On the road: Chile 2010

(by peter)

For one glorious week earlier this month, I was lucky enough to escape the UK’s snow, slush and school closures – and instead enjoy the balmy spring weather and captivating landscapes of Chile.

It’s always good to return to the country where I spent a year living and working in 1999, something I’ve been lucky enough to do on a fairly regular basis since.

The following is not a travelogue-style account of the trip. Rather, it is a summary of some of the key points that arose during our week-long tour through Chilean wine country, which ran from the verdant southerly hills of Bío Bío to the parched lunar landscapes of Elqui in the north. (Specific producer profiles will emerge in due course.)

At the end are some recommendations of wines which we tasted on the trip and which stood out for their excellence or great value for money.

The visit was co-funded by the participating wineries: Córpora, Ventisquero, Casas del Bosque, Viña Leyda, Tabalí and Falernia. In trips (and reports) like this, it’s always important to bear in mind the broader context of Chilean wines. However, with this in mind, this was an intriguing trip that took in some of Chile’s most ambitious and exciting winemaking projects, as well as some of its most talented and iconoclastic wine folk.

We even came into close contact with things as diverse as guanacos, enormous telescopes (at the Tololo astronomical observatory), a winemaker brandishing a (fake) hand gun and rather too much barbed wire for comfort. But these are stories for another day…

World exclusive previews: ever-expanding Chile

As of the 2010 vintage, there’s a new reason for makers of Chilean wine maps to go back to the drawing board (how they must curse this country’s continuous expansion of its wine territory).

First up, Huasco is set to relieve Elqui of the mantle of Chile’s northernmost fine wine outpost (there are vineyards and wine further north, but nothing of note in quality terms).

It’s an area that lies in the coastal zone of Region III (Atacama), some 160 kilometres (km) north of Elqui. Typically of this area, which lies on the fringes of the Atacama Desert, it is fiercely arid and sun-blasted, but benefits from the cooling breezes and foggy fret which blows in off icy Pacific waters.

The project is being run by Ventisquero out of a former pig farm. (The owner of Ventisquero is the magnate Gonzalo Vial, whose main business interest is the giant foodstuffs conglomerate AgroSuper.)

I’ve been following the project for a while, but this was the first wine I’d been able to taste. Apparently the vines have struggled because of the extreme salinity of the soils in this desert region, among other hostile factors.

It’s still on an experimental level – only 10 hectares have been planted – but the initial results are very encouraging. We tried two wines. One was a finished bottling, the Ramirana Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Huasco, a wine full of crunchy freshness and tangy citric charm. It sat somewhere between Elqui and LImarí in style, with the former’s aromatic paunchiness and the latter’s mineral bite on the palate. All in all, very encouraging – just a pity that only a pittance was made from this vintage.

We also tried a sneak preview of the Syrah from Huasco, made from very young vines. Although the nose was overly dominated by a medicinal minty character for me, the group agreed that this was an exciting style, full of freshness and savoury notes, with a purity and refreshing structure that augured very well.

Another such ground-breaking project is Tabalí’s Talinay vineyard in Limarí.

The key to finding real quality in Limarí has been the move towards the cool coastal climates and the presence of limestone in the otherwise heavy clay soils. Most of the best vineyards are to be found 20-25 kilometres from the coast in relatively temperate yet sunny conditions, on clay soils with limestone elements (usually 2-10%).

Talinay is a good deal closer to the coast (12 kilometres) and on soils with a very high percentage of limestone (40% plus active CaCO3 in some cases). This really is virgin territory for Chile – and Tabalí have even taken the bold step of stating on their Talinay labels that no other vineyard in Chile is planted on limestone soils like these.

Initial results suggest a very bright future for the likes of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in this area (see tasting notes below). There’s a purity and structure to the wines – also a minerality, if you will – which carries across grape varieties. Such a vivid imprint of place is rare to find in Chilean wine – and is very exciting as a result.

The frontiers of Chilean winemaking have been pushed back once again. And almost certainly not for the last time.

Syrah, Sauvignon – but mainly the thorny issue of Pinot Noir

As a result of our many tastings during this trip, I remain convinced that Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah are two of Chile’s best performing grape varieties.

I also believe that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are among its most improved, and promising varieties of the future.

