Trust, respect, collaboration: Shaping the taste of Chilean wine

Our buyer of Chilean wine, Toby Morrhall, has been visiting the country for more than 20 years. Not only is his knowledge of this exciting country vast, he has also built up long-standing and mutually beneficial relationships with its key players.

Toby Morrhall

News Editor Joanna Goodman asked him about the changes he has witnessed, the role he has played in shaping wine styles and what he in turn has learnt from his time in Chile.

JG: So Toby, you've been buying from Chile for about 23 years; you have been in there from the beginning then?

TM: Well, not quite since the beginning Jo, Chile has been making wine since the 16th century! But I have been going there during a time which has seen a lot of dramatic change.

JG: What would you say to the argument that Chile has been a victim of its own success? I think when wine drinkers first fell in love with Chile it was for its cheap and cheerful, easy-to-love, crowd-pleasing wines, but things have really moved on haven't they?

TM: I think it is important to give a bit of context before answering that. Chile is growing up as a country. There have been a lot of changes in the time I have been visiting and there's still lots to do… the riots in 2019 showed the world the anger with the pace of change in the country; free education has been promised but has not yet been delivered; there have been lots of investments in infrastructure and still lots to do; energy here is expensive. Chile is no longer a developing country and it certainly is not a cheap place to visit!

JG: Every time you come back from a visit you are really excited though, aren't you?

TM: I am really bowled over by the potential of Chile, it's still enormous with the most amazing climates – it can grow virtually anything – except pineapples! The potential of the land together with the intelligence of the winemakers is producing some astonishingly good wines that can really compete on the world stage. But the interesting wines are really between £7-£15 – that is Chile's sweet spot where the wines are at their best.

There is a certain amount of inertia when it comes to changing the reputation of countries, but if I can get our members to trade up it would be hugely satisfying!

Skyline of Santiago de Chile
Chile is no longer a developing nation. Santiago skyline

JG: Looking back at the history of Chile then, I know that some of our Lists from the 1960s had Chilean wines; I am guessing they were very different from the wines we see today?

TM: Actually, there were some very good wines being made back then but more recently Chile developed a reputation for making very good cheap wines. These wines were made in a time before drip-irrigation was possible so everything had to be flood-irrigated which meant that vines needed to be planted on the valley floors.

The advent of drip-irrigation has totally transformed Chilean wine. It means that vines can be planted on slopes and on less vigorous soils reducing yield and improving quality.

Viña Koyle
Viña Koyle with vineyards planted on slopes, something unthinkable 20 years ago

JG: When I was learning about Chile for wine exams, we were told that Chile had perfect conditions for grape growing and was free from the phylloxera louse which devastated European vineyards. Is this a significant factor?

TM: Well that is an interesting point. Yes, Chile, with the Atacama Desert to the north and glaciers in the south and then hemmed in by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, is pretty protected, so has been more or less disease free. Because of phylloxera, pretty much all vines around the world are grafted onto resistant root stocks but what is being discovered now is that choice of root stocks can play an important role in the vineyard too; it can influence date of harvest, adaptability to different soils, for example. So now were are seeing growers experiment with rootstocks to influence the resulting wines.

Limestone Soils at Viña Tabalí
Limestone Soils at Viña Tabalí

JG: The other thing you learn about Chile is that it has just about every possible climate for every grape variety, is this true and what developments have you seen to make the most of this?

TM: This remarkable 3,000-mile-long country includes all the world's climates apart from sub-tropical and tropical. Grape varieties need different climates to prosper and Chile can accommodate them all.

I have often said that Chile is only scratching the surface of realising its true potential, but now we are seeing that happening. One of the huge strides I have witnessed in this area is that now rather than planting vines in new areas and waiting to see whether it is a good spot, there's a lot of analysis that goes on prior to planting using high-tech equipment and data to seek out the best sites for particular varieties. You don't even need to dig the massive pits 'calicata' that you once had to to get this kind of insight!

JG: So do you think there is a sense in which the sheer wealth of climates and terroirs has been a disadvantage to winemakers in Chile?

TM: In a sense, yes, but also, Chile was pretty lucky too. If you think back to when the modern age of viticulture started around the 1860s/1870s (around the same time The Wine Society came into being, as it happens), this was when the big companies like Concha y Toro and Santa Rita first came about.

