Recently I presented a tasting that I found exciting and that seemed to go down rather well with the attendees. My topic was Chile’s emerging Regions and Styles and it was a wide ranging – or at least as wide as you can get in 8 wines – look at how Chile is changing.
For a long time Chile has been regarded by many consumers as a safe option. They made reliable wines at good prices, offering good value for money and lots of pleasure and you would have thought that might be enough for Chilean wine producers. However no one with any ambition wants to just be seen as a safe option for ever and this especially true of Chile’s new generation of talented winemakers.
Chile is most definitely on the move and you can see it wherever you look at Chilean wines. New grape varieties are the most obvious personification of this change, but scratch the surface a little and you can see it everywhere. Lots of things are going on in Chile right now, including:
Earlier picking is resulting in wines with more zip and freshness – something that only confident grape growers who know exactly what they are doing can pull off.
Less use of new oak – and less American oak too – is very apparent in recent vintages of Chilean wine, again confidence is behind this, they do not feel the fruit needs as much help – or masking – as it did in the past.
New regions are emerging – or becoming established in some cases – which help the grape growers and wine makers to match a grape variety or wine style with a specific terroir that suits it. Included in this roster would be these regions to the North of Santiago; Limarí, Elqui (over 500KM north of Santiago) and Choapa in the north, although the Atacama region even further north is beginning to produce exciting things too. In the area around Santiago you have the Aconcagua Valley which includes the new Aconcagua Costa as well as Valle de Leyda – both cool places by the ocean for white wine, Pinot Noir and Syrah production. The new regions in the south would include the Itata and Malleco Valleys.
Parallel to this is the move to categorise Chile’s wine regions as Coastal / Costa – where the cool conditions from the Pacific suit Chile’s hugely exciting white wines. The Andes zone is a less established move to plant vineyards higher up in the Andes than is traditional in Chile, the results look promising and not just for white wines either. Between these two is the Entre cordilleras zone between the Andes and the Coastal Mountain range which includes much of the Valle Central as well as many of the emerging regions.
Another fascinating example of creativity in Chile is the current widespread delight in finding the pockets of truly old vine material that the country has. For the last 30 years or so Chile has focussed on giving the world the grapes they want – and that sell – so the vineyard regions around Santiago, the traditional heart of Chile’s wine industry have very few old vines, hardly ever older than 20 years in fact. Chile does though have old vines, especially in the more rural south of Curicó, Maule and Itata where time has stood still somewhat as the vineyards are owned by smallholder farmers down there who cannot afford to uproot their vines as trends change, with the result that they have plenty of old vines, but of grape varieties that has not interested Chile’s producers until recently. The main grapes that fall into this category are País, Moscatel, Cinsault and Carignan, together with a little Mourvèdre and they are producing some astonishingly good wine.
Actually all the wines I showed were very good and seemed top meet with approval from most people there, but the majority agreed on what was the wine of the night and so I have made it my Wine of the Week.
2008 Éclat Old Vine Blend
D.O. Valle de Maule
Valdivieso are an old established winery who originally set out to be Chile’s sparkling wine specialist, but who turned to red wines from the 1980s onwards with spectacular results. Always seeking new challenges, their chief winemaker, the charming Brett Jackson – a kiwi living and working in Chile and who introduced me to the delights of drinking Caipirinhas one wonderfully drunken evening – decided to create a wine using the old vine Carignan that can be found in the Maule Valley and that has traditional been used for everyday wines that does not get exported. Brett saw the potential and produces a wine that is quite unlike what people expect from Chile, but that is really superb. The blend changes, but this vintage is 65% Carignan – dry farmed / unirrigated 80 year old plus bush vines with 20% Mourvèdre and 15% Syrah. The finished wine is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.
Although Carignan is really a Spanish grape and should be called Cariñena, the grape arrived in Chile from france in the twentieth century and so is always called Carignan there. A whole group of producers have now seen the worth of these old vines and have created a group called the Vignadores de Carignan, or Vigno to market these wines and to give some rules for their use. For instance to be a member the wine must have at least 65% Carignan in the blend. The vines must be at least 30 years old, they must be dry farmed bush vines and must be aged for at least 24 months – in bottle, barrel (old or new) or amphoras / tinajas.
On a night of good wines, this stood out to me. It was still a youthful deep, earthy ruby to look at with no browning yet. The nose was concentrated and spicy, with floral tones, earthy, leathery and coffee too, as well as quite a whack of alcohol – the wine is 14.5%. The palate was medium bodied and smooth with rich dried fruit, even some dried fruit sweetness there as well as a lovely fresh, bracing lift of acidity. There was mushrooms and truffles, together with a smoky, leather quality, that touch (just a touch, but I like it) of mocha and a firm touch of tannin on the finish that tightened the wine up in a way I like, but which also shows it could age for longer. If you like Shiraz or Syrah wines or Rhône style blends then this is a wine you should try – 91/100 points.
This really is a lovely wine and if some of the recent developments in Chile have passed you by, then this could be an excellent place to start experiencing them.