With specific regard to Pinot Noir, there are those who believe that Chile will never reach the pinnacles of quality exemplified by the likes of Burgundy and New Zealand’s best reds. Few doubt that Chile makes world-beating Pinot at under a tenner, but there are reservations voiced about whether it can ever get beyond this.

I beg to differ.

I firmly believe Chile can and will become a force to be reckoned with on the global stage with Pinot Noir – given time. The country has a wealth of terroirs suited to this variety, from cool coastal elevations to more cloudy southern hills. Top names like Nicolas Potel, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair and Pedro Parra don’t get excited about Pinot Noir’s prospects in Chile for no reason.

It’s true that the country has yet to coax real elegance and complexity from this fickle grape thus far. This is partly the result of poor raw materials – much of the country’s Pinot Noir vines are infected with virus (‘it’s as bad as South Africa here,’ quipped one viticulturist), or either suffer from being poor quality clones or from simply being planted in the wrong area.

But it’s clear that people are now starting to take Pinot very seriously. On this trip, we saw some extremely promising vineyards all over the country: from high-density vines trained to single stakes on steep clay/granite slopes in Bío Bío (Córpora’s new Santa Rosa vineyards) to prime rolling hills developed with high quality clonal material just three kilometres from the coast in Leyda (Viña Leyda’s new El Granito vineyard).

The search for cloud cover, limestone (and the right type of clay), bona fide clonal material and dedicated winemaking equipment for Pinot Noir is almost becoming a national obsession. Which is great to see.

The country needs more Pinot pioneers – ambitious producers hell bent on making top quality wines no matter the cost or effort. On a more practical level, it also needs to get better plant material in the ground and give it time to mature (relaxing Chile’s absurdly stringent plant import laws would help in this regard).

Finally, Chile’s winemakers need to spend vintage after vintage with the heads (and feet) in tanks and barrels working out how best to vinify Pinot in Chile in order to extract elegance and refinement rather than bruising power.

There are signs this is starting to happen. Wines from Tabalí, Viña Leyda, Veranda, Cono Sur, Quintay and Undurraga (Terroir Hunter) are showing the way.

In time, more will come. And I, for one, will be watching, and tasting, with great interest and anticipation.

Price: where to plant the flag in the sand?

There’s no question that Chile is increasingly producing wines of world class in the premium category. But the issue of how to price them is another matter entirely.

There are, by and large, two strategies in evidence.

The first is for producers to compare their wines to those in the market of a perceived similar quality, then price them accordingly. This has led to some notably ambitious pricing strategies of late.

The other is for producers to take a hit on profitability in the short term in order to win wine drinkers over with highly competitive prices. The theory being that once you’ve gained people’s loyalty you can then slowly start to move prices up without too much objection.

My feeling is that Chile would do well to adopt the latter policy.

I understand those who say that Chile has to establish itself in the higher price categories in order for people to take it more seriously. Errázuriz’s Eduardo Chadwick has conducted blind tastings tirelessly around the world to prove the point that his wines, even those priced relatively highly, can outperform Bordeaux and Italian wines whose price tags are stratospheric in comparison.

But the fact is that Bordeaux and Burgundy can charge high prices not just of because of what’s in the bottle – but because they have centuries of history behind them. Some top crus have morphed into investment-grade commodities rather than mere wine; this inevitably distorts pricing.

Chile is just starting out. It’s thrilling to see the potential and quality. But to attempt to run before it can walk in terms of pricing is a mistake, in my view. If wine drinkers start to perceive Chile as poor value, it risks losing one of its main advantages over its competitors.

Chile does good value like few other wine countries. It still has a relatively short track record in making fine wine. Far better to surprise and delight in terms of quality and pricing initially, while the wines are still works in progress, than to disappoint for the sake of a few quid in the short-term.

Chile’s conundrum: to specialise or to generalise?

One of the most exciting aspects of modern Chilean winemaking is the development of cool-climate vineyard sites and the ongoing search for ever more complex, elegant, drinkable wines that move away from the classic New World stereotype of heavy, rich, alcoholic styles.

The best way to do this is to have small-scale, specialised winemaking operations based in these cool-climate areas (which in Chile means close to the coast).

