, Santa Rita Casa Real, Coyam, Purple Angel, Odfjell, Don Melchior, Cono Sur Ocio Pinot Noir, Clos Apalta, Matetic EQ Syrah and Chadwick on the list of Chile's best reds.

The next time Eduardo Chadwick is tempted to get on a plane and fly to another country to pit Chilean wines against the best of Bordeaux and Italy, he should save himself the journey. Chile can more than stand on its own.

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