Chile's New Releases:
Growing Diversity and Rising Quality
I tasted more top-notch
Chilean wines this year than ever before, and at all price points. From racy
Sauvignon Blancs that have been catching the lion’s share of the wine trade’s
attention to high-end Bordeaux- and Napa-inspired Cabernets and Cabernet-based
blends to exciting new Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, there’s something of interest
for every palate. Even
better, pricing almost always easily beats the country’s competition except for
a few outstanding but very ambitiously priced trophy wines that are targeted at
cult wine collectors.
However, Chile continues to face the daunting
challenge of being taken seriously as a source of world-class wines—rather than
just a reliable fount of inexpensive and even commodity-level bottles. The
country has made headway in the last few years but still has a long way to go.
2015 Chile-Early Autumn in the northern, coastal Limari Valley
case in point is how rarely Chilean wines appear on the lists of restaurants that
do not specifically feature South American wines. Even those restaurants that
offer hundreds or even thousands of wines from Europe and North America often
skip over the category of Chile. On the other hand, it’s a little depressing
that sommeliers who seek out wines from the most obscure regions of France,
Italy, Spain and California apparently can't seem to find even a single Chilean
bottling that meets their standards. Are they even bothering to look at this
vinously diverse country’s wines at all? I wonder, because today there are many
excellent wines available from Chile, as well as countless outstanding values.
problem Chile faces is that so many of its wines that consumers see on retail
shelves come from a relatively small handful of producers. And while most of
these wineries make very good wines, including some of Chile’s icon bottlings,
the overwhelming majority of the bottles sold are from their entry-level ranges.
Perception is reality in the marketing game and once wine lovers get the
impression that a given producer, region or even entire country is focused on
volume and low prices, it’s a tough task to overcome that stereotype.
Chile’s grape growers have proven to be quite deft at matching variety to
climate, soil and exposure. Today, they are taking greater advantage of the
country’s vast range of soil types and of the influence of the Pacific Ocean
and the Andes Mountains, which affect virtually every vineyard in this long,
narrow country. The days of planting whatever wherever are a fading memory and
that’s all to the good. Increasing vine age in Chile will also result in more
depth and complexity in many of the country’s wines; already today there are
far fewer dilute and green wines than there were even a decade ago.
overall technical standard of winemaking in Chile is quite high, with educated,
well-traveled men and women guiding wineries both large and small. The only nit
that I can pick is that too many wines are being made with an eye to
consistency and safety. Winemakers still often rely on their toolbox rather
than on their audacity by falling back on adjustments in the winery, mostly in
the form of acid corrections or, in the case of lower-end bottlings, using oak
chips and staves to impart vanilla, mocha or coffee qualities to their wines.
Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, continue to be the dominant
red grapes for most of Chile’s best wines, followed distantly by Carménère, the
variety that the country’s marketing gurus have been trying to establish as
Chile’s signature grape and its answer to Argentina’s Malbec. Speaking of
Malbec, there are a number of fine examples being made here now, and they’ll
become even better, and more numerous, as the vines enter adulthood. Syrah is
showing great promise but, as most of the vines are also on the young side, the
wines can be jammy and lacking the savory aspects that lovers of the variety
crave. I have no doubt that will change with time.
continues to perform well, thanks in large part to the fact that it was widely
planted in the pre –“Sideways” days of the early to mid-1990s and those vines
are now well into maturity. Cabernet Franc also shows promise but it needs to
be picked ripe, lest the green meanies take over. Pinot Noir continues to demonstrate
great promise in the cool Leyda, Bio Bio and Limarí regions as well as in the
established Casablanca Valley, now that many vineyards are well into their teen
years quality is on the rise. Special mention must be made of Carignan, as the
numerous old plantings of this variety are increasingly being exploited to full
advantage, both for stand-alone varietal bottlings and in blends. Cinsault has
begun to show its potential in Chile, but the limited number of varietal
bottlings makes it difficult to peg just yet.
As for white
varieties, I believe that Chile has by now firmly established itself as a
source for delicious Sauvignon Blancs at both the low and high end, and these
wines can’t be touched for value. Chardonnay can be hit or miss: a few are being
made in a complex, barrel-fermented style but too many are still overtly fruity
and lacking in spine. Stylistically, Riesling is all over the map, as is
Viognier. The same can be said about Gewürztraminer, which has long been
planted here but rarely approaches the quality level of most Alsace versions of
vintages have generally been quite kind to all of Chile’s wine-growing regions,
quality-wise, but 2014 witnessed one
of the most severe early spring frosts in the country’s history, resulting in a
crop that was off by anywhere from 33% to 50% in some of its most prized
coastal regions, including the Casablanca and Leyda Valleys. The upside is that
by the time harvest rolled around, the grapes that made it through the warm,
dry summer were ripe and healthy, with the potential to make distinctly
As for 2013, it was one of the coolest seasons
in memory, which means that fans of racy white wines and taut reds will find
plenty to like. The downside, naturally, is that some wines reveal the year’s often
cold growing conditions in their tartness and lack of heft, but the best
growers managed to make successful wines, especially whites. It will be
interesting to see how the top red wines turn out, but as they have not yet
been released it’s too early to venture a full judgment.
In 2012 Chile experienced a relatively hot
and dry vintage, which has resulted in a number of brawny, ageworthy reds and,
from the warmer regions, fleshy, forward white wines that mostly should be
drunk up soon. The cooler regions in the north and south, where most of the
plantings of Pinot Noir and Syrah can be found, along with plenty of Sauvignon
Blanc, are where consumers who favor finesse over brawn should be looking.
should be aware that because of a customs strike in Chile in late May, a number
of wines were not available for me to taste. I will add them to our coverage as
soon as the wines arrive in New York and have had a chance to settle down from
their long journey.