This new generation of soil-mapped vineyards planted in the last 20 years, with higher density, rootstocks and drip irrigation, or no irrigation, is now just starting to bear fruit and will revolutionise the quality of Chilean wines.
Visitors marvelled at Chile's extraordinary climate in the 1980s and 1990s and asked, 'Where are the great wines?' Well, I believe these new vineyards will deliver them.
Political and economic change
Chile has changed much in the last few decades and has developed into a modern, forward-looking country. From its troubled and divisive political past Chile has travelled a long way. There is still a big division between rich and poor, and the middle class is growing slowly but the benefits of the strong Chilean economy with its open-market policy are trickling down.
No longer a cheap country
Chile became first known for its cheap cabernets and merlots made from high yields in the fertile, warm, flat, flood-irrigated Central Valley. However, Chile is no longer a cheap country to buy from. Its economy is based on copper. It is the world's largest producer. Booming demand from China has seen its currency, the peso, strengthen, much like the Australian dollar which has been buoyed by its mineral resources. Labour for the wine industry is becoming more expensive and scarcer as it has to compete with the highly profitable mining industry which can afford to pay more. Energy costs have risen rapidly.
It may surprise you to learn that today it's easier to buy better good cheap wine from Spain and France than Chile. There is some good cheap wine in Chile but one has to look and negotiate hard to find it. Concha y Toro, the country's biggest producer with 9,000ha of its own vineyards, has pulled out of the market for cheap wine because it is not able to make a profit on it. Apart from the strength of the currency and labour costs, Chile is still developing its vineyards and wineries, and having to pay the capital costs of doing so.
It is estimated that half the vineyard area of Chile, about 62,500ha, is less than 15 years old. It probably takes 8-20 years to pay back a vineyard, and about 30 for a bodega. In Spain one can buy lovely 60-year-old-vine garnacha from co-operatives in Calatayud or Navarra at very cheap prices. The capital costs of the vineyard and winery have long been absorbed and the old vines offer lovely quality too.
Massive viticultural possibilities
However, if that paints a negative picture it is not meant to. The future for Chile is very bright. But it's not for cheap wines. It's for wines of £7 upwards. Chile has incredible potential for quality and is only just scratching the surface. 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.
Many of Chile's cheap wines came from the flat, fertile and warm Central Valley, ideal for ripening large crops of very good entry-level wines. Before the advent of drip irrigation only these flat vineyards were suitable for flood irrigation. However, these flat lands were also situated in a warm climate and had fertile soils. The availability of drip irrigation allowed the planting of the cooler and less fertile south-facing slopes, and availability of rootstocks allowed a greater diversity of soils to be planted.
From Elqui in the north to Rapel in the middle of the country the rainfall increases from 90mm to 550mm. This lack of rainfall means Chile is free from most fungal diseases and has some of the healthiest grapes in the world. Water reserves from snow in the Andes, and the advent of drip irrigation (a vine needs about 700mm a year to survive) has allowed cool south-facing slopes, with less fertile soils, to be cultivated and yields controlled. From Maule down to Bío-Bío rainfall increases from 550 to 1,500mm and there are many unirrigated vineyards here.
As well as the north-to-south dynamic, there is also a huge temperature variation east to west. Dr Richard Smart, a viticulture guru, says that to combat global warming viticulturists should head to the mountains or to the coast. Chile has both. More vineyards are being planted in the Andes mountains up to 2,000m, where average temperature decreases by 0.6°C with every 100 metres of altitude. The coast, cooled by the 14°C Pacific Ocean, has spawned a remarkable recent growth in vineyards. First came Casablanca (1982), then Leyda (1998), swiftly followed by Limarí (2005), Elqui, Aconcagua and Rapel.
In between, the Central Valley and its offshoots like Apalta and Peumo are much warmer and are typically ideal for carmenère, and the southern Rhône varieties which are starting to appear, or for ripening large crops of cabernet and merlot to make cheaper wines.
Understanding soil: the recent leap forward in the quality of newly planted vineyards
If Chile has successfully understood the matching of climate with grape variety, what it did not do, until recently, other than by accident, was to match the climate and variety with the right soil. Chile became known for its excellent cabernet sauvignon, cuttings of which were brought back in the 1870s from Bordeaux and planted around the outskirts of Santiago, where many rich owners had land and handsome houses (Cousiño Macul in Macul, Don Melchor at Pirque, Santa Rita's Casa Real at Alto Jahuel).
It just so happens that Santiago sits on some of the best soils for cabernet sauvignon, which are the alluvial terraces of the Maipo River. The round stones and gravel of the best communes around Santiago (Puente Alto, Pirque, Macul, Alto Jahuel) are warm and their well-drained soils are ideal for the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon, similar to the gravel banks of the Médoc. Situated close to the Andes, these vineyards are also moderated by cool air which descends from the Andes at night.
However, planting a vineyard where you happen to have a house is not the most successful strategy for developing great vineyards. There has been a step change in the quality of vineyards planted in the last 10 years or so. Greater interest in the soil from viticultural consultants, including Pedro Parra amongst others, and the availability of a new machine since 2003 which measures the electroconductivity of soils, which allows one, with skilled interpretation, to assess the potential of a soil without digging quite so many holes. Although plenty of these soil pits (calicatas) have been dug to see the soil profiles and cross reference the results from the machine. Undurraga dug 800 soil pits 1-2m deep in their 170ha Leyda property before deciding what to plant where.
Soil can change remarkably over a few metres and so mapping the soils shows which are the best soils for viticulture. Soil composition, structure and fertility will determine which varieties to grow, what type of rootstocks to use, what density to plant at, etc. Chile is free from phylloxera, so American rootstocks are not necessary for vine health, but different rootstocks can be better suited to certain soil conditions, can advance or retard maturity, and are now chosen in order to improve quality. This new knowledge combined with existing ability to match climate and variety will significantly improve wine quality.
