Peter on Chile: Decanter

(by peter)

Here’s an article of mine, entitled ‘Chile’s hotspots’, which appears in this month’s edition of Decanter magazine.

You can read the article (in pdf format, by kind permission of Decanter and publishers IPC Media) by clicking here on Peter Richards MW – Chile feature in Decanter January 2011 magazine .

It’s a focus on the regions of Elqui and Limari, which to my mind are two of the most fascinating, secnic and simply delicious wine areas in the country right now. For more background on this, read my recent blog on my trip out there in December 2010.

Funnily enough, however, the original piece also included a third region – Maule – but this copy had to be cut for pagination and space issues. So for thos who’d like to read about Maule, as well as some wine recommendations from the region, I reproduce the entire article, in its original (unedited) form, as below.


Winning, as any top-flight athlete or successful entrepreneur will tell you, is a habit. Success breeds success – nowhere more so than in wine, where reputation is the self-perpetuating difference between hero and zero.

On this basis, Elqui has the X-factor. In the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), Chilean wines won eight regional trophies and Elqui accounted for three of them. One, Mayu’s Sauvignon Blanc 2009, went on to win the International Trophy for Sauvignon Blanc under £10. This built on the region’s previous successes in the DWWA: one regional trophy in 2009 and two such trophies in 2008.

This is a staggering achievement considering that virtually no-one had even heard of Chile’s northernmost wine region as recently as six years ago, let alone tasted its wines.

Elqui’s first step from insignificance to prominence came when Falernia’s Alta Tierra Syrah won ‘Wine of the Show’ at the 2005 Annual Wines of Chile Awards in Santiago. I remember the moment because I was judging in that competition; my most vivid memory is of the gasps of disbelief amongst Chile’s wine elite at the star-studded dinner when the award was announced.

‘That was a defining moment,’ comments Falernia’s Giorgio Flessati with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Now everyone wants to be here. It’s taken an Italian to change the landscape of Chilean wine!’

Despite his grand turns of phrase, Flessati is a difficult man to dislike. A thoughtful, energetic character with the broadest of grins, Flessati is an Italian winemaker with a penchant for ambitious, eclectic projects. Such was Falernia – a project Flessati undertook in 1997 with his cousin Aldo Olivier, a local fruit producer, despite the fact that fine wine was not at all part of Elqui’s landscape (unlike astronomical observatories and UFO sightings). Flessati has since become Elqui’s vinous lodestar and most vocal advocate.

‘They were pioneers’ says Chilean winemaking great Alvaro Espinoza, co-owner of GEO. Espinoza recalls being taken to the Titon site when Olivier and Flessati were considering planting Syrah at the very beginning of their wine project. ‘I thought they were crazy,’ he recalls. ‘I said it was too cold and there was no real wine culture in the area, just pergola vineyards used for pisco [local grape brandy]’.

Now GEO source wine, Syrah included, from Falernia and from Titon. ‘It’s a genuine, elegant style, much more Rhône-like than typical New World Syrah,’ comments Ezpinoza. ‘It’s sophisticated – ideal for the European palate.’

Syrah has undoubtedly been Elqui’s most successful export to date. Its elegantly savoury style is utterly charming, especially for those with a taste for northern Rhône Syrah and its seductively meaty, floral character. Flessati describes Syrah as, ‘the best wife I can have in life.’

There are now increasingly diverse styles of Syrah emerging from Elqui. This was always inevitable in a valley as varied as Elqui, which plays out in dramatic fashion from a cool undulating westerly mouth to sun-beaten, breathlessly high-altitude vineyards in its eastern Andean extremities.

While the major focus has been on the centre and west of the valley to date, an intriguing example of what the high east can produce comes courtesy of De Martino’s new Alto los Toros Syrah. This blend of Syrah with Petit Verdot is sourced from vineyards near Alcohuas, the highest of which are around 1,950 metres altitude. It is dense and brooding yet refined and lifted – a unique style in the context of Chilean Syrah and an exciting prospect.