This was pre-phylloxera, and at that time, most of these producers looked to Bordeaux as the quality standard by which to measure themselves. These pioneers travelled to France and brought back cuttings of grapes from some of the top Bordeaux vineyards. Of course, at the time this would have included carmenère, a variety which wasn't favoured in post-phylloxera Bordeaux. Why not? Because it was a very late ripener so fell out of favour. Chile now has the world's largest planting of the grape; even though it was mistaken for merlot until very recently, it has become a bit of a USP for Chile whose climate it is entirely suited to. Chile doesn't have the same autumn rains as Europe and as a late-ripener, carmenère is doing brilliantly here.

JG: So given the wide variety of climates that Chilean winemakers have at their disposal, how in the early days did they go about getting the match between grape and terroir right?

TM: Rather fortuitously, a lot of these big early estates were planted around the capital Santiago which just so happens to have some of the best soils for cabernet… it is not unlike Bordeaux if you think about it where you have the likes of Château Haut-Brion on the outskirts of the city. Here too you had wealthy families building properties and planting vineyards on the edge of Santiago and just as with the Médoc, here too you have gravelly, alluvial stony soils which cabernet, which doesn't like to get its feet wet, really loves.

JG: Are these early plantings where some of the first trail-blazing wines are coming from? I know Chile is often accused of producing a wealth of good wines but it has been asked, 'where are its great wines?'

TM: It wasn't really until 110-120 years later that they started to really analyse the soils properly to discover their suitability to specific grapes so it really was a bit of luck that they planted cabernet here, but it wasn't just the soil that made Alto Maipo cabernet so successful here.

The mountains are pretty close by (this was another reason for the wealthy to set up home here as it was cooler in the heat of summer). The cool night-time temperatures are important, they help preserve acidity and the beautiful long summer days ensure maximum photosynthesis and minimum respiration. This is crucial when it comes to creating wines with really great freshness and firmness; not sloppy fruit-bomb wines but wines with real structure and character and given that the vines here were planted a good while ago, it is not surprising that some of the country's best cabernets are now coming from this region.

The 2018 Maipo cabernets are really exciting – lovely fresh, elegant wines, not at all the fruit-bombs that you might have seen in the past.

Maipo Valley
The Maipo region in the foothills of the Andes outside Santiago turned out to be more than just a nice spot to build a summer house!

JG: Is this one of the main developments you have witnessed in your 20+ years visiting Chile, the move from planting grapes to specific places and facilitating the production not just of good wines but now great wines?

TM: Yes, undoubtedly but there is much more to it than that. Sure the Chileans have profited from having excellent vine stocks in the first instance – some of the best-quality cabernet and carmenère vines from top Bordeaux estates in the pre-phylloxera era… but just as carmenère got confused with merlot, other grapes like sauvignon blanc were muddled up with tocai friulano too. The results were that, labouring under the misapprehension that they had sauvignon blanc, growers planted it in too warm a climate. Now with increased knowledge, the mistakes of the past are being not just overcome but made into a positive; this is why we are now seeing truly great wines being made from mature vines planted in the best places.

JG: What in your view are the most interesting developments in vineyard location in the time you have been visiting Chile?

TM: The development of coastal vineyards has been one of the most exciting things I have witnessed. Casablanca, 100km north-west of Santiago was only discovered in 1982 and then planting only really started in the 1990s so it is all pretty new really. Limarí, one of the most northerly regions 320km north of Santiago is surprisingly cool – the hot afternoon temperatures cause the air to rise and suck in cool air from the Pacific Ocean so that the temperature never really gets above 25°c.

These areas are looking pretty exciting for grapes like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. It is truly bizarre to see cacti growing alongside grapes! It isn't just the climate, in Limarí they have also got the most amazing limestone soils as well as a bit of clay – you can achieve some incredible finesse in your wines with these – as the Burgundians have shown!

cacti and vines
Cacti and vines – strange bed fellows in Limarí, a cool vineyard region 320km north of Santiago

JG: All this prospecting for suitable locations and replanting of grapes in better sites must be extremely expensive especially given the fact that Chile is 3,000 miles long?

TM: I think the costs are pretty much the same everywhere, but yes in a sense Chile has some extra challenges in this respect. For example there's tremendous potential for some very interesting vineyards in southern Chile but they are a very long way away from Santiago where two thirds of the population live. You have to remember too that family is extremely important in Chile, so moving away from home is a big deal. If you ever get invited to a family barbecue (most Sundays!) you can expect at least 20-30 people to be there.

JG: In Europe there are lots of plots of old vines that have been neglected that enterprising young winemakers are taking advantage of but I presume starting afresh must be a much more costly enterprise?

TM: Yes, that is true. You can pick up plots of lovely old vines in parts of Europe for next to nothing but you have to remember that starting a vineyard from fresh is a massive investment. You are looking at at least 20-30 years before you see any kind of return on your money.