A new generation of vineyards is revolutionising quality
Knowledge about the soil, appropriate planting density, choice of rootstocks, excellent clonal and massale selections of grape varieties, ability to plant cooler and less fertile south-facing slopes with the advent of drip irrigation (flood irrigation can only cope with virtually flat land) have all conspired to revolutionise the quality of vineyards planted in the last 10 years.
Unlike Argentina, which has many old vineyards of malbec planted at relatively high densities of about 5,500 plants/ha, Chile has relatively few good old vineyards. Apalta has some nice old vineyards planted to 5,500 vines/ha, but many of Chile's best wines still come from good rather than great vineyards. For example, Santa Rita's lovely Casa Real comes from vines planted at a lower than optimal density of about 3,333 vines/ha from two vineyards, Población planted 1973 and Carneros panted in 1962, Alto Jahuel. The Tocornal vineyard at Puente Alto, which has superb stony, gravelly soil, and produces Concha's greatest cabernet. Don Melchor comes from vines planted at a similar density. Their new vineyards being planted from about 2005 onwards at about 8-10,000 vines/ha have the irrigation pipes buried 80cm below the surface to encourage the roots to explore the soil more deeply to better regulate water supply to the vine. These new vineyards will soon produce better grapes than the existing older vineyards.
Stefano Gandolini's Las Tres Marias Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is one of the first wines of this new generation. The vines were planted in 2001 at 7,000 vines/ha on the third and fourth alluvial terraces of the Maipo River near Buin with drip irrigation. The quality is outstanding and the wine is concentrated yet fresh and fine.
Some examples of soil-mapped, high-density vineyards planted in the last two decades:
Viña Leyda's new vineyards:
- El Maiten (2008), 36 different parcels over 88ha, 500 soil pits dug before planting, density variable according to soil, mostly 6,700 vines/ha but one tiny block, El Goteo has 9,786 vines/ha and is planted with new pinot Dijon clone 828
- El Granito (2010), 90ha, alluvial terraces 3km from the sea, on the banks of the River Maipo, planted to pinot noir, syrah, riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Orientation varies to use sea breezes to ensure good air circulation to minimize botrytis (rot)
Tabalí's Espinal pinot and chardonnay vineyards in Limarí, planted 2009 and onwards. Alluvial soils with a surface of 40cm of reddish clay, with a lot of active limestone and stones beneath. Clones and massale selections from Guillaume with densities of 7,400 vines/ha. 320 soil pits were dug over 580ha to find the best soils.
Viña Koyle's vineyards at Alto Colchagua planted 50ha in 2006 and 30ha in 2010, on three different terraces on a sloping site, more clay at bottom and at top friable decomposed granite, density up to 12,000 vines/ha.
Concha y Toro's pinot and chardonnay vineyards at Quebrada Seca, Limarí, 20ha planted in 2009, chardonnay, pinot, sauvignon blanc.
Emiliana's new Maipo vineyards at Los Morros planted in 2009 at the foot of the hills with some interesting massale selections from Don Melchor and Almaviva vineyards.
Undurraga's syrah vineyard in Leyda planted with individual stakes at 10,000 vines/ha.
Las Gaviotas vineyard, San Antonio, 6km from sea, alluvial soils, some stones and limestone, planted in 2008 to 6,000 vines/ha, 8ha pinot and 5ha sauvignon blanc.
The future: more risk taking, planting marginal vineyards
As soon as this guide reaches you it will be out of date as the rate of change in Chile continues to speed up. There is a view held by some of the best minds in the business such as Marcelo Retamal of De Martino, that Chile's benign climate (there are virtually never any autumn rains to spoil a good harvest) means vineyard owners are so unused to loss of grapes by climatic events that they do not want to take risks in more marginal climates. They have become risk averse.
In a bid to counter the effects of climate change, and because he did not like his Casablanca pinot noir, Marcelo, and a few others like Rafael Urrejola of Undurraga, think more continental climates where there is snow on the vineyards in winter will best suit pinot, and other varieties. Worries in the Limarí valley in the dry north (just 90mm of rain a year and empty reservoirs at present) about lack of water draw Marcelo to the south.
Greater risk therefore greater quality?
The more southerly vineyards are perhaps more 'European' with enough precipitation in many places to avoid the need for irrigation (the vine is much better at regulating its supply of water than man) but also more fungal diseases and the possibility of dilution of the crop from ill-timed rainfall near harvest. But set against this are the possibilities of lower-alcohol, fresher-tasting wines with more structure and minerality and fewer overtly fruity wines.
A shortlist of some of the most interesting Chilean wines
If you have followed this so far you may be thirsty! Here's a shortlist of some of the most interesting wines made in Chile:
Pockets of limestone and cool climate produce a surprisingly taut, mineral style:
- The Society's Limarí Chardonnay
- Tabalí Reserva Especial Chardonnay
- Concha y Toro Corte Marcelo Limarí Chardonnay
- The Society's Exhibition Limarí Chardonnay
- Talinay Coastal Limestone Vineyard Chardonnay
- De Martino Quebrada Seca Limarí Chardonnay
- Maycas del Limarí Quebrada Seca Chardonnay
- Tabalí Reserva Especial Limarí Sauvignon Blanc
- From the very cool limestone Talinay vineyard this is tense, nettley, fine and mineral.
- Viña Leyda Garuma Sauvignon Blanc
- The Society's Chilean Leyda Pinot Noir
- Undurraga TH Las Gaviotas San Antonio Pinot Noir
- Maycas del Limarí Reserva & Reserva Especial Pinot Noir
- Koyle Costa Rapel Pinot Noir
- Ocio 2011
2011 is the best ever Ocio and fresher and finer than previous vintages.
