News: Chile changes names

(by peter)

Despite having DNA inherently acclimatised to seismic shifts, Chileans are by nature a conservative bunch. Theirs is the instinct of evolution rather than revolution.

So it was fascinating to witness this past week that, after two years of negotiations, studies and bureaucratic wrangling, far-reaching institutional change has finally come to Chilean wine.

On Monday 16th May 2011, a new appellation system was enshrined in Chilean law (decree number 464). This gives producers the right to use three new terms on their labels, to indicate where the grapes have come from – Costa (coast), Entre Cordilleras (central) and Andes (eastern).

(To see a helpful map of this new system, click on this link to Chilean newspaper El Mercurio’s magazine El Campo.)

For long, Chilean wine specialists have argued that the original wine appellation system in Chile was flawed, based as it was on political rather than climatic delimitations which divided up the country into horizontal partitions from north to south.

Thus, the Maipo appellation theoretically covered everything from high-altitude vineyards in the Maipo canyon to coastal vineyards directly south of San Antonio.

Far better, ran the argument, to recognise that the country’s main climatic influences follow an east-west dynamic, from the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean in the west to the altitude of the Andes foothills in the east.

And yet, and yet…how to implement a system that would convey these intricate differences in a meaningful way and keep everyone happy, from eager wine drinkers to fractious wine producers, even European and American regulators who would need to sign off any such accord?

Slowly, in a word.

The significant announcement of this new system is not without its critics – me for one. But it’s also important to recognise that it is intended as the first step of many in terms of instigating real and lasting change in Chilean wine law, and as such it should be welcomed.

First, however, the gripes.

Terminology is one. While most people with a basic grasp of Spanish might understand (and be able to pronounce) Andes and Costa, the decision to use ‘Entre Cordilleras’ is puzzling and potentially counter-productive.

It falls into the classic ‘decision-by-consensus’ trap of meaning nothing and yet still managing to be confusing. Surely something along the lines of the far less cumbersome ‘centro’ would have worked better? I appreciate the Chileans wanting to avoid associations with California’s Central Valley but the use of the Spanish would have avoided this potential ambiguity.

On the subject of Spanish usage, I also understand from official sources that there won’t be a translated version for labels. While this isn’t an issue for ‘costa’ or ‘Andes’, it does leave ‘Entre Cordilleras’ somewhat out on a limb. Agreed, it avoids the clumsy ‘Between Mountains’, but most consumers will neither be enlightened nor able to pronounce this verbiage.

Another, perhaps more far-reaching criticism of this system I have is that it doesn’t really help matters much.

I fully realise that drawing up any appellation system in the modern era, for which broad consensus is needed, and to make it really mean something is a truly Sisyphean task. The fact that Chile has emerged with a workable system is enormous credit to those who worked so hard on it – from outgoing Vinos de Chile President René Merino to working group leader Mario Pablo Silva and the scheme’s technical architect Victor Costa (not to mention the team behind former president Michelle Bachelet, a key supporter of this reform, and at the SAG or Chilean agriculture ministry).

And yet it’s hard to look at the newly divided map and see how it will help wine drinkers.

I am aware that a great deal of information – climatic, soil, altitude etc – was computed to formulate the various designations. But on a purely pragmatic perspective, to take Limarí as an example, it seems odd that Ovalle is included in the ‘costa’ designation when Punitaqui – which is geographically to the west of Ovalle – is incorporated in the ‘Entre Cordilleras’ bracket.

Similarly, having Lolol in the supposedly cooler ‘costa’ area is potentially confusing given that the vast majority of the wines made in this area to date – one fine coastal-style Sauvignon Blanc from Paredones being a notable exception – have been rich, ripe reds. Especially when Marchigüe, due north of Lolol and firmly in the coastal range, is lumped in the ‘Entre Cordilleras’ designation.

Traiguén, meanwhile, which produces notably vibrant, fresh Chardonnay and scented Pinot Noir, now belongs to the ‘Entre Cordilleras’ gang, which makes little sense in terms of the wine styles typical of the area.

And of course Casablanca is purely ‘costa’, while those who have tasted a range of wines from this region will know implicitly that the wines from the warm east of this region are completely different in style from those in the cool west.

Where this discussion inevitably leads is the same destination that all appellation discussions lead – the micro.

The only really meaningful appellation system in Chile, which conveys something about the wines in question, is one based on localities.

Colchagua Entre Cordilleras means little; Apalta (a term which isn’t legally recognised in Chilean wine law) means a great deal. From Apalta you can justifiably expect a rich yet grounded style of plush, exuberant red wine sourced either from old dry-farmed vines or hillside vineyards.

Ovalle Costa isn’t enormously helpful; Quebrada Seca is (or would be, if there weren’t trademark issues…) It is typified by structured, tangy whites. There are many more such examples.

And this is where we come back to the notion of slow progress.

Initially, these plans to reform Chile’s appellation system had envisaged incorporating new denominations like Quebrada Seca, Zapallar and Apalta. But it soon became apparent that trying to do everything in one go would potentially delay the process by years.

The issue with the smaller denominations ranged from legal technicalities, to an inability to fix precise boundaries, to trademark issues (where, for example, brands have trademarked geographical place names, such as the pisco brand ‘La Serena’).

As René Merino commented to me at the start of this reform process in 2009, ‘We’re not trying to make a perfect system. We just need to improve what we have in the best way we can.’

The process of negotiations to surmount these obstacles remains ongoing. However, in my view it will be only when these more specific, smaller-scale changes are instigated, hopefully in a sensible way, that this larger process of reform will truly start to deliver meaningful results for consumers of Chilean wine.

It wouldn’t have to be a potentially restrictive system of byzantine complexity, as typified by many European appellation systems. It would be a mistake for Chile to go down that route. But if a certain wine spoke of a certain place, allowing a producer to use that place name would surely be in the interests of both the wine and the drinker. In the long term (and it is a long-term undertaking) it would make Chilean wine more Chilean, which has to be a good thing.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see the level of take-up in what is an entirely voluntary scheme. So keep an eye out for bottles of ‘Maipo Andes’ or ‘Maule Entre Cordilleras’ coming to a shelf near you soon…

(Note: In writing this piece I am indebted to Hector Riquelme, who flagged up this piece in El Mercurio’s El Campo magazine, and Mariana Martínez who sent me over her article in Planetavino.)