‘High-altitude vineyards are a new frontier for Chile, which is what we’re interested in exploring’ explains Sebastian De Martino. ‘High-altitude Elqui is an extreme dimension: a special place with a strong character, with wines to match. It’s a matter of understanding what we have in Chile; there’s still so much to explore.’

Other new Syrah-focused players in the region include Lapostolle, as part of winemaker Andrea León’s country-wide ‘garage’ Syrah project, and San Pedro with its ambitious new releases under the 1865 Limited Edition and Kankana labels. Falernia is also undertaking a single-vineyard programme, the results of which are due for release soon.

But Elqui isn’t just about Syrah. Sauvignon Blanc has proved an early hit, with its vibrant, tomato-leaf aromatics and zippy, succulent flavours – not to mention the brilliant value price tags. Flessati produces high-altitude PX and wonderfully aromatic Torrontel (both traditionally pisco varieties) as well as a Carmenère named ‘appassimento’ which incorporates dried grapes.
It all makes for a fascinating tableau – a veritable hive of vinous activity, which is producing ever more diverse and delicious results. Few would bet against Elqui winning more gongs in the future.


  • Setting the scene: sunny, steep-sided narrow valley running from a cool, breezy westerly mouth up to parched high-altitude sites in the east
  • Major players: De Martino, Falernia, GEO, Lapostolle, Mayu, San Pedro
  • Top wine style: elegant Syrah with flavours of olives, grilled meat and black pepper


In Limarí, not all vineyards are born equal.

Like its northerly neighbour Elqui, Limarí’s arid, sun-drenched climate was traditionally prized for its reliable production of pisco and table grapes. A few adventurous souls tried their hand at wine; there was little to write home about.

But this was a time when vineyards – pergolas, almost exclusively, to ward off the brutal power of the sun – basked in the warm inland zones around Ovalle. It wasn’t until Limarí’s cooler coastal reaches began to be tapped that its real vinous potential became clear. Clay and limestone soils, in combination with bright sun and a fresh temperate climate, have started to yield wines of real distinction.

Chief among them is vibrantly structured Chardonnay, typically with a salty citric lick on the finish. Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah have also prospered, while Pinot Noir is tipped for success. Fizz is also a feature of the region’s output (Casillero del Diablo’s sparkling wine is currently pure Chardonnay from the area, but will contain Pinot Noir in future bottlings.) Sweet wine can also be a local speciality.

On the back of initial results, something of a vinous gold rush has been taking place in coastal Limarí. The mighty Concha y Toro, under its Maycas del Limarí guise, is developing several large estates, having invested prodigious sums in the area following its US$17m purchase of Francisco de Aguirre in 2005. Fellow Chilean stalwart Santa Rita is developing a 600-hectare site, with Chardonnay and Syrah under the Medalla Real label looking impressive. De Martino sources its impressive Chardonnays from Quebrada Seca, a promising sub-zone.

One of the most exciting recent developments has been the Talinay project by Tabalí. This is by far the closest vineyard to the coast in Limarí, just 12 kilometres from the icy Pacific shoreline, in a location where Tabalí winemaker Felipe Müller thought it was ‘impossible’ to have vines.

‘So I went to see the grower’ relates Müller. ‘I saw the weathered limestone soils, the rolling slopes, the vines’ deep roots…and I said we had to buy this at all costs.’

Tabalí is currently releasing its first wines from the vineyard, which was planted in 2006. For Müller, the wines represent what coastal Limarí is all about: ‘it’s not just about the variety – the wines all have structure and power but real elegance and minerality. It’s very exciting.’