Syrahs from Tabalí and Matetic
Viña Koyle Alto Colchagua Carmenère
De Martino Alto Las Piedras Carmenère
Carmín de Peumo
There are unirrigated bush vine carignan vineyards planted in the 1950/60s in Maule making lovely fresh and taut wines:
Undurraga TH Cauquenes Carignan
De Martino La Aguada Maule Carignan
There are lovely unirrigated bush-vine cinsault vineyards from the 1950/60s in the cool Itata Valley producing lovely, sweet, peppery, soft and round wines that are so easy to drink:
De Martino Gallardía del Itata Cinsault
Koyle Don Cande Cinsault
Chile is currently attempting to put in place an appellation system. Regions have up to now been named by the rivers that flow through them, more or less perpendicular to the coast, from east to west, from the Andes to the sea. However, Chile's climate is as much dominated by proximity to the Andes (cool) and the coast (cool), whereas the well named Central Valley and its offshoots can be very warm, as it is to latitude.
For example the mouth of the Elqui Valley, the most northerly valley for winemaking, which, if taking only latitude into consideration, one would presume would be one of the warmest spots for viticulture in Chile. In fact it is one of the coldest areas to grow grapes in Chile (about 23°C average maximum in hottest month) as there is no coastal mountain range the full cooling effect of the 14°C Pacific Ocean, including fogs, is felt. The cooling coastal effect trumps latitude.
As one moves inland along the Elqui Valley about 40km from the sea the road passes through a small tunnel through the mountains and the coastal effect ceases and it gets very warm, roughly 31°C average maximum in hottest month. Then as you climb to the head of the valley it cools down, the valley is narrow causing shade. Right at the end at 2,000m is the Alto Los Toros vineyard, which makes a rich syrah.
The new appellation idea is to call, in the case of Elqui, the vineyards near the sea Elqui Costa, those in the middle Elqui Entre Cordilleras (meaning 'between mountains' as there is usually a coastal range of mountains up to 2,000m to the west and the Andes to the east), and those in the mountains Elqui Andes. The proposals are being mulled over and some politics is becoming involved as the devil is in the detail. It is a useful start to break the River Valleys down into their climatic variables
Upper Maipo: home to Chile's greatest cabernet sauvignons
Chile's first success was cabernet sauvignon from what may soon be christened Maipo Andes, and is currently known as Maipo Alto, or Upper Maipo. These are the vineyards in and around the suburbs of Santiago, close to the Andes Mountains and near the head of the Maipo River, and produces many of Chile's greatest cabernet sauvignons.
Santiago sits at 520m and is situated on some of the best soils for cabernet in Chile. These are the alluvial terraces of rounded stones and gravel formed by the Maipo River, and their well-drained and heat-retaining properties suit cabernet sauvignon. As Santiago grows it is gobbling up many fine vineyards, surrounding them as Bordeaux does. Its communes should be better known.
These communes produce Chile's finest cabernets and show how grape variety interacts with terroir. The relatively high-altitude vineyards, the stony soil and the cool air that descends the Andes at night to moderate the temperatures produce ideal conditions to produce a firm, quite linear wine with an attractive cedary character. Maipo wines are richer than Bordeaux so they don't need merlot to soften it, but some cabernet franc is often blended to contribute a cigar-box aroma.
Cabernets grown elsewhere in Chile, even at say Melipilla, situated in the lower Maipo at 200m, tend to offer simpler, softer, fruitier and more obviously varietal expressions with less structure and length of flavour as it rather warmer and has less appropriate soils.
Some of Chile's greatest companies are based here in the area around Santiago: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and Carmen, Santa Carolina, Cousiño-Macul.
Concha y Toro stands out as one of the biggest and best. Like Penfolds it is able to make huge volumes of attractive brands as well as small, batch production of great wines from small vineyards. They own about 9,000 ha of vineyards and buy in a similar volume as grapes, controlling much from their winery at Puente Alto and bottling and storage cellars at Pirque, the home of the founder Don Melchor. We are delighted to have privileged access to their great winemakers, Ignacio Recabarren and Marcelo Papa, who make a number of wines exclusively for The Wine Society.
At 700m Macul is one of the highest and coolest communes with just three remaining properties, Cousiño-Macul, Domus and Viña Aquitania. Cousiño-Macul makes just one wine here from its old vineyards, Lote, and has sold off most of the vineyards for housing. I have very fond memories of my first Chilean wine which was a Cousiño-Macul Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon consumed in the mid 1980s. Domus and Aquitania sit on west-facing slopes and are on the limits of ripening cabernet, which often has a slight minty character here. Can be very elegant or austere.
650m Tocornal is the vineyard where Concha y Toro's top cabernet, Don Melchor, is produced, where Almaviva is situated (the joint venture between Concha y Toro and Château Mouton Rothschild), and where Errazuriz's Chadwick is produced. Concha own a lot of vineyards here and parts go into Concha's Marqués de Casa Concha Cabernet, Terrunyo Cabernet and Cono Sur's 20 Barrels Cabernet Sauvignon. Rich, muscular, black-fruited cabernet.
Quite a varied commune, high in altitude 675m-800m, making fine, elegant wines. Concha y Toro own a superb vineyard called El Burro, planted in the 1978, which is a series of terraces literally on the south bank of the Maipo River. Some of this goes into Concha's Terrunyo cabernet and some in Cono Sur's 20 Barrels Cabernet. It is close to where the founder of Concha y Toro built his house, La Casona, and its beautiful park and gardens. Nearby are one of Concha's big cellars and their bottling lines. Other producers include El Principal with vineyards up to 800m, which was previously the property of the Valette family, one time owners of Château Pavie, and Haras de Pirque, with vineyards up to 750m. William Fèvre has a property with vineyards partially in Pirque too. Style varies but often it is elegant, understated and fine boned.
