Cabernet sauvignon established Chile's reputation for wine
The historic país grape variety was brought to Chile in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadores but makes rather light-coloured and astringent wine. Cabernet sauvignon made Chile's reputation for quality wine. Cuttings were taken from Bordeaux in the 1860s and 1870s and turned out to be good selections. Happily, much of the land around Santiago is formed by the Maipo River and its alluvial terraces of rounded stones and gravel are ideal for cabernet sauvignon.
Most of the merlot selected turned out to be carmenère. The semillon and sauvignon blanc cuttings turned out less well. Much semillon is of poor quality but there are one or two pockets of excellent material. Virtually all that was thought to be sauvignon blanc was in fact sauvignonasse or tocai friulano, a much less interesting and less aromatic variety.
Cool coastal climates and new clones spawned the planting of pinot noir, chardonnay & sauvignon blanc
It was in the 1990s and 2000s when two things coincided. Real sauvignon blanc and pinot noir plants became available and cool climates near the coast began to be developed. The quality of these varieties leapt forward as the first wines, from first Casablanca then Leyda and Limarí, arrived.
The rise of Rhône varieties
I have been waiting impatiently for the Rhône varieties to be planted as regions like Maule have an excellent climate for them. Curiously Chile re-discovered plantations of carignan in Maule and cinsault in Itata which had been planted as unirrigated bush vines in the 1940s and 1950s. They had been planted to improve the rather weak flavoured país, but rather forgotten about.
Now there is an interest in making wines from the Rhône varieties and it's starting to look very exciting.
Undurraga have planted some excellent vineyards at Cauquenes in the south western part of the Maule region. Warm days and cool nights produce ripe yet fresh grapes.
They are also making some excellent red wines, using the old cinsault and carignan from the 1940s as well as garnacha, often field-grafted onto 100-year-old país vines.
Another pioneer of these varieties is Koyle in Colchagua. Cristóbal Undurraga has planted some wonderful vineyards on a hillside of decomposed, friable basalt which retains water at depth and is easy for the roots to penetrate. The roots of mourvèdre, grenache, carignan and syrah are already growing three metres down into this soil (the first plantings took place in 2006).
He has planted syrah on steep slopes with stakes at densities of 12,500 vines per hectare which has revolutionised quality (for comparison, Bordeaux and Burgundy are usually around 10,000 plants per ha but in the new world, densities can be as low as 1,000/ha). He is one of the few to plant mourvèdre as bush vines (gobelet or en vaso). In warm areas there can be too much sun. Bush vines form a 360 degree horizontal canopy and the grapes hang below this parasol in dappled shade protected from excess heat and sun. Additionally, more moisture is retained from the shaded soil than in the normal vertically shoot positioned training systems.
Cristóbal also makes a rosé from mourvèdre which we have bought and will certainly revisit.
From the other end of the country Tabalí have planted some viognier at a remarkable 1,600m of altitude.
Alongside the discovery and development of cool, coastal regions, the emergence of wines from Rhône varieties is one of the most exciting advances I have witnessed in my 23+ years of travelling to and buying from Chile. I can't wait to see how these develop further and urge you to give these wines a try.