The changing face of Chilean wines

Odfjell and Ritual Chilean wines.

Odfjell and Ritual Chilean wines. - Credit: Archant

The long thin country of Chile is bound by four very distinctive geographical limits – the Atacama Desert, the Andes, Patagonia and the Antarctic and the Pacific Ocean. It is also the producer of quality, stylish, distinctive appealing wines offering value for money.

Chile has a long history of vine growing and due to its location, which was quite inaccessible in the 19th century, it escaped the ravages of phylloxera that was destroying European vineyards. Production costs are also low and there is a plentiful supply of water from the Andes in the main wine-growing regions.

Much of the development that has helped carve out its niche in the world wine market has taken place in the last 20 years and many of today’s dominant players have played a key part, having recognised the export opportunity as the wine market evolved and really enjoyed their wines.

This investment has been into research to find the best places to plant specific vines at higher altitudes in the Central Valley and this has led to the development of new vineyard regions in the dryer north such as in Elqui and Limari and cooler areas such as Casablanca.

The old wooden vats have been replaced by oak casks from France and the US with sophisticated irrigation in the vineyards all contributing to a huge increase in quality and quantity.

However, in trying to capitalise on the burgeoning supermarket sales of wine in the 1990s Chilean producers and their agents felt they had to compete with the Australian producers for sales and this resulted in price-led competition forcing down the quality and the Chilean Merlots and Sauvignons became very commercial in style, losing their innate character to compete with cheap Aussie Chardonnays and Shirazes.

Thank goodness that although some of the best value wines still available are from Chile they didn’t give all to this sector.

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The influx of investment from the Rothschilds in Los Vascos, Miguel Torres from Spain and companies such as Emiliana, Ventisquero and Odfjell that are making their presence felt.

The latter are examples of producers established in the last 20-25 years, and are making wines that reflect the terroir of the country.

Odfjell are based in the Maipo Valley, which has a long established wine-making history in vineyards that fell into disuse. As a result they are able to use this history producing quality wines from old vines of the Carmenere and Carignan grapes that have complex aromas and tastes of licorice, fruit, mushrooms and spice.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are the key varieties though now more attention is paid to Carmenere that was only identified in the 1990s up to which time it had inadvertently been planted with Merlot.

Now some very fine wines are found made of this variety on its own.

Pinot Noir was at one time renowned for its burned rubber aromas and slightly harsh flavours. Today, careful planting of better clones of Pinot in regions more suited to it, such as in the cooler Bio Bio region in the south, have resulted in fine fruity wines at all price points.

Many are organic too as condition lend themselves to this type of production. Riesling, Viognier and judiciously oaked Chardonnays are all worth seeking out too.

Chile is now offering exciting quality wines with depth and breadth of styles and prices – well made, reflecting their provenance and offering value for money.