This is chiefly known because it is the site of Santa Rita's and Carmen's vineyards, and of Casa Real, the lovely old house set in beautiful gardens that features on the label Santa Rita's finest wine which goes by the same name. It is a great place to visit (45 -60 mins from central Santiago) as it has a very good restaurant and a world-class museum of pre-Columbian art which belonged to the former owner Ricardo Claro. It has lovely Aztec gold necklaces, superb feathered headresses, vibrant textiles, Easter Island wooden carvings etc.
The basis of Santa Rita's superb Casa Real cabernet are two vineyards planted at about 3,333 vines/ha, Población planted 1973 and Carneros planted in 1962. The altitude is a little lower here, about 550m, and the wines are perhaps a little softer and broader than Macul, Puente Alto and Pirque.
Stefano Gandolini has one of his three Maipo vineyards here. In 2001 he planted 24 ha of clonal selections of cabernet sauvignon at a density to 7,000 vines/ha. The soils come from the fourth alluvial terrace of the River Maipo with 30cm surface layer of franco, equal quantities of sand, silt and clay. Below this there is 1.2m of medium-sized stones and gravel with a nice clay matrix with good water-holding capacity. Below this there is sand as well as big boulders.
Lower still at about 475m. The soils are more varied but there are still 'fingers' of the best stony soil derived from the third and fourth alluvial terraces of the Maipo. Stefano Gandolini has a second vineyard here, called Los Cerrillos. 23has were planted here in 2003 to a density of 7,000 vines/ha with massale selections of cabernet sauvignon. 2011 was the first vintage of his Gandolini Las Tres Marias Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and we think this is one of Chile's best cabernets. Buin is similar to Alto Jahuel in style.
Downstream of Santiago, in the centre of the country, the temperature warms up a little as it loses the Andean influence and is too far from the coast to receive cooling influences from the Pacific. The soils are less distinguished. There are however some interesting gravelly banks with a relatively high water table in Isla de Maipo that suit carmenère. De Martino have soil mapped these vineyards and are producing some lovely wines, picking at 13% to maintain freshness and drinkability. Their single vineyard Alto Las Piedras is particularly good.
Cool-climate coastal regions
The coastal vineyards (Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio, Rapel Coast and parts of Limarí and Elqui) are generally the coolest in Chile and ideal for pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and a cool-climate style of syrah. All the coastal vineyards with unimpeded air flow from the ocean (ie not cut off by the Coastal Mountain Range) share the same cooling phenomenon. In summer mornings there can be considerable fog and mist in the vineyards very close to the sea, reducing sunlight hours. In the afternoon, as the land heats up, hot air rises sucking in cool air from the 14°C Pacific Ocean forming on-shore breezes that are felt perhaps up to 35km inland. Typical average maxima, 8-25km from the coast, in the hottest month are about 25°C. Most of the coast has friable granitic soils of low fertility ideal for viticulture. I'd love to see some godello planted in these granite soils. A few exceptional vineyards have alluvial soils and a very few have high limestone content.
Casablanca Valley (6,000ha)
This was Chile's first cool-climate vineyard area, suitable for sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir, discovered and first planted by Pablo Morandé in 1982. It is a bowl situated about 20km or so away from the coast, from the closest point, and collects cold air and is frost prone. It is a large valley with many sub valleys and widely differing microclimates, with largely clay and loam soils. Some at the eastern end near Veramonte are warm enough to ripen merlot and pinot noir, while at the coolest south-western point it can be almost too windy and cool for sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
Ignacio Recabarren's remarkable sauvignon blancs
In the early 1990s Ignacio Recabarren really put Casablanca on the map with ground-breaking sauvignon blancs produced from real sauvignon blanc plant material, planted in the first cool-climate region and made by a winemaker who had learnt how to make the variety in New Zealand at Matua Valley and Cloudy Bay. Before this most Chilean sauvignon blanc had been misidentified and was actually made from the much less aromatic tocai friulano, mostly produced from warmer areas such as Curicó.
Compared to temperatures at coastal Leyda, it has lower average minima and higher average maxima. This combined with cooling fogs and cloud (which can reduce sunlight hours) can give rise to a curious amalgam of flavours at once tropical and green. Many whites can tend towards flavours of asparagus as they age. There are many fine vineyards, for example those owned by Kingston, planted on rolling hillsides of red clay, capable of making excellent wine. We buy a few wines from Casablanca but perhaps Leyda and Limarí have now trumped it.
First planted in 1998 by the original company Viña Leyda, Leyda has grown substantially despite obvious difficulties of there being no water. As annual rainfall is about 250mm (a vine needs 700mm a year), a pipeline to pump water from the Maipo River 8km away had to be constructed, and paid for, to supply the deficit. Cooled by the Pacific Ocean just 11-14 km away and planted on low-fertility granitic soils on rolling hillsides with up to 30° slope Leyda quickly became the region for sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, with chardonnay, sauvignon gris, riesling and syrah soon becoming recognised as amongst the best in the country.
Viña Leyda, Ventolera and Undurraga are all making superb wines here. Viña Leyda's newer El Maiten (planted 2008) and El Granito (planted 2010) vineyards promise a massive step forward in quality. Ironically El Granito is not granite but alluvial terraces from the banks of the Maipo, where it is situated, just 3km from the sea. Ventolera has differing pockets of soil, and the redder granite and clay soils suit pinot well, whereas the greyer granite soils are better for sauvignon blanc.
San Antonio is the coastal town where the Maipo River reaches the sea. Many vineyards are in their infancy and quite which belongs where is still being worked out. San Antonio groups together a number of vineyards and producers on or near the coast. Leyda is slightly further inland but exactly where the boundaries are remains to be determined. Together they comprise 2,000 ha.