Having said that, people are rediscovering some fantastic old vines down in the Maule region. Here the coastal range is low so you get quite a bit of rain meaning you don't need to irrigate so historically this was a cheaper region in which to grow grapes.

There was a big earthquake here in the 1950s and the government offered grants to growers to plant varieties like cinsault and carignan to replace the païs planted by the missionaries. As a consequence there are some lovely old unirrigated bush vines down here showing great potential.

De Martino dry farmed carignan vines
De Martino's dry-farmed bush carignan vines planted in the 1950s in Maule, one of the country's oldest regions

TM: I think there is really great potential for Rhône varieties… mourvèdre, grenache, syrah and carignan… no one has planted counoise yet as far as I know. Then the whites… roussanne, marsanne, viognier… I am really excited by what I am seeing with these varieties and also the blending potential which you won't get in strictly controlled appellations in the northern Rhône.

JG: As you also buy from Burgundy have you been able to bring some of your knowledge from there back to Chile?

Ignacio Recabarren
Ignacio Recabarren

TM: Yes, to a certain extent, particularly when it comes to chardonnay. When I first visited Chile the chardonnays all underwent malolactic fermentation – something they had picked up from the Burgundians. But the wines ended up being excessively buttery – exacerbated as it turned out by a particular strain of bacteria they had.

The Chileans are extremely quick to learn though and I helped arrange an educational trip for Ignacio Recabarren, arguably Chile's best winemaker, to visit Burgundy with me. He picked up lots during his study tour and quickly realised that he needed to find a way of preventing malolactic fermentation in his wines without resorting to using sulphur dioxide.

He discovered that keeping the wine cool for 5-6 months to develop flavour and aroma and then adding sulphur stopped the malo from taking place. The result was much fresher more drinkable wines with a more developed mineral character.

JG: Did anyone else adopt this new technique?

TM: Yes, pretty much all Chilean chardonnay is made in a similar way now.

JG: What have you picked up from visiting Chile for so many years from the people we work with?

TM: I have been lucky enough to learn alongside some of the country's best winemakers, particularly people like Ignacio. They have taught me so much about blending wines which has been an incredible asset when it comes to putting together blends for The Wine Society.

JG: Have you been able to establish contacts with producers that enable us to get 'special access' to wines?

TM: Undoubtedly. One of the things that Chile has in common with Australia is that it has some really big producers who are able to operate like boutique producers and make top-quality wines, like Penfold's have done.

Concha-y-Toro, for example, don't just produce some excellent brands but they are also capable of putting together some small-batch productions just for us.

JG: Is it just a question of hard-graft on your part Toby to build up these relationships with producers which enables us to benefit in terms of some fantastic own-label wines?

TM: When you are commissioning wines there has to be an element of trust. We expect our suppliers to produce the wines, age them, bottle them, print labels and deliver them to us when we want them. If something goes wrong at any stage in the process they won't necessarily have anyone else to sell the wine to.

What I think is really exciting about Chile is that there is still enormous potential. I have enjoyed learning alongside its top winemakers and we have fun putting blends together Toby blends 20+ wines with different producers and gets in there early to secure wines for us at an early stage]. It is clear that the winemakers we work with also enjoy the process of putting something special together for us and I do what I can to help them out too… for example helping with negotiations with French barrel manufacturers and opening some decent bottles when they get to visit us!

As well as helping out with practical issues, the sharing of ideas and information is not just enjoyable but has helped us to be stronger together. I share a similar aesthetic and palate as many of Chile's winemakers and there is huge mutual respect.

Marcelo Papa winemaker at Concha Y Toro
Marcelo Papa winemaker at Concha Y Toro – a large winery able to operate along boutique lines to bring us some fabulous exclusive bottlings especially for members

JG: And this is where our members really benefit from the time spent nurturing such relationships and building up extensive knowledge of the regions you are buying from?

TM: I truly believe we get our best wines from people with whom we have a long track record. I know that people are a bit suspicious of that sometimes, but ultimately, when you build up a relationship with someone, helping each other out when you have to, it builds a kind of confidence.

This is what allows us as buyers more often than not to get the first choice of the wines, to get to make the blends we want for our members and to have privileged access. As a result I think we get better wines at better prices.

JG: I don't think there can be a better advocacy of membership of The Wine Society or a better place to end this interview, Toby. I think that says it all!

Chilean wines

Read Toby's Ultimate Guide to Chile

Joanna Goodman

Senior Editor

Joanna Goodman

Part of our Marketing Team for over 30 years, Jo has been editor of Society News for much of that time as well as contributing to our many other communications.

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