Regional guides

South America - better than ever

How did political change and agricultural innovation revolutionise the quality of Chile’s wines? Toby Morrhall explains, and showcases the best of South America.

Adrianna Vineyard, Catena
Adrianna Vineyard, Catena

The transformation of Chile’s quality and variety  

Quality has been transformed in Chile, yet its reputation for producing only cheap wines is stubbornly persistent. I seek to convince you with the wines I have chosen here that the great potential of Chile’s remarkable natural assets – its dry climate, the cooling effect of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean and the wide range of microclimates over its 3,000 mile length – is now being realised. The new era of Chilean wines began only recently when the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990. New ideas and foreign investment poured into the country. Along with imported equipment, French oak barrels and true clonal vine material, matching grape variety not only to climate but also to soil type, there is one technical innovation, drip irrigation, that revolutionised quality.

Villard family
The Villard family who established their winery in the Casablanca Valley in 1989

Drip irrigation revolutionises quality and diversity  

Before this, flood irrigation meant only flat land could be used. Much was on valley bottoms where the soil was often too fertile, giving rise to Chile’s reputation for producing large crops of good, cheap wine. Drip irrigation meant poorer soils on slopes could be planted where lower yields produce more concentrated wines of higher and finer quality. New regions such as the cool coastal Casablanca, Leyda and Limarí valleys have contributed high quality examples of sauvignon blancs, chardonnays and pinot noirs diversifying the range. The rediscovery of old plantings of carignan in the Maule Valley has added further variety.

Cristobal Undurraga, technical director at Viña Koyle.
Cristobal Undurraga, technical director at Viña Koyle.

World-class £10-20 wines and above  

Chile now produces world-leading quality wine in the £10-20 per bottle range and above. I urge you to try such wines. It is difficult to change perception, but it’s possible. Think how the image of cheap and unreliable Škoda cars, the butt of jokes in the 1970s and 1980s, has been transformed by Volkswagen into cars now admired for quality and value for money. An excellent illustration of the quality to be found in the £10-20 range is the mixed case of Undurraga’s TH range of wines, which are all made from the ideal climate and soil for each variety. 

Toby's South American selection

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Toby Morrhall

Society Buyer

Toby Morrhall

Toby has been a Wine Society buyer since 1992, and covers Burgundy, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

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