Undurraga are making a superb, quite mineral wine from a vineyard called Las Gaviotas, just 6km from the sea, south of San Antonio.
Matetic's vineyards span a number of denominations including Casablanca. They have a superb small hotel with magnificent rooms well worth staying at. The vineyards around the bodega are in San Antonio, in a slighter warmer, enclosed El Rosario Valley, 18km from the sea, and produce both superb syrah and a rich style of pinot. Their Santo Tomas syrah vineyard is similar. The block near the Casona and hotel, about 12km from the sea, produces a melony style of sauvignon blanc. A new vineyard called Valle Hermoso is just 8km from the sea and is making excellent sauvignon blanc and pinot but the windy situation means yields are very low and bordering on unprofitable.
Casa Marin are situated at Lo Abarca just 4km from the sea. The vineyards are planted on very steep slopes with pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris. This boutique winery's wines are made from low yields, are expensive and can be superb. But, being so close to the coast, they sometimes suffer from fungal diseases, especially botrytis.
El Sauce Restaurant at Lo Abarca
There is a modest, homely, informal restaurant, which in Chile they call a picada, in the village of Lo Abarca called El Sauce (the willows) which specialises in hearty pork dishes, served in large portions, which are superb if you have a big appetite. Its simply cooked food is made from high-quality ingredients. It's always packed, the car park full of pick-up trucks belonging to the agricultural workers who frequent it.
Limarí (2800ha, 420 km north of Santiago)
Limarí is one of the most exciting of all the regions in Chile. It has an interesting temperature gradient, cool near the coast but rising as you move inland. It has a number of different soil types including the rare limestone, together with granite, clay and some very rocky soils. This allows cool-climate varieties to be grown near the coast and varieties like viognier and syrah, as well as red muscat, to be grown further inland.
Most remarkable so far have been the chardonnays from limestone-rich soils which are taut, firm and mineral and very European in style. Tabalí's Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc from the Talinay vineyard I think is Chile's best, and their syrahs are also very good. Maycas del Limarí's pinots are excellent and getting better.
420km north of Santiago, Limarí is a desert with just 90mm of rain a year and cacti being the predominant vegetation. However, it is a cool desert with some of Chile's coldest vineyards. A gap in the coastal range to the north-west allows a strong ocean influence up to 35km inland.
Talinay - Chile's coolest vineyard
One of the most remarkable vineyards in Chile is the Talinay vineyard owned by Tabalí. Just 12km from the Pacific it is Chile's coolest with a maximum average temperature in the hottest month of 23.5°C, which means it ripens two weeks later than the other cool areas like Leyda. The original plantation was 40ha in 2006, planted to a density of 5,555 vines/ha. A further 33ha were planted in 2008. It has a limestone soil composed from a sedimentary marine terrace, unique so far in Chile. The Talinay wines come from this vineyard and are surprisingly taut and mineral in style.
Limestone has many properties and is found in many of the world's top vineyards, such as Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux (Ausone, Pavie), Sancerre, Côte de Blancs Champagne, Burgundy, Ridge's Monte Bello in California, Coonawarra in Australia, and both Jerez and Rioja in Spain. Limestone acts like a sponge able to store water, conserving it in dry times but letting it drain in floods so avoiding both root dehydration and asphyxiation. Its alkaline nature reduces uptake of certain elements which restricts vigour, reducing yield and promoting ripeness. Calcium is also the cement in the cell walls: it increases the strength of the cell walls, allows them to flex without cracking, and so maintains aromas and reduces oxidation. Wines made from them tend to have more structure and less obvious fruit, and can age very well. They often have a high acidity but it is not aggressive.
Tabalí's other vineyards are around the bodega with a cool temperature of 25°C average maximum in the hottest month. The syrah is very successful. Especially interesting are the new Espinal vineyards, pinot and chardonnay, 25km from the sea. Planted in 2009 and onwards the first production of chardonnay appeared in 2013 and was very impressive.
The third site is a small experimental site called Rio Hurtado at 1922m in the mountains. It was planted on east-facing slopes with a maximum average temperature of 28/29°C. So far a number of red varieties have been planted.
Maycas del Limarí
Concha y Toro, led by Marcelo Papa, are the other great force in the valley selling their wines as Maycas del Limarí. They have been very successful with chardonnay and pinot noir, and base wine for the excellent sparkling wine, Subercaseaux Brut.
San Julián vineyards
On the southern bank at San Julián they planted 126ha at 200m, 25km from the sea. There is about 50% clay in the upper part of the soil and then alluvial soils below. Pinot noir has been a big success here. They have better mid-palate weight than most pinots from the other coastal vineyards.
On the north bank in a very stony 180ha vineyard at Trapiche they planted some syrah to try and reduce its vigour and chardonnay in the less stony part.
Quebrada Seca vineyards
The jewel in the crown is a wonderfully cool site at Quebrada Seca. A total of 20ha (out of a possible 100ha) was planted in 2009 to pinot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. The soil has a lovely mix of red clay, with some granite and sand, and 5% limestone, planted to 5,555 vines/ha. The site is cool, about 24-25°C average maxima in the hottest month, and I think will eventually produce even better chardonnay than the existing Maycas del Limarí Quebrada Seca Chardonnay, which I think is Chile's greatest. This is fine and mineral, and blossoms after a couple of years in the bottle and half an hour in a decanter. It currently comes from bought-in fruit from the El Tangue vineyard a couple of km away with similar soils but it is less well planted with lower densities and less good plant material.
Concha y Toro planted 211ha starting in 2006 at Ucúquer, meaning 'place of the owls' in the native language, near Navidad. It's a dramatic vineyard perched on a ravine, with steep cliffs overlooking the Rapel River 60 or 70m below. There was no infrastructure here so they had to build 5km of roads and bring three-phase electricity 10km to have power. Planting density is 4,166 vines/ha. It's about 12km from the sea and tastings suggest it may be a little warmer than say Leyda, giving delicious gooseberry-fruit-like sauvignon blancs and melony chardonnays. We buy these wines under the Corte Ignacio label. Some pinot noir and pinot gris have been planted too.
