CHile wEnt CraZY oVer BlEnDs

by | 3 Apr, 2011

The traditional Chilean blend of Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot in a classic Bordeaux style is becoming a thing of the past. Today, new varieties like Syrah, Malbec, Petit verdot, Cabernet franc and even Carignan are all the more frequently utilized in blends, adding new aromatic profiles and hitherto unsuspected levels of complexity. The bet is for unlimited diversity.

Until just a few years ago, red blends were a perfectly irrelevant category. The country was too busy producing monovarietals, which seemed the most logical, rational and direct path to follow, given the tremendous international success of Chilean Cabernet sauvignons in the 1990s. Only in higher categories, especially those called icon wines, did blends reach certain notoriety, almost invariably following the classic Bordeaux recipe.

But something changed along the way: last year red blend exports reached the top position, toppling Cabernet sauvignon’s supremacy both in volume and value. Shipments totaled a whopping USD 283.6 million (90.3 million liters), equivalent to 23% of all wine exports. The category grows at a two-digit rate every year. And
all evidence suggests this trend will be maintained in the future. In just a blink of an eye, Chile ceased to depend exclusively on monovarietals, proving its capacity to not only offer a wider range of wines, but also new levels of complexity.

The traditionally Chilean blend, if such a term can be at all used, consisted of wines that used Cabernet sauvignon as their base, with minor and variable percentages of Merlot, very much in line with its Bordeaux alter ego. Carmenère came on stage at a later date, and everyone cheered what they thought was the discovery of a new blend, one with a marked identity that could signify important differences in the market. Cabernet contributed its seigniorial structure and character, while Carmenère added smooth, sweet and balanced notes. A perfect hit, they thought. But wineries did not stop just there. They continued their quest for diversity, and today it is not at all infrequent to find blends featuring new components like Syrah, Malbec, Petit verdot, Cabernet franc or even Carignan in all price segments.


In our northern viticultural frontier, especially in Limarí, Syrah has developed a well-defined character and attributes that make it one of the most interesting categories of Chile’s new winemaking scene. On the coast, its spicy, floral personality and structure allow it to dance on its own or with some partners. For example, Viña Tamaya’s portfolio includes a juicy and balanced Special Reserve Cabernet sauvignon-Syrah-Carmenère blend of exuberant aromas and a seductively intentional herbal touch.

Further inland, where temperatures increase dramatically, Flaherty wines produces a potent Syrah-Carmenère-Cabernet sauvignon blend. Whose grapes are sourced from Agua Tierra de Punitaqui organic vineyards. The result? A wine that is ripe and well-structured yet still restless and with a deep mouthfeel. as a base for northern red blends, Syrah works. and it works remarkably well.


In Aconcagua, the traditional Cabernet sauvignon used in Errázuriz’s Seña and Don Maximiano is now accompanied by Syrah which has increased its surface since the arrival of the first vines in 1997. Today, it produces riper and more animal-like wines near the mountains and lighter and spicier ones towards the coast.

In fact, Viña Dos Andes has chosen this variety as an emblem of the valley and a base for its blends, whether in the company of Mourvèdre, Grenache or Viognier. 

According to Rodrigo Romero, winemaker of its affiliate Agustinos, Syrah has earned a place for itself, developing various personalities in different terroirs. While in Aconcagua Syrah boasts a broader character and smoother tannins, in Bío-Bío it is spicier and livelier.

“Blends are a great contribution to Chile’s winemaking industry. In recent years several new varieties have been planted while other forgotten cultivars have been rediscovered. Winemakers are daring to venture beyond the traditional safe zone,” Mr Romero explains, as he works on a blend of Syrah, Malbec and Viognier that threatens to cause more than one sigh.

As we move towards the coast, Syrah achieves what is arguably its most floral and elegant side. There are many examples of simply delicious blends featuring this Rhône cultivar. For instance, in Casablanca, we find Casas del Bosque Gran Estate Selection Syrah-Merlot-Pinot noir – an extravaganza for some and a heresy for wine purists, and Loma Larga Rapsodia Syrah-Cabernet franc-Malbec.

This winery is especially interesting for it has specialized in cool climate reds, thus going against the main trend of this predominantly white valley. These varieties, some of them unthinkable in a climate like Casablanca’s, take on a new and fresh twist without losing any of their typicity.

