Eduardo Brethauer is a journalist, writer and traveler. Author of the hilarious wine guide Vinos con Cuento. Owner and Wine Editor of Vitis Magazine. Member of the Circle of Wine Writers, La Commenda Major de Rosselló and Círculo de Cronistas Gastronómicos y de Vino de Chile. Founder of Vignadores de Carignan, a unique association of producers that reinvented a viticultural tradition of 5 centuries in Maule Valley. He doesn’t believe in scores. “They’re fuckin’ stupid”, claims. He and his brilliant collaborators are always seeking for character and identity. Their goal is to rescue and put in value wines, spirits and food treasures from forgotten corners of the world.
In Chile, new vineyard-worthy lands are discovered and new wine-worthy grapes are planted every year, continuously breaking through old viticultural boundaries while refreshing—and deepening—its traditional portfolio of wines.
This article originally was published by Chilean Soul WIne Magazine, USA.
There are some who still think of Chilean wines as cheap and cheerful, but that’s no longer true. At least, they are not only that. Chile’s wine map has been constantly redefined and expanded for decades. And at a vertiginous pace. The country is undergoing a “big bang.” Or, to put it in enological terms, it’s as effervescent as a bubbling tank of fermenting wine. New projects and new territories appear every year— along with new varieties and new emotions.
“The wines that will stand out in quality, personality, and typicity will come from more extreme places, old vineyards, and more southerly zones,” declares winemaker Marcelo Retamal, who is responsible for Viña De Martino wines as well as his more personal project in the Elqui Valley, Viñedos de Alcohuaz, 2,000 meters up into the Andes.
For Francisco Baettig, the technical director of Viña Errázuriz and winemaker for Viñedo Chadwick (the first Chilean wine to receive a perfect 100-point score), the traditional wine valleys with well-earned fame, such as Maipo Alto and Aconcagua, will continue to play an important role in the future of Chilean wines, although new valleys, as well as old ones recouped from oblivion, will also be included.
Among the newer zones, the movement southward will continue to expand with the production of cool- climate varieties (think Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) in valleys such as Malleco and Río Bueno, as well as high-quality production in the dry farmed secano sector near the coast. Among the old and recovered areas are Itata and, to a lesser degree, Maule. I also think that very limited, unique, and interesting places will continue to appear that will give rise to wines like those of Alcohuaz (Elqui Andes), Tara (Atacama Costa), Laberinto (Maule Andes), and Sierras de Bellavista (Colchagua Andes). There’s a potpourri of wines from very specific, although little known, places with interesting terroirs,” he affirms.
But it goes beyond a merely enological quest—there are also reasons beyond human control. According to Marcelo Retamal, Chile is experiencing the consequences of an extended drought. Perhaps with the exception of 2016, there have been 14 years without significant rainfall during the growing season. Some valleys, such as Elqui, Limarí, Choapa, and Aconcagua, are very dependent upon glacial meltwater from high in the mountains and their proximity to river basins.
“I think that at least in the central zone, the only vineyards that will survive will be those that belong to large companies with enough resources to extract water from great depths or with the ability to transport it long distances. Mid-sized and small producers will tend to disappear or be reduced to a minimum,” he predicts.
As a result, he believes, viticulture will move southward over the next 50 years, to much rainier areas such as Valdivia, Osorno, and even Coyhaique. “The zones that are most protected and that currently have abundant summer rain will be part of the panorama of Chilean wines in the future. Great wines are produced around the world in places that receive less than 1,000 mm of annual rainfall, and Chile will eventually follow suit. Today those zones seem too rainy, but in the future, they will be optimal,” he adds.
Felipe Tosso, the technical director at Viña Ventisquero, insists that the markets, especially the emerging ones, still know very little about Chile. And while varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Sauvignon Blanc are very well positioned, there are other aspects—especially communication—that still need work. It is essential to strengthen Chile’s image as a wine producer, to project a Chile that is more dynamic and versatile.
When people think of Chilean wine, they immediately turn to classic valleys such as Aconcagua, Maipo, Rapel (Cachapoal and Colchagua), and Maule that are best known for the production of red wines, while in more recent decades, Casablanca, Leyda, and Limarí have changed the face of white wines with fresher, bolder, more vibrant options.
Winemaker Alejandro Galaz, who is responsible for Viña Ventisquero’s coastal line Kalfu Sumpai and the icon Pinot Noir Herú, has his own opinions on the future of Chilean wines. “As a result of global warming, zones that historically had cold climates, such as Casablanca, will become warmer, and in the future, zones with even cooler temperatures, such as Leyda, will be the new representatives of cold-climate wines, and varieties such as Pinot Noir, which now has good value for money in Chile, will produce high-end wines.”
Viña Errázuriz winemaker Francisco Baettig believes that the future of Chilean wines lies with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and some Bordeaux varieties. Not the oak- heavy classic icons with 14.5% alcohol of the past, but more elegant versions. Carignan and other wines made with Mediterranean varieties will also play a role, as long as they are made in a style that stands out for its elegance. And finally, a new generation of more complex sparkling wines will appear, along with some good examples of the País variety.
According to José Ignacio Maturana, known for his family projects Maturana Wines and Puente Austral, the traditional valleys as we know them today will gradually lose their stronghold. In the future, he says, some specific sectors within each valley will become more important, as we can already see in cases such as Paredones in Colchagua Costa or Melozal, Caliboro, and Sauzal in Maule’s dry-farmed secano.