At Paredones, just 9km from the coast, Cristóbal Undurraga of Viña Koyle is making very mineral sauvignon blanc and pinot noir with bought-in fruit from a granite and quartz vineyard.
Elqui (500ha, 475km north of Santiago)
Elqui is the northernmost commercial valley for wine production (although there is substantial table-grape production here and further north, and they are tiny experimental vineyards in the Atacama desert, the driest in the world, further north).
The Elqui Valley is one of enormous contrasts: very cool at by the coast, very warm in the middle at 550m, and then quite warm at 2,000m. At the coast there is no mountain range so there is a very strong cooling influence up to 25km inland from the sea and a lot of dew, mist and fog, known as camanchaca, which the natives used to collect by hanging out nets for it to condense upon. If you ever try to fly to La Serena airport in the winter you will find it is often beset by these fogs. There are a few experimental sauvignon blanc vineyards near the coast, but a lot of the soils are black, high in organic matter and best suited to artichoke cultivation.
The most significant bodega here is Falernia who have an excellent vineyard called El Titon about 25km from the sea at 300m, on the south side of the valley which produces a lovely cool-climate syrah, scented with aromas of tar and violets. Our Society's Chilean Syrah used to come primarily from this vineyard, blended with about 20% richer syrah from further inland. Sales were poor so it got chopped!
Middle Elqui, or Elqui Entre Cordilleras
If you drive another 20km inland, through a tunnel in the hillside, you reach Falernia's bodega, situated by a manmade lake. Here there is no coastal influence, and despite the 550m altitude the temperature is much warmer. This is carmenère and southern Rhône variety country.
It is very dry here with virtually no clouds and little rainfall, 90mm or less. There are many observatories here and the night skies are remarkably clear and the stars seem very close and low. It does seem to engage one's spiritual side, and there are many who visit to 'feel the energy'!
The valley continues to rise and narrow and finally cools down a little. There are further vineyards at 600-750m, and some up to 2,000m. Right at the end of it is the Alto Los Toros vineyard, 90% syrah and 10% petit verdot, planted at a 45° angle, at 2,000m from which De Martino produce a rich wine. The heat is moderated by the altitude, and the sun is shaded by the topography of the valley, the sun rising at 10am and setting at 6pm in the Summer, and the pergola training system, which acts like a parasol, also protects against the substantial ultraviolet rays.
Rapel (40,000ha. San Fernando is 140km south of Santiago)
The Rapel Valley includes some interesting vineyards in the hills to the east, and then comprises two river valleys - Colchagua (28,000ha) and Cachapoal (12,000ha) - which together account for the largest area of vineyards in Chile. The coastal vineyards we have dealt with above.
Much of Colchagua forms part of the fertile, productive, warm Central Valley that makes high volume of good-quality basic wines that first established its reputation produced by Emiliana, Louis Felipe Edwards, Cono Sur, etc. But there are a large number of high-quality smaller properties too: Viña Koyle, Casa Lapostolle, Emiliana's Los Robles and Cono Sur's home vineyards at Chimbarongo.
Viña Koyle, Alto Colchagua
We have been working a lot with Viña Koyle, the new property of the Undurraga family who sold the company that still bears their name. They have invested in 80ha of red-wine vineyards near Los Lingues, close to the foothills of the Andes, comprised of 13 varietals planted at 400-550m on three terraces with decreasing clay and increasing stones and friable granite as one ascends the vineyard into the hills. One very stony plot has been planted to syrah individually staked at 12,000 vines/ha. Carmenère, syrah and mourvèdre have been the early successes. There are other vineyards around Los Lingues with stony soils that produce quite good cabernets.
Cono Sur at Chimbarongo
A little to the south is Chimbarongo, meaning 'foggy village' in the native language, home to a large-volume cellar belonging to Concha y Toro and also a lovely old house and 300ha vineyard called the Santa Elisa Estate, home to Cono Sur since they purchased it in 1996. Cono Sur are part of the Concha y Toro and Emiliana group; however they all work independently of each other. Here at Santa Elisa was planted the first clone of pinot noir in Chile in 1968 (known as the Pommard UC Davis clone) by the Mir family who owned the house and vineyard before it was bought by Concha then Cono Sur. This original clone is still much used and planted.
Founded in 1993, Cono Sur has grown to the third biggest producer by value, guided by Eduardo Guilisasti on the financial side and their gifted winemaker Adolfo Hurtado, who left in March 2018 and was succeeded by Paul Konar. They own 800ha and buy in much more as grapes from vineyards from all over Chile, from Limarí to Bío-Bío, from good-value varietal wines to the highest quality. They have made a speciality of pinot noir and are one of the world's biggest producers of the variety. They have recently built a new winery optimised for pinot noir with open-top tanks ideal for punching down the cap, the preferred method of extraction. All their wines are consistently good.
Emiliana at Los Robles
Moving inland is the superb organic Los Robles vineyard owned by Emiliana, where Alvaro Espinosa, working as a consultant for about three days a week, has planted and developed a lovely series of wines typified by the rich blend Coyam made principally from this vineyard. From the modest winery one looks up at a lovely horseshoe-shaped vineyard which rises up to the foothills of the range of mountains which surround the property to the north. This is the boutique part of the group from where part of the Silbador range of organic wines is produced.
Next door to Los Robles is another similar horseshoe-shaped vineyard, which ascends northwards into the foothills of mountains which surround the site. It is called Apalta and its fame derives from the considerable number of old unirrigated cabernet and carmenère vines planted in about 1920 to a nice density of 5,500 vines/ha in decomposed granite soils with a water table within reach of the vines. The altitude is about 200m.
