Zoning in on Chile

Wine Society producer Sebastián De Martino tells us about his country’s new appellation system

Chile is a diverse country in terms of climates. It is 4,200kms long from the driest desert in the world (the Atacama) in the north to Antarctica in the south. Throughout its length you can find every possible climate and terrain encompassing Mediterranean, Lake Districts, Fjords and even Ice Fields. Until recently, latitude (from 30º to 36º south), was thought to be the main factor influencing Chilean wine production and this was the basis behind Decree 464, dating from 1995, which regulates Chile’s Wine Producing Zones and appellation system.

Accordingly, wine producing regions were named after the rivers running east to west through them (Elqui, Limarí, Choapa, Aconcagua, Maipo, Cachapoal, Rapel, Maule, Itata and Bío-Bío). The only exception is Colchagua, whose river, Tinguirica, is hard to pronounce (even in Spanish).

Since 1995, the vast amounts of data accumulated have enabled greater accuracy in identifying the main sources that influence winemaking. And as producers expanded the wine producing map with new appellations (Elqui, Limarí, San Antonio, Itata and Bío-Bío) they realised that proximity to the Ocean has far more of an influence on wine style than latitude. The Humboldt Current that runs up the Chilean coast from Antarctica has an important cooling influence on vineyards planted closer to the sea. Planting at altitude, an area of growing interest but still in its infancy, also has a cooling effect.

Based on these discoveries, Decree 464 was modified in May 2011 to include the influence of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains and the resulting differentiation in wine styles. The new amendment would include, over and above the current information on valleys, the following specifications: Costa (coast), Entre Cordilleras (central, literally between the mountains) and Andes (eastern). So, in practice you might see the following terms on labels: Limarí – Costa/Maipo – Entre Cordilleras/Choapa – Andes. The implementation, approved recently by EU regulators, is not however mandatory for producers to state on their labels. The classification came about as a result of a two-year study by wine producers, winemakers and geologists. The criteria for establishing what differentiates Costa from Entre Cordilleras and Andes was based on average isotherm readings over the last 20 years. As a general guideline, though not the rule, the zones will usually be associated with the following grape varieties:

  • Costa: Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah.
  • Entre Cordilleras: Carmenère, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec, carignan, old vines in general.
  • Andes: Syrah.

Chile has variable climates and terroirs and as the country’s wine production evolves a move in this direction should benefit the understanding for consumers. From a marketing point of view, this also allows producers to differentiate their wines by giving more information about their origin. This is an important step in defining the current Chilean wine industry. Despite this, and as in every appellation in the world, the producer has an important role to play as well. In a country which is still in its infancy in terms of varietal definition and zones, they remain a highly important factor when choosing a bottle of Chilean wine.

View Sebastián De Martino’s wines here.

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