Yet many of Chile’s cool-climate wineries, including some we visited, persist in hedging their bets and producing, alongside their coastal wines, the more classic styles from other traditional, warm-climate regions of Chile such as Maipo or Rapel.

When asked why they carry on with this practice, which could be viewed as diluting their brand and all-important focus, the answer was always the same: importers don’t want to deal with more than one Chilean producer, so unless we provide a full service (and importers expect rich Chilean Cabernet and Merlot), we will lose the business.

In my view, this is the direct result of an outdated perception of Chile on the part of UK importers as a one-stop-shop providing cheap and cheerful wines of the key grape varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon).

Chile needs people to take it seriously – both wine drinkers and wine sellers. In the same way that forward-looking importers championed Australia’s up-and-coming boutique producers a decade or two ago, and thus wine drinkers were able to buy into it, so Chile needs its champions now.

The question is: who will those champions be?

Wine recommendations

Agustinos Reserva Privada Chardonnay 2009, Bio Bio, 13% (£7.99) – Fresh peachy honeyed nose, touch of red apple. Quite honest warmish climate Chard but with a refreshing hint too. Definite honey, though, and some creamy notes. Nice weight and texture. Works very well in an unoaked style (winemaker Rodrigo Romero learnt from Chablis expert Patrick Piuze and as a result prefers to mature his Chardonnay without oak but instead using the flavour-enhancing lees). Very good at the price. You get the underlying freshness of Bio Bio but also with a nice elegant touch of creaminess. The fruit is from the Quinel vineyard, formerly Canata. 6/10

Veranda Oda Pinot Noir 2008, Bio Bio, 13.4% (£24.99) – Quite scented; nice herbal floral hints, touch of dark choc, good red and dark cherry fruit. Good succulent attack, fluid with firm savoury tannin. Has the stuffing to hang together well. Tannins are very silky. Finish is really quite persistent. Savoury tannin and fresh acidity in good balance. Still a bit big and punchy, but it also starts to have the kind of elegance and savoury character to make it very good. Bit prickly on the finish. But showing glimpse of real quality and elegance. As a final note: the price is too high. (Over-ambitious pricing is a feature of Córpora’s Bio Bio wines in general, albeit with some notable exceptions). 7-7.5/10

Casas del Bosque Sauvignon Blanc Gran Reserva 2010 – Pleasant mix of citric and vegetal character. Broad palate structure and texture, with pleasant spice and length. New winemaker Grant Phelps – a Kiwi by origin – did his first vintage in 2010 and he’s fermenting very cool and giving the wines longer skin contact. The result is more subtlety, density and minerality than previous versions. Gentle pea pod and citrus. Moving towards San Antonio style. Good spicy finish. Pleasantly under-stated. 7/10

Casas del Bosque Syrah Pequeñas Producciones 2008, 13.7% (£18.99) – Syrah is a top tip at this producer, and its Gran Reserva 2007 (now largely sold out) was a fantastic wine and great value. This 2008 is pricier and shows nice bacon fat and floral hints. Black pepper. Savoury finish. Nice balance. Could do with more core elegance, especially at the price, but i like the freshness and the fact it’s not too hot and spicy on the finish. Bit over-priced…but one of this producer’s better reds. 7-7.5/10

Vina Leyda Single Vineyard Garuma Sauvignon Blanc 2010, 13.5%, (£8.99, Waitrose, Oddbins, Wine Society) – Elegant pea, ripe lemon and herbal aromas. Lovely density and crunch on palate, not trying too hard. Very good. Very drinkable as well as persistent, pleasant and classic. Speaks of the variety and place. Gentle salinity to it. Great value. Really good object lesson for coastal Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. Nice Leyda character: fennel, white pepper, grapefruit. But not at all hard to drink. Really good, a Chilean classic already. 7.5/10

Vina Leyda Reserva Chardonnay 2010, Leyda, 14%, (£5.99, Wine Society) – I could have picked any number of Leyda’s Chardonnays, but this one offered outstanding value. Citric, smoky edge to it – not at all like a normal unoaked Chard. Smoky terroir feel. Unoaked but lovely savoury fresh nut character. Lovely lees work. Outstanding stuff. Lovely fresh palate, integrated and don’t notice the 14% at all. Superb at the level. Just a touch of heat on finish? Great, great value. 6.5/10