In San Antonio, we find a wine that started as an experiment but adapted perfectly to the constant sea breeze: Matetic Corralillo Winemaker’s Blend, which includes Merlot, Cabernet franc, Malbec and Syrah. A briny and nicely scented wine full of sweet spices. Unusual in every way, the wine opens an exciting new path for testing and research in the years to come.

Coastal red blends are still a rarity on store shelves, but just like Cleopatra, they own a lovely nose.


Maipo is the kingdom of Cabernet sauvignon, though in recent years Syrah has begun to conquer its own space on the hills. Famous for following the Bordeaux tradition, Cousiño Macul has only recently begun to include Syrah in Finis Terrae 2008, its second blend after Lota, excellently accompanying Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot.

“In our basic lines we need to play with monovarietals, but in higher tiers, that is, over USD 100 per case, blends become more important. Take, for example, Lota and Finis Terrae: each has its own style yet neither stands out for the varietals used, but for the weight of their brand. I think that is more or less the way to go. We have a style determined by our quality. The strategy is not to sell varietals but to consolidate a name,” affirms winemaker Gabriel Mustakis.

Born and bred in Cauquenes, Pablo Morandé not only turned to his emotional memories, but also to his winemaking talent to incorporate Carignan from dry farmed Maule vineyards into the blend of his House of Morandé icon. The base is Cabernet sauvignon from San Bernardo, Maipo Alto, accompanied by Merlot and Carmenère. Undoubtedly a potent yet very classy wine where Carignan bestows country-like notes and an acidity to die for.

Viña Santa Rita and its sister Carmen have also enriched their portfolios with new varieties. This is the case of Carmen Winemaker’s Reserve Red Cabernet sauvignon-Carmenère-Syrah-Merlot-Petite syrah and Terra Andina Suyai Cabernet sauvignon-Cabernet franc-Carignan-Carmenère. These two wines offer seductive structure and depth.

“I like Carignan very much. It has great potential and is a great partner for blends. But we should not be ungrateful. Bordeaux cultivars placed us on the wine map. We owe them greatly. For me, the ideal blend is Cabernet sauvignon combined with Cabernet franc and Merlot. Pour me some of that and i’ll be more than happy,” says Cecilia Torres, winemaker of Santa Rita.

For the author of the renowned Casa Real Reserva Especial, the Chilean wine industry should keep itself busy if it wants to be differentiated from its competition. “It is not difficult to make wines to please Robert Parker. The real challenge is to try to be yourself,” she concludes.

Inland towards the area called Maipo Entre Cordilleras, we find Tarapacá Tarapakay Cabernet sauvignon-Syrah, a wine that reflects the full potential of the fields of Isla de Maipo, where the winery’s cellars and traditional country house are located. The Santa Ana Estate in neighboring Talagante, and Los Morros, in Maipo Alto, produce the base used in Undurraga’s icon wine Altazor. A blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Carmenère, syrah, Carignan and Petit verdot which, paraphrasing Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (“if I did not commit some madness at least once every year, I would surely go mad.”), proves that poetic reasoning is finally beginning to fill the vats and barrels of Chilean wineries.

“We need to continue making the habitual Bordeaux blend, but also dare to create new things. what we should never lose sight of is respect for the terroir. If we are in Maipo, then let’s make a blend with Cabernet sauvignon. If we are in Maule, let’s choose Carignan or another Mediterranean variety,” says Rafael Urrejola, winemaker of Viña Undurraga’s T.H. (Terroir Hunter) line, who is already working on a Maule-style blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache.

Further south and towards the Pacific ocean, specifically in the vineyards of Viña Ventisquero, we find Ramirana Trinidad Vineyard Syrah-Cabernet sauvignon-Carmenère. As we can see, in a more oceanic climate, where the wind blows stronger in the late afternoon, the roles are inverted and Cabernet sauvignon loses ground to Syrah.

Things are relatively clear. So far, at least.


Further south still, specifically in the Cachapoal Valley, we meet a true flagship that is Altaïr and its blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenère, and Château Los Boldos and its Syrah, Cabernet sauvignon and Carmenère blend called Amalia. Few kilometers away, Viña Anakena is creating innovative red and white blends, especially as part of its Ona line.

