Chile: A wine nation transformed

Master of Wine and expert on Chilean wine Peter Richards says, if you think you know Chile, think again.

Vineyard landscape Casablanca Valley, Chile

'It's another world,' muses winemaker Rodrigo Romero. He shrugs, and behind him a small terraced vineyard falls away down a steep slope. The vines seem a defiant presence amidst a landscape of rolling hillsides bristling with dark trees. 'I want to make wines that speak of the place,' he adds. 'It's a special place.'

Rodrigo Romero at Trapi
Rodrigo Romero at Trapi

Although Romero was talking about his highly promising Trapi del Bueno project in Chile's deep south, his words could equally be applied to Chilean wine in general. This is a wine nation transformed.

More than twenty years of exposure to the country has confirmed to me that, even if you think you've got Chile sussed, it's worth another look. Because if you're interested in drinking rewarding, intriguing, increasingly elegant, diverse, expressive wines, this spindly country clinging to the coat-tails of South America has much to offer. Almost every bottle these days seems to have the capacity to surprise. You might not like all of them – inevitable when it comes to wine – but the charge of being boring or bland rarely sticks these days.

Chile is a wine nation stuck on fast-forward.

As I wrote in The Wines of Chile nearly 15 years ago, Chile is a wine nation stuck on fast-forward. It's a bewildering place to keep up with – a nightmare for writers trying to write definitive verdicts, a boon for drinkers interested in all things new and exciting. If anything, the pace of change has ramped up since then. A potted history of Chilean wine (with an anthropomorphic angle) would go something as follows.

16th century (birth)

Conquistadores introduce vines.

19th century (belated growth spurt)

A wealthy elite develops the industry by introducing French varieties and expertise.

20th century (growing pains)

Alcoholism, world wars and agrarian reform rock the wine boat.

1990s (adolescence)

Post military rule, the country opens up to exports and the wine industry explodes in size and vigour.

2000s (hubris of youth)

Wines get big.

Post 2010 (self-correction)

Wines slim down.

Start of the 2020s (incipient maturity)

Subtlety and nuance are prized over power, new confidence and sense of purpose are notable and a startling diversity befitting a uniquely protean geography is evident, with signs of much more yet to come.

Rafael Urrejola and Felipe Muller
Rafael Urrejola (left) - Felipe Muller (right)

How are changes affecting the wines?

Beyond the generalisations, though, how exactly has Chile changed, and what does this mean for the wines?

Truth is, a number of factors have fomented change. For example, a series of difficult vintages have forced producers to re-evaluate existing practices. Take 2016, when torrential harvest rains meant people simply had to pick early, giving results that surprised some serial late-pickers, or 2017 when extreme heat and bushfires presented different challenges. In addition, a new generation of well-travelled younger winemakers is starting to exert more influence in the centre-ground of Chilean wine. People like Rafael Urrejola at Undurraga or Felipe Müller at Tabalí. Funky esoteric projects are all well and good but the focus on terroir, elegance, drinkability and precision is now shifting from the periphery of Chilean wine to the mainstream.

Funky esoteric projects are all well and good but the focus on terroir, elegance, drinkability and precision is now shifting from the periphery of Chilean wine to the mainstream.

Take Sebastián and Marco De Martino, whose eponymous winery (in conjunction with progressive winemaker Marcelo Retamal) took the brave decision a decade ago to move away from new oak, excessive ripeness and winemaking trickery to focus on freshness and elegance, partly through a change in vineyard management to enable earlier harvesting. Their cabernets and carmenères are now utterly changed: fine, precise, nuanced, ageworthy wines that express their variety and terroir faithfully without any sense of bombast. At the same time, the brothers have bravely led this Maipo-based producer into Itata with great success. I've just come back from visiting a brand new plantation by the brothers on the slopes of the Villarica volcano near Pucón ('our cool-climate Etna – we love mineral wines,' they smile), another bold project that holds huge potential.

De Martino brothers at their new planting on the Villarica volcano (left) - Progressive winemaker Marcelo Retamal (right)
De Martino brothers at their new planting on the Villarica volcano (left) - Progressive winemaker Marcelo Retamal (right)

Nor is Chile's biggest producer immune from change. Marcelo Papa recently assumed the overall winemaking reins at Concha y Toro in 2017 and has been steadily and laudably prioritising elegance and distinctiveness in the wines. While his work in Limarí with chardonnay and pinot noir was impressive, almost more admirable are his achievements lately in re-focusing the fundaments of Concha's production – the likes of Maipo cabernet and Peumo carmenère. The wines seem to have a new energy, character and intrigue, which is like a breath of fresh air. 'We're more relaxed as winemakers now,' he comments, 'and we want to make honest wines.'

Marcelo Papa
Marcelo Papa

Rhône varieties are also starting to sing in Chile like never before. Syrah is the prime mover in this category, with Chile's degraded granite slopes, particularly in cooler-climate coastal territory, producing perfumed, food-friendly wines in a style few other places in the world can replicate. Carignan is another forte – especially since better producers have moved away from sheer heft (easy when the old vines produce such intense fruit) to more refined expressions in the last few years.

And this is barely to scratch the surface of the modern Chilean wine scene. The funky goings-on with cinsault, grenache, país, moscatel, malbec, riesling, sauvignon gris, chenin, albariño and semillon are well worth checking out. Then there's the fascinating progress of pinot noir, which has a sensational future ahead of it in Chile as it moves into more refined territory. Keep an eye out also for world-class traditional-method sparkling wines emerging from Chile, particularly from the south.

Another world? You bet. Those hunting pocket-friendly bottles can still find this in Chile, but the greatest rewards and optimum value for money are among the classier wines these days. And that's good news not just for Chile but for us wine lovers too.

Peter Richards MW

Guest Writer

Peter Richards MW

Peter Richards MW is a writer, broadcaster and Master of Wine. He's been called 'The Superman of Vino,' 'One of the UK's best loved wine communicators,' and 'The world's leading expert on Chilean wine.' Together with his wife, Susie Barrie MW, he co-hosts the acclaimed annual Wine Festival Winchester, described as 'The best ever wine festival. The Wine Society has been there since its inception,'

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