Watching Chile grow up

Buyer Toby Morrhall has been visiting Chile for two decades and has witnessed incredible changes in that time, both to the country as a whole and its wine industry.

One of the feelings I have from my travels in Chile is how far and fast it has grown up as a country, both winewise and politically. I have been visiting in my capacity as buyer for The Wine Society for 20 years and, almost like in human terms, I have seen it grow from a baby into a young adult over a generation.

It's been a great privilege to witness the incredible growth in variety, quality and style of the wines made in Chile over that time. When I arrived Maipo cabernet was very promising but not much else. Semillon was poor, chardonnay was just being planted but mostly in climates that were too warm for it and it was over oaked and made in the wrong type of oak, or the native hardwood raulí. Sauvignon blanc was not real sauvignon but a much less aromatic variety called sauvignonasse (aka tocai friulano) grown in warmish parts of Curicó. Pinot and syrah were just starting to be being planted.

Chile Santiago skyline Chile Santiago skyline
A contrast between new and old Chile: a rural adobe farmhouse A contrast between new and old Chile: a rural adobe farmhouse
Tiles with patina of age Tiles with patina of age
Lovely old tiled verhandah Lovely old tiled verandah
The Casablanca Valley – in the past vineyards were planted on the flat valley floor and flood irrigation used to water The Casablanca Valley – in the past vineyards were planted on the flat valley floor and flood irrigation used to water

Since then, the cool new coastal vineyards (such as Limarí, Casablanca and Leyda) have proved superb spots for pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. New clonal material is available so the wine from these plants tastes true. Drip irrigation has allowed planting on slopes which can be cooler and less fertile so producing finer and more concentrated wines. Previously growers relied on flood irrigation, so it was the flat Central Valley with its over-fertile soils and insufficient slope gradients (at under 3%) that were the first choice for vineyards. So much is still to be discovered. There must be wonderful new potential vineyards yet to be discovered. This is one of the endlessly fascinating draws that Chile has for wine lovers.

One aspect of Chilean wine that is now reaping the benefits of experience and time has been the development of carmenère, of which Chile has the largest plantings in the world by some way.

Old plantings of carmenère dating back to 1937 in Maule Old plantings of carmenère dating back to 1937 in Maule
New plantings of carmenère New plantings of carmenère

While there's so much that is unique about this wonderful wine-producing nation, the story of carmenère really does stand out as remarkable. It has taken time to get to understand the grape properly (even to identify it, initially!), but now it too is coming of age. Last year, in my report in Travels in Wine, I talked about finding the best carmenère I have ever tasted at Viña Koyle. I was inspired to return this year to seek out more wines from the carmenère grape to feature in this year's offer where I put together a selection of my six favourites.

The articles that follow tell you more about the carmenère grape, the lessons learnt along the way by its producers and the secrets behind making it realise its true character.

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