Casa Lapostolle owned a lot of these and was bought in 1994 by Alexandra Marnier of the liqueur company Grand Marnier. She bought 180ha here and cleverly contracted Michel Rolland exclusively for her in Chile and, with what was thought of as the times as merlot but turned out to be carmenère, he made rich, late-harvested wines of great power and richness which were a great commercial success. The oldest vines were bottled as Clos Apalta in an Haut-Brion style bottle. Cuvée Alexandre Carmenère was also very good initially, but more and more got creamed off to Clos Apalta and so it lost richness. Some of the wines reached alcohols of over 15% and while that wowed the American market for a bit, eventually people found it rather tiring to drink. A new winemaker is harvesting a little earlier and fresher now. The more basic varietals came from other vineyards and were not as interesting.
Carmenère grown at Apalta
Carmenère ripens a month after cabernet and needs enough water to keep the leaves working or the wine tastes green. The heat and available water at Apalta is thus a perfect place for it. It had been brought over by Chileans as cuttings from Bordeaux in the 1870s. It barely ripened in Bordeaux's climate so after phylloxera was not replanted, and so Chile became the country with the largest plantings as it suited the warm climate. It was thought to be merlot until a French ampelographer recognised it as carmenère in 1994. Now, as Bordeaux suffers from global warming, carmenère has been replanted at Château Brane-Cantenac.
Spurred on by the commercial success of Casa Lapostolle many people tried to buy land here in a sort of vinous gold rush. However, it is really the unirrigated old-vine carmenère, and some cabernet sauvignon, planted at 5,500 vines/ha in the deep soils, that is Apalta's secret. Too many earlier-ripening grapes like syrah were planted in this warm climate and can make rather jammy wines. Also the land at the bottom of the slope has far too much available water and the grapes are vigorous and productive, and have difficulty in ripening their crop. Proof of the water content here you can find a curious edible creature here called camarón de la tierra, ie a land shrimp!
North of the mountain range from Apalta, is the Cachapoal Valley and the little village of Peumo, another great centre for carmenère production and home to Concha y Toro's greatest wine made from this variety, Carmín de Peumo.
Concha y Toro at Peumo
Peumo is warm, about 28°C average maximum in the hottest month, with lower average minima and higher average maxima than Apalta. Its spring and autumn are cooler than Apalta's. Altitude is about 200m. The soils for Concha y Toro's vineyards are dark, alluvial soils with, in the first 50cm layer, equal proportions of clay, sand and silt (franco arcillo-arenoso), and in many parts the water table is quite high in winter, 1.2m from the surface. The best block, used for Carmín de Peumo, is the 8ha Block 32 planted in 1983 to a low density of 2,667 vines/ha. They encourage a successful pollination aiming to give lots of small berries competing against each other which results in a large skin to pulp ratio. Clay makes enough water available to the vine which it needs to keep photosynthesising to the late harvest towards the end of May. It also gives a certain tannic structure which balances carmenère's voluptuous fruit.
Carmenère is not easy to make as it needs to be ripe to avoid green flavours, but if harvested too late has insufficient acidity. Ignacio Recabarren manages to do the impossible, make a wonderfully concentrated carmenère but with enough tension and freshness. Usually there is 10-15% of very fine, firm, linear Alto Maipo cabernet to give the wine a bit of backbone. Concha's Terrunyo Carmenère and Marqués de Casa Concha Carmenère also come from Peumo.
Curico (18,000ha, 190km south of Santiago)
This region has been best known for producing quite a lot of good cheap wines, and some ordinary bulk wines. Some of it is warm, but there are coolish areas planted on slopes towards the mountains. Historically, before the cool coastal regions developed, this is where a lot of so-called sauvignon blanc came from, although it was actually made from tocai friulano, which is not a very aromatic variety. Today it is starting to produce some higher-quality wines.
Torres were great pioneers in Chile, buying the 97ha Santa Digna Estae in 1978. (Pinochet had taken over in 1976). They imported the first stainless-steel tanks into Chile in 1978, baptising them with the 1979 vintage, allowing them to make crisp, fresh white wines.
Today they are doing interesting things with país, also known as Mission in northern America, which was the grape brought to Chile by the conquistadores in the 16th century. Apparently the Spanish stopped over in the Canary Islands en route for America and took cuttings of the local grape lista negro. País was popular amongst growers, there are 7,000ha planted. It is resistant to most diseases and yields well, but colour is quite low and tannins can be quite hard, particularly when the crop is very high. Torres have bought fruit from old vines whose crop is lower and more concentrated and have cleverly used carbonic maceration, the winemaking technique from Beaujolais, which extracts colour and little tannin, and made a lovely soft and fruity wine from this variety, called Reserva de Pueblo, best enjoyed cool. They have also made a sparkling wine from país called Estelado.
Vineyards owned by Torres, old and new
Torres have a number of interesting vineyards here including a lovely cabernet sauvignon vineyard on the outskirts of Curicó planted in 1897 from which they make their beautifully soft and velvety Manso de Velasco. El Aromo has deep clay soils and has proved excellent for merlot. They brought this plant material from Spain and planted in about 1999. The fruit from this goes into Santa Digna merlot. At Empedrado, 20km from the coast, they have planted, in about 2010, one of the most remarkable manmade vineyards I have seen. They found some schist soils, and cleared a pine forest and constructed remarkable terraces on this very steep site. Birds are a problem so they need to net the vineyards after véraison (when the grapes start to swell and develop colour).
Valdivieso are perhaps best known in Chile for their sparkling wines, now made from grapes principally from the coastal vineyards, but they also make wines from a number of interesting vineyards. Some Rhône varieties are sourced from a warm area called Sagrada Familia. They also have some very old bush vine carignan from Melozal, in Maule, where they have also planted some mourvèdre. They make a lovely ripe southern Rhône style wine called Eclat from these carignan, mourvèdre and syrah varieties.