  • Setting the scene: arid, sunny yet temperate semi-desert with clay-and-limestone soils
  • Major players: De Martino, Maycas del Limarí, Santa Rita, Sútil, Tabalí, Tamaya
  • Top wine style: well structured Chardonnay with vibrant acidity and a salty tang


In recent years, most of Chile’s exciting wine discoveries have been new developments in uncharted territory – young vines providing glimpses of a great future.

Which is precisely why the re-discovery of Maule’s old, dry-farmed vineyards in what is known as the secano costero has been so captivating. Critics of Chile have long focused on the country’s perceived homogeneity, predictability and young vines. Maule’s secano has blown this argument out of the water.

For long, the region’s old vines – typically Carignan and Malbec, though in reality a protean community – were sold off by cash-strapped producers for a pittance to be used in low-quality, high-volume blends by local co-ops.

But then, in the 1990s, far-sighted producers started to pick up on these viticultural gems and bottle them accordingly. Odfjell, Gillmore, De Martino and Morandé were some of the first. Since then, the area has started to attract acclaim and investment in equal measure, with high-profile entrants in recent years including O.Fournier and Francesco Marone Cinzano with his Caliboro/Erasmo project. At the 2010 DWWA, a Carignan from Maule won its first gold medal: Undurraga’s TH 2008. New producers, such as Meli, Hereu, Bravado and Bustamente are also tapping the area’s potential. There is now even an association of producers under the ‘Carignan Club’ banner.

Gillmore winemaker Andrés Sánchez is one of the region’s most ardent advocates and a fierce critic of what he describes as Chile’s ‘homogenised, brand-led’ wines.

‘Vines need to work, like people,’ says Sánchez. ‘In Maule’s secano, they are forced into an intimate expression of survival. The results are wines of notable character, with low pH, elegant concentration and real ageing capacity. This region’s wines are living proof that Chile can make world-class wines of local character.’

José Manuel Ortega of the O.Fournier group spent nearly three years looking for the right place to invest in Chile. For reds, he finally plumped for Maule – on the basis that it is ‘capable of producing some of the most incredible wines in the world…it represents the true Chile with century-old vineyards in beautiful scenes.’ According to Ortega, the Maule vines are known in the group as the ‘Cinderella Vineyards’ – long overlooked but now stars in their own right.

De Martino makes several wines in the area, one of which (Limávida) is a dry-farmed field blend from 90-year-old vines of Malbec, Carmenère, Carignan and Tannat. The label relates how the vineyard is ‘managed by a single individual working with a horse’. ‘If you want to find real terroir in Chile, it’s there’ says Sebastián De Martino. ‘Maule’s secano is full of little treasures, with old bush vines and small producers. It’s our equivalent of Burgundy.’


  • Setting the scene: rolling hills, sunny temperate conditions, clay and granite soils.
  • Major players: Caliboro (Erasmo), De Martino, Gillmore, Meli, Miguel Torres, Morandé, Odfjell, O.Fournier, Santa Carolina, Undurraga, Valdivieso
  • Top wine style: characterful, ageworthy reds with firm tannins, fresh acidity and an engagingly wild, rustic edge



Mayu Sauvignon Blanc Reserva, Elqui 2010 Piercing, enthralling purity with aromas of green peppers, fresh peas and ripe limes. Fabulously crunchy, refreshing and food-friendly. Follows on from the DWWA International Trophy winning 2009 vintage. Top marks for value. Four stars (18 points), Drink now, £8.99; Oddbins, Asda

San Pedro, Castillo de Molina Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, Elqui 2010 (13%) A regular high-achiever at the DWWA, this zesty, punchily aromatic Sauvignon is brilliant value for money. Blackcurrant, lemon and pear aromas, with a zingy yet well rounded palate. Spicy, persistent, with thrilling vibrancy. New Zealand watch out! Four stars (17.5 points), Drink now, £7.99; Majestic, Sainsbury’s

