Exploring Chilean diversity

Ventisquero, Chile

Ventisquero, Chile - Credit: Archant

Two weeks ago I was in Chile enjoying warm sun under blue skies, visiting various wineries in the Central Valleys as part of a small group of Independent UK Wine Merchants invited to visit by Wines of Chile after our successful autumn 2013 promotion of Chilean wines.

I have previously written that Chile is a country of rich diversity in its landscape and wines and I was keen to see at first-hand if the information provided by Chilean winemakers and geographers was true.

Chile is known as the long thin country on the western side of the Andes mountain range as it is circa 4,500km long and only 177km wide, stretching from the arid Atacama Desert in the north to the icelands of Patagonia in the south. However, winemakers are quick to point out that there are more variations in climate and soil from east to west than north to south. This is due to the topographical changes and their inherent microclimates with two mountain ranges – the Andes in the East, and the Coastal Mountain range on the Pacific Coast bordering the Central valley on two sides. Where the coastal mountains are at their highest they protect the vines in the Central Valley from the cooling effect of the Humboldt current that flows up the South American coast.

Limited by time as we were only in Chile for a week we concentrated on wineries situated within a radius of two to three hours drive from Santiago. The Maipo Valley south west of Santiago is home to two of the wineries we visited, Chocolan which was established in 1998 and Cousino Macul, founded in 1856 and which is the oldest winery still operating that is under control of the original family. The age of the companies is not the only difference between them as the style of wine they produce reflects their winemaking philosophy.

Vina Chocolan is a relatively young company making contemporary wines such as zingy white Sauvignons and vibrant reds from Carmenere and Cabernet from the cooler part of the Maipo. Cousino Macul, steeped in tradition and in a warmer part of the valley makes less zesty mouthfilling whites and softer reds that spend more time in oak than the Chocolan reds.

Still in the Central Valley Region, but moving to Colchagua Valley which is the southern end of Rapel we visited four wineries over a couple of days (it’s difficult to fit in more wineries due to the driving time in a mountainous region). Montgras, Montes, Caliterra and Cono Sur are all names that will have a degree of recognition from wine shop shelves as they are owned by larger companies, each with a corporate venue for meetings and entertaining guests, smart tasting rooms and vantage points over the vineyards. Digging beneath the polished veneer it was possible to see the influence of location on their wines. The Valley is renowned for its ripe juicy reds such as those seen at Caliterra in the Andes foothills. Further west in the valley the less rich stylish wines such as the single vineyard Cabernets, Syrahs and Carmeneres from Cono Sur.

These companies draw on their vineyards in the extreme north in Leyda or the Bio Bio region in the south for their white wines reflecting the local microclimate near their wineries.

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The Casablanca Valley is Chile’s first cool climate wine region to the West and West North West of Santiago when vine growers sought out areas to plant with vines that would be most suited to produce crisp white wines and stylish Pinots demanded by their major export markets – the USA and the UK. We visited Emiliana, the organic and biodynamic producers in Las Condes, two hours from Santiago. It was early morning, around 8am, as we drove into the Casablanca Valley and the early morning fog was still clothing the landscape. It is able to reach the vineyards as the Coastal range is divided here leaving it open to the influence of the cold Pacific air especially at night. As a result vibrant red and white wines are produced here including minerally Rieslings and Gewurztraminers and elegant reds.

To round out this whistlestop tour of the Central Valley I must mention Ventisquero, a young wine privately owned wine producing company that was established in 2000. I tasted the first the wines brought to the UK in 2005/6 and thought they were OK but nothing special. However, in the intervening years they have honed their skills both in their own vineyards, some on reclaimed bushlands high in the Andes foothills, that provide all their grapes and in the winery. They have also nor deviated from their philosophy that understanding the terroir of the vineyards including climatic variations is a good start point to produce high quality fruit from which they make the best wines they can ie not for a specific market per se but to maximize the potential of their resources. Their wines were a real highlight of the trip as they had great character especially the Grey Range and the single vineyard wines Heru Pinot, Vertice Carmenere Syrah and Enclave Cabernet.

A refreshing element of all the wineries visited and personalities met whether winemakers or vinegrowers was the forward looking view of what they were trying to achieve. The easiest measurement of this was to ask what they were experimenting with. Most answers included pushing vine growing to the geographical limits for cool climate white wines but the most surprising response was from Caliterra’s winemaker Rodrigo, who despite his corporate background would love to try out Greek varieties such as Assyrtiko as he thinks the Chilean terroir would support them and make great wines! Watch this space!

Chile, in its winemaking, as well as its landscape, is a land of easily seen diversity.