“The recovery of old vineyards in specific sectors is very significant for more demanding consumers, and the vinification methods used will make a big contribution in presenting those niche wines. And while consumers with little understanding will continue to prefer the better-known brands and varieties from less specific origins, the trend is gradually beginning to change. It’s a maturation process on the part of the consumers and countries that import our wines. The market is still very broad, and there’s room for everything,” Maturana says.
Felipe Tosso agrees and adds, “We have to invest a lot in image and continue traveling around the world, showing our wines—the classics, the modern options, and the ‘hippies.’ There’s room for everything, but we need to do it well. The competition is tough.”
The limits of Chile’s northern wine regions used to flirt with the Atacama Desert. Just a casual date—not an issue of going steady or making long-term commitments. The scarcity of water, and more importantly, the lack of experience, made it a rather whimsical adventure. But then, in a blink of an eye, Limarí was confirmed as a star valley for Chilean Chardonnay. On both banks of the Limarí River, where the soils are rich in calcium carbonate deposits, a new generation of mineral-laden and deeply elegant wines was born.
And then the border was pushed even farther north to the mystical Elqui Valley, where the soils seem to nearly touch the stars, and astronomical observatories share their terroir with vineyards. Chile has taken on a new personality there, where crisp whites are seasoned with abundant coastal spices, and red wines dark as night and burnished by the sun gleam with the freshness imparted by the heights of the Andes Mountains.
Today, Chilean wine not only flirts with the desert, but makes love to it. Very close to the Pacific coast and hand-in-hand with the Huasco River, Viña Ventisquero produces some of the most exciting wines of the so- called new Chilean scene. “Atacama is a very interesting area and very different from all that is classic in Chile. First, it is the country’s driest environment, but it also has a cool climate due to its proximity to the sea. Along with some fascinating ancient soils of calcareous origin and riverbed stones, it represents an extreme location, and as a result, its wines reflect their terroir,” Felipe Tosso insists.
Atacama receives its water directly from the glaciers, and the soil is tremendously saline. And therefore, its wines have a very particular mouthwatering character that leaves us asking for more, as if we were guanacos lapping up the last drops of cherished water from the oases, ravines, and tamarugo forests.
The Maule, Itata, and Biobío Valleys, where ancestral viticultural practices are still the norm, was Chile’s enological backyard for decades. (See Wines from Ancient Roots, page 36). Today their wines burst onto the scene with unusual force. Not only because they reflect the oldest viticultural traditions passed from generation to generation since the 16th century, but because those wines mark the character and identity of Chilean wine. We could say that here, reflected in the dry, cracked hands of the campesinos, those who have tended these lands for generations, there is an invincible spirit of survival and moral reserve that remains firmly intact, despite the ups and downs of the market and the tyranny of fashion.
“Current trends lean toward a new appreciation of the old varieties, those that had been forgotten over the centuries. They are a hidden treasure, not only in Chile, but likely in every production zone in the world. The coming decade will be one of discovery, of recovering vines that have been abandoned and that want to sing once again,” says Andrés Sánchez, winemaker at Viña Gillmore and president of VIGNO (Vignadores de Carignan), an association of producers who have proposed (and achieved) the revalorization of the old Carignan vines and the wines they produce.
“In Chile, there is a clear tendency to place more importance on territories over brands. We have a long road ahead of us. And as long as we have winemakers who live in Vitacura (an elegant neighborhood in Santiago, Chile’s capital) and who only buy grapes from a distance, and while large companies continue vinifying beyond the borders of those valleys, the concept of the dry-farmed secano will remain under- appreciated. However, there are many good things that will come to pass. Maybe not with the speed that Chile deserves, but they’ll come,” Sánchez says.
In a landscape of lakes and volcanoes, once limited to forests, pastures, and cattle, there is now a surge of vineyards that predict an exciting future for short- cycle (fast-ripening) varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In Osorno, on the banks of the Río Bueno, at 40o parallel south, they are currently producing what some consider Chile’s best sparkling wines.
But this miracle, this southbound adventure, would not have been possible without the vision of the renowned winemaker Felipe de Solminihac, a partner at Viña Aquitania and the man behind the SoldeSol line of wines from Traiguén in the Malleco Valley, whose Chardonnay shifted every existing paradigm more than a decade ago and encouraged new Patagonian projects that dig deep into volcanic soils, while their vineyards are disheveled by the intense and constant southern winds.
According to De Solminihac, we must not lose sight of the consequences of climate change and global warming. There’s no doubt about it; little by little, the places best suited to growing high-quality grapes will be those that are now considered too cold and too rainy, those that are in coastal sectors and in Chile’s far south.
It’s also important to bear in mind that climate change is not solely a matter of rising temperatures—it will also change the frequency and amount of rainfall as well as the number of frosts in those sectors, and that, in turn, could have a devastating effect on yields. Current production in cold zones is low due to the frosts and the excessively low temperatures during fruit set.
“In Traiguén, we only grow short-cycle grapes such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. For now, other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah don’t get ripe enough to make a good wine. We’re also excited about making base wines for sparkling wines, which have given us good results,” he says.
For Rodrigo Romero, partner at Trapi del Bueno in Osorno, one of the southernmost projects in Chile, the matter is quite simple. “I’m convinced that Chile’s new guiding star is in the south. In the coming decades, our winemaking will take a major turn toward new horizons in the cold climates of the south and large projects where sparkling wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and especially Pinot Noir will head up a new Chile full of the elegance and the delicacy, differentiation and character that our wines lack today.”
And it’s as simple as that. As extreme as that. And as exciting as that in the new world of Chilean wine.