Mayu Syrah Reserva, Elqui 2007 (14%) Benchmark Elqui Syrah, with engaging aromas of grilled meat, dried flowers and black pepper. On the palate, it’s rich yet intensely savoury, with a spicy finish and lingering flavours of thyme and cassis. At this price, there’s little like it on the market. Five stars (18.5 points), Drink now-2013, £8.99-11.99; Asda, Majestic

GEO, Chono Reserva Syrah, Elqui 2008 (14%) Very much in the mould of the Mayu, this is savoury Chilean Syrah that just cries out for game casserole or peppered steak. Charry sausage and wild fruit aromas, with a spicy, food-friendly palate profile. Excellent value. Serve it slightly chilled to take the edge off the alcohol. Four stars (18 points), Drink now-2012, £8.49; Oddbins


Maycas del Limarí Reserva Especial Unoaked Chardonnay, Limarí 2008 (14%) Such subtlety on the nose – ripe mango/apple fruit but gently stoney, smoky notes too. Comes into its own on the palate: full, vibrant, salty, it finishes lean and muscular. Long and layered, flowing with grace across the palate. Will age well. A very exciting new style of Chardonnay for Chile which promotes subtlety over full-on oak. Expect subsequent vintages to be even better. Five stars (18.5 points), Drink now-2014, £9.95, The Wine Society

De Martino Single Vineyard Quebrada Seca Chardonnay, Limarí 2008 (14%) Full-flavoured yet elegant, with notes of toasted hazelnuts and roasted apples. The wine’s weight is brilliantly balanced by the tangy lemony acidity and delightfully savoury finish. Outstanding Limarí Chardonnay. Four stars (18 points), Drink now-2013, £20, The Wine Society

Tabalí Caliza Sauvignon Blanc, Limarí 2010 (13.5%) Extrovert and pungent yet with a wonderfully well structured palate. Excellent mouth-feel and a clear aptitude for food matching. Vegetal and gently spicy, with a lovely rounded texture and vibrant acidity. Hugely enjoyable – and promising. Four stars (18 points), Drink now, RRP £10; Virgin Wines, Hanging Ditch Wine Merchants, The Jolly Vintner, The Wine Society

El León Vineyard Carignan, Maule 2006 (14%) There are many Carignan or Carignan-based blends I could have chosen from Maule’s secano. I went for this blend of Carignan with a touch of Carmenère and Malbec on the basis of its superb value for money, which tipped it into the five-star category. A lovely, lifted and earthy red with wild, inky notes and dark chocolate hints. Fine textured, savoury, rustic but tamed. Kudos to De Martino and M&S, who jointly put this wine together.Five stars (18.5 points), Drink now-2013, £9.99, Marks & Spencer

Gillmore, Hacedor de Mundos Cabernet Franc, Maule 2007 (14.8%) Some of Maule’s best reds have an Italianate edge in their tangy acidity, chalky tannins and bitter cherry flavours. This is no exception, with its earthy, leafy, red fruit aromas and spicy, fine-textured palate profile. Cabernet Franc is a variety to watch out for in Maule. Four stars (17.5 points), Drink now-2013, £15.99, Naked Wines

O. Fournier, Alfa Centauri Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc Merlot, Maule 2008 (14.6%) Along with the Gillmore red, this Bordeaux blend showcases the region’s aptitude for characterful wines with real ageing potential. Aromas of minty, earthy cassis and dark chocolate are followed up by a fine, fresh palate that keeps the alcohol grounded and is much more drinkable than many comparable Colchagua or Maipo blends. Brooding and layered.Four stars (17.5 points), Drink now-2013, Coe Vintners, Seckford Agencies

Tamaya Winemaker’s Selection Single Vineyard Carmenère 2008 (13.5%) Very much in the fresh end of the Carmenère spectrum, this elegantly crafted red has leafy, graphite and roasted pepper aromas. On the palate, it’s smooth-textured and, while maybe not the most complex, is engagingly refreshing, rounded and supple. Compelling stuff from a producer on the up.Four stars (17 points), Drink now-2012,