“I have always insisted there is no such thing as a perfect variety. Except for Pinot noir and Riesling that can stand on their own, the rest need the addition of other varieties that complement them, smooth out rough edges, and make up a better wine. Here is where a bit of historical research becomes a great ally. In Bordeaux, Syrah from Hermitage was tested prior to the phylloxera disaster, but eventually was never used. the reason? Because it was not useful, it made no significant contribution to the traditional Bordeaux blend. The people who selected the varieties were very smart,” says Sergio Cuadra, winemaker of Anakena.

But he cautions that not all experiences are comparable. The specificity of a certain location is crucial for the proper establishment of varieties. Carignan, for example, is considered a second-class cultivar in France and most of the world. Some years ago critics would raise an eyebrow every time they heard its name. But in the peculiar soil and climate of Cauquenes, it has adapted remarkably well and developed its finest attributes.

In Colchagua, specifically in Apalta, Casa Lapostolle has broken all schemes with Borobo (Carmenère, Pinot noir, Syrah and Petit Verdot). For some, this is a complicated wine; for others it is too daring, but the fact is that it blends varieties from Bordeaux, Rhône and Burgundy. Afraid of being left aside, Viñedos Emiliana has launched a very appealing blend from its los robles vineyard:
Coyam (Cabernet sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot and Mourvèdre). For its part, MontGras presents Quatro (Cabernet sauvignon, Malbec, Carmenère and Syrah) and Casa Silva offers its blend Doña Dominga Cuvée Colchagua (Carmenère, Petit verdot, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot) and the successful saga of Quinta Generación (Carmenère, Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah).

“In today’s world, people want to try what’s new. I like blends a lot, i like to innovate, but one must always look for authenticity, a seal, a certain origin. We cannot disregard monovarietals, either. They are the first step. You need to work individually with each variety before venturing into something more complex. you may be able to produce a good average blend, but if your base is not good you
will never stand out,” explains José Ignacio Maturana, winemaker of Casa Silva.

In Colchagua, Carmenère gains in intensity and depth. Cabernet recedes a bit, leaving room for Syrah and other varieties. This countryside area of traditions observed like divine law has become an experimentation center where winemakers can let their imagination fly and make each soil and mesoclimate shine at its best.


Curicó is not lagging behind. Here we find Altacima AC 4090 Cabernet sauvignon-Carmenère-Syrah and Miguel Torres Cordillera Reserva Privada Syrah-Cabernet sauvignon-Viognier, two wines that reflect the Andean winds of the valley. We also greet Caballo Azul from Viñedos Puertas, which includes Cabernet sauvignon, Carmenère, Petit Verdot and Merlot. The wine captures eight different mesoclimates, from the balance of Convento Viejo to the freshness of Palquibudis, located on the banks of the Mataquito river.

But San Pedro’s icon wine is perhaps the best example of the winds of change currently blowing in Chile. Traditionally sourced entirely from old vines of Cabernet sauvignon planted in Molina, Cabo de Hornos now increases its aromatic and flavor palette with other varieties like Syrah and Malbec. Sheer treachery, some might think. others will appreciate a more complete and consistent wine.

Our last stop is Maule, where it all began. Here we move among very old País and Carignan vines. Chile’s solid bet for diversity not only relates to the introduction of new varieties, but to the rescue of a viticultural heritage that remained undervalued for decades. This is the birthplace of De Martino Limávida and its single vineyard made from Malbec, Carmenère, Carignan and Tannat, a nice example of this quest for singular wines that express a strong commitment with the history and identity of our national wine culture.

The representatives of this new trend are numerous and include VIA Wines Chilcas Red One (Syrah, Cabernet sauvignon, Carmenère, Cabernet franc and Petit verdot), Cremaschi Furlotti Vénere (Carmenère, Syrah and Cabernet sauvignon), J. Bouchon Las Mercedes (Cabernet sauvignon, syrah and Malbec), Casas Patronales Mixtura (Syrah, Carignan and Carmenère) and Valdivieso Eclat (Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah).

Chile has embarked on a one-way voyage that may be commercially uncertain, but it surely is keeping vintners more enthusiastic and happier than ever. Or should we say crazy over their blends.




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