Maule (31,000ha. Cauquenes is 350km south of Santiago)
Like Curicó, Maule has been best known for bulk wines but is starting to produce more interesting wines. In these latitudes rainfall increases and in certain parts, normally towards the coast, there is enough rainfall to grow grapes without irrigation. It's generally a warm region suited to the varieties of the southern Rhône.
Indeed, there was a lot of carignan planted in the 1940s, after the 1939 earthquake, as unirrigated bush vines and it was used to bolster the light colour and structure of país. Today there is about 500ha in Maule and Curicó. Much is planted near Cauquenes and Loncomilla. These have been rediscovered, perhaps first by Gillmore, who bottled some in the 1990s, and then by Pablo Morandé, and are now being bottled as single varietals or with some carmenère, mourvèdre, garnacha or syrah. Old-vine carignan, or cariñena, has deep colour, lovely perfume, fresh acidity and good structure. Its grip and freshness make it ideal with food, a contrast to far too many Chilean reds which are soft, late-harvested fruit bombs that do not stand up to food.
Indeed such is the enthusiasm for the variety that a new appellation, Vigno, has been created for it. Twelve Chilean wineries originally signed up to the following agreement. Wines must have a minimum of 65% carignan, and at least 30 years old, with the balance coming from old vine varieties, or grafted onto old país rootstock, from the Maule secano area. All varieties must be dry farmed.
De Martino single-vineyard bottlings
De Martino have made some lovely bottlings of two old vineyards. El Léon, near Melosal near the coastal mountain range, about 65km from the coast, is a 17ha vineyard planted in 1958 to a density of 3,926 vines/ha on granite soils, mainly carignan, with a little carmenère and malbec. Rainfall, almost all in winter, is 750mm. La Aguada is 8ha and was planted in 1955, the vines follow the contours of the land in attractive curves. It is closer to the sea, 36km, and cooler than El Léon. 90% is carignan with some malbec and cinsault. Soils are 2m deep and composed of granite with some quartz. It's a lovely fresh and elegant expression of carignan.
Undurraga have a 300 ha estate at Cauquenes, of which 140ha is planted. They have old-vine carignan, have grafted 10ha of garnacha onto old país roots, and have some new plantings of syrah and mourvèdre too. They made a number of lovely bottlings from Maule too in their TH ('Terroir Hunter') range. Their carignan is mainly a blend of two vineyards at Cauquenes and Loncomilla. In 2014 they launched a 2011 vintage TH Garnacha-Cariñena-Monastrell with, respectively 60%, 25% and 15% of these varieties, which was excellent.
Itata (6,000ha. Coelemu is 475km south of Santiago)
The vineyards around Coelemu, about 22km from the sea, 200m of altitude, and on the eastern fringe of the coastal mountain range, are very different from most in Chile. There is about 1,100mm of rainfall a year here. Vines need about 700mm. So, with no need to irrigate, one sees dry-farmed bush vines on rolling hillsides, surrounded by many pine and eucalyptus trees. The planting of these trees was subsidised by the government. When I went in winter the pine forests were full of mushrooms. So this climate and topography is very unusual for Chile, the norm being flat arid vineyards with wire trellising. As one moves inland one passes into the rain shadow caused by the coastal mountain range and so the climate gets much drier and hotter.
There is about 400ha of cinsault planted here at a density about 4,400 vines/ha. Like the carignan in Maule, a lot was planted in the 1950s to add colour to país, which has 2,300 ha planted here. There is also about 3,000 ha of muscat d'Alexandria, planted to densities of 6,666 vines/ha. The soil is the typical coastal granite, with some clay.
De Martino and Koyle have made a big success of 50-year-old bush vine, dry farmed, cinsault. Known
locally as la cargadora, meaning 'heavily loaded', most local farmers are getting yields of 15 tonnes/ha which equals about 100hl/ha. De Martino look for about 9.5 tonnes/ha, about 66 hl/ha. De Martino make a red, a red fermented in amphoras and a lovely dry rosado from the cinsault. The red is picked quite early for Chile at 13.5% and makes a lovely ripe, sweet, peppery red, easy to enjoy and ideally served cool. They also make two muscats, one fermented in tank, one fermented with the skins in amphoras.
Bío-Bío (1,500ha. Mulchén is 540 km south of Santiago)
Though far to the south, most of the vineyards I have visited in Bío-Bío are between 50 and 80km from the coast, in the central part of the region, away from the cooling effects of both mountains and sea and so are not particularly cool. Dos Andes, a group that owns Viña Porta, Veranda, Gracia and Corpora, have planted quite a lot of pinot noir on rolling hillsides but in quite a warm spot, and so it is less successful than that from the coastal vineyards.
The Guilisasti family have a family holiday house and stables for horses near Mulchén on the banks of the mighty Bío-Bío River. They planted some grapes to see what would happen and are making attractive gewürztraminer and riesling, the latter made dry or off-dry, and sometimes a late-harvested botrytised wine is made too. There are two vineyard sites, one by the river which is higher yielding, and one on a terrace above it which is lower yielding and of higher quality.
There is a whole world to explore down here and I think some great cool-climate wines will be made here when some great vineyard sites are identified.
There are a couple of producers making wine near Traiguén (620km south of Santiago), including Felipe de Solminhac's Sol de Sol chardonnay. Again, it's in the warm central part of the next region down, Araucania, so it's not that cold.
Undurraga had an experimental vineyard in an area famed for cherries in Chile Chico, on the Lago Buenos Aires about 2000 km south of Santiago. Early results have not been promising because of the strong winds and possibly the wrong soil.