Vina Leyda Pinot Noir Lot 21 2009, Leyda, 14%, (£14.99, Wine Society, Harvey Nichols) – Creamy nose, easy going soft red and black fruit. Soft attack, so silky. Lovely bittersweet undertow, with hint of spice. Really good integration. Spice. Bit too big but some lovely elegance. Bit inscrutable for now; not unapproachable though. Will develop in time. But such wonderful elegance, harmony and concentration all together. Delish stuff 7.5-8/10

Vina Leyda Single Vineyard Canelo Syrah 2008, Leyda, 14%,Creamy blueberry. Quite a lot of oak. Excellent succulence, harmony and balance. Savoury, rounded, juicy. Touch of spice and firmish round tannin. Oak still bit young. But lovely. Carries the alcohol superbly. Just delish. 8-8.5/10

Tabalí Reserva Especial Caliza Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Limarí, 13.5% (£9.99, Wine Society, Virgin Wines) – I recommended this one in Decanter magazine recently and it’s a top tip. Subtle stony nose. Some nice green pepper/citrus in depth but it really doesn’t shout aromatically. Intriguing, inviting, not invasive. Lovely minerality. Spicy yet elegant. Self-contained. Keeps you going back. Lovely citrus core. Mineral surround. Fantastic stuff. One of Chile’s most exciting SBs, hands down. Totally new style for here. Spicy minerality just keeps persisting on the palate. It’s full acid but not aggressive, unlike other Chilean styles. Just a hint of heat on the finish. But lovely. More about core than body. Hugely exciting. At the price, the best Chilean SB in its style. 8-8.5/10

Tabalí Talinay Chardonnay 2009, Limarí, 13.5% (£12.99) – Subtle melon and cream. Some saline minerality. Elegant creamy texture. Lovely focus and tang, elegant core to it that means it doesn’t have to be too big to convince you. It’s assiduous and insistent, with elegant minerality and citrus core. Does have some New World peachy ripeness, but on the palate it’s mineral and engaging, with similar structural composition to the Sauvignon Blanc. Could be more nutty, from my personal point of view. But it’s the structure that’s thrilling: all about core purity, not broad concentration. Hugely exciting. Really persistent. Fantastic value. 8/10

TabalÍ Talinay Pinot Noir 2009, Limarí (£16.99) – Chalky mineral nose. Earthy forest floor. Immediate non-fruit complexity. Really inviting. Palate has a soft earthy attack. Lots of power. Tangy and grip. But not in any way harsh. A touch alcoholic on the back palate would be the only gripe. Apart from this, it’s sensational. Huge huge promise here. Maybe bit of fine-tuning the canopy to get less light exposure and thus less sugar/alcohol…but apart from this, it has lovely structure, focus and purity. Age may well benefit it. Good round juice. Bravo. Could this be Chile’s first truly world class PN in the making? 8(-8.5)/10

Mayu Torontel 2010, Elqui, 13.5% (£6.99) – Scented nose, pear, sherbert citrus, floral. Herbs. Touch soapy. Quite attractive. Fresh, crisp, nice gentle floral character. Pleasant fresh lifted finish. Very easy drinking, not oily, well made. Goes well at the price. Very good at the level. 5.5-6/10

Mayu Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2010, Elqui, 13.5% (£7.99, Tesco.com, Asda, Majestic, Oddbins) – Green pepper, tomato leaf nose. Ripe citrus. Palate is crisp, crunchy and tangy. It’s not super deep or complex, but very fresh and appealing. Needs drinking before too long. But lovely tangy focus on the palate, long and vibrant. Quite a focused style. 6-6.5/10

Mayu Syrah Reserva 2007, Elqui, 14% (£9.99, Majestic, Asda) Coffee and meat. Lovely savoury spice. Glossy black fruit. Palate is super savoury, glossy texture, black olive flavour. This is the best Syrah in the Falernia/Mayu line-up because the fruit all comes from the coastal Titon vineyard: to my mind their best site. It seems to give an extra dimension of savoury flavour and a glossier texture than other areas. Lovely spicy self-contained, superb savoury Syrah. Warming spice on finish but the body carries it well. One for lovers of northern Rhône. 8/10