The sparkling revolution

Wednesday, 14 March 2018 07:13

During the last decade, Chile made a great leap forward in sparkler production, making many terroirs from Limarí to Osorno explode and setting the framework for a category that still lacks a really distinctive attribute but even so bets on multiplication and surprise.

I remember the New Year celebrations of my childhood with those Marie Antoinette glasses filled with oversweet bubbles and cloying scoops of pineapple sorbet. I still wonder how on earth we withstood those warm, sugary New Year’s eves with those unbearable tropical tunes in the background. A feat of valor, without question.

Sparkler consumption was completely seasonal and the scene was clearly dominated by the Demi Sec style. The industry counted just a handful of producers that had pressurized tanks, marketing budgets and distribution channels apt to fill shelves with their holiday offers. The rest of the year all other toasts and celebrations used pisco sour, which was equally sweet or even more so.

The first signs of change began to emerge when local sparkler house Valdivieso decided to aim higher, producing a dry, elegant Blanc de Blancs of stunning complexity for a domestic bubbler. Subercaseaux soon followed suit. ViñaMar took profit of the savoir-faire of the former facilities of Mumm and deepened its relationship with the Casablanca Valley. Undurraga launched its Titillum line made with grapes sourced from the Leyda Valley and presented by its advisor Philippe Coulon, former wine director at Moët & Chandon.

But today the scene has simply boomed out, expelling corks in every direction. According to the winemaker Hernán Amenábar, former technical director of Undurraga and one of the main advocates of the bubble culture, today there are more than 50 wineries producing sparkling wine. Mr Amenábar provides advisory and disgorgement services to more than 40 maisons, of which 4 or 5 produce more than 20,000 bottles. The rest are small productions between 2,000 and 5,000 bottles. “Some wineries have just begun their insertion into the market and are still deciding upon the volumes they will be working with. This is quite an interesting phenomenon. Wineries now want to have a signature sparkler to complement their portfolio and/or receive guests. No more loaned bubbles! And some of the bets are quite daring, like Apaltagua’s Carmenère, Amaral’s Sauvignon Blanc, Casa Marín’s Riesling, Loma Larga’s Cabernet Franc and Pérez Cruz’s Malbec. And this is without counting País-based sparklers, with Miguel Torres as their main representative,” he says.

What a long tunnel this was, but we are finally seeing the light at the end of it. According to Mario Geisse, technical director of Casa Silva and a true authority in Brazil with the sparkler brand Cava Geisse, in Chile there was a big contradiction. Although producing sparklers is more expensive due to its production, aging, inventory and other related costs, consumers were used to pay less than for a still wine.

But globalization, reflected in the resounding success of Brazilian soap operas, positioned sparklers as everyday drinks that were much more than just celebration tipples. “On the other hand, we just cannot excel at absolutely everything. If we analyze the big names, they have a very clear idea in mind along the entire process, from the vineyard to the shelves. Champagne does not have other products. They believe in specialization and this phenomenon is beginning to take root in Chile,” he explains.

SPECIALIZATION

Some time ago, Wines of Chile convened a group of experts in hope to develop a brand of Chilean sparklers that would somehow create value and identity for the nascent offer in foreign markets. While the idea was to come up with a concept similar to Spanish Cava, discussions ended up diluting the bubbles. A category only for wines made with the Champenoise method or also for Charmat? Should the wines come from specific areas of defined quality potential? Should the wines only be made from the classic Chardonnay/Pinot Noir mix or could they also include other varieties? What if they incorporated a small percentage of País to give them a distinct Chilean twist?

Hernán Amenábar sat at many of these work tables that never reached consensus because of the many conflicting interests. “To tell you the truth, we just could not agree on a common set of core attributes for Chilean sparklers. But even if we had, I do not think all sparklers should have a common distinct backbone because of the many different grape origins,” he points out.

But for Mr Geisse things are crystal clear. This road is more difficult, but if Chile wants to do things right, it is the only way ahead. “If Chile wants to gain recognition as a sparkler AO, this will definitely not be a country-wide phenomenon. We need to work with regional appellations. Any attempt at making it national is simply nonsensical due to the enormous variety. We cannot validate regions for wine production and then transform them for sparklers. These are two different worlds. Some people defend this idea but that is for their own interests. The truth is that Chile has the potential, but this will not happen overnight. We need to research further, continue testing and working,” he sentences.

SPECIAL MANAGEMENT

But in order to take advantage of such diversity, we need to begin in the vineyard itself. It is not enough with harvesting a few greener rows; we now must select and manage vineyards specifically for the production of sparkling wines. And this is precisely what Gonzalo Cárcamo is doing at La Rosa, one of the first wineries to make a serious bet on including sparklers in its portfolio by bottling its first Chardonnay in 2003 with the Charmat method.

According to him, it all started with an idea to add value to a vineyard planted by Recaredo Ossa –the winery’s founder– himself in an area of its field in Cachapoal. “We always heard that this was not an area for Chardonnay. But Mr Ossa planted these vines in secrecy. And they thrived! And we vinified them! This first sparkler not only came to refresh our portfolio. It was a milestone in our winery’s history,” he explains.

Today they produce this sparkler from Chardonnay and a Rosé from Pinot Noir. And they are already working on their first wine made with the Champenoise method. Japan was the first country to buy their early production. They began producing 5,000 cases and now they sell 25,000 in Chile and also offshore.

But this has been no easy task. Sales in Japan slumped when 3% of its bottles could not withstand the 5 bar pressure and simply exploded upon unloading. One supplier recommended bottles for frizzante, which works with defined pressures. They also had to adjust vineyard management and initiated a program that implied much testing and error.

“In Cachapoal the climate is not so cold, so we increased yields to slow down sugar accumulation. By doing so, by February 15 we have 11° with a yield of 15 tons per hectare. The idea is to manage the vineyard to achieve optimal phenolic ripeness and the degrees you need. We do a lot of canopy management in order to protect the clusters,” he explains.

THE SECRET

For Mr Geisse, choosing the right planting spot is key, without distractions and always thinking that the aim is to produce sparkling wines. “Chile has taken giant steps. Today, we can finally say that we have very good things on our side. Conditions are there, but not all locations are suitable. But who dares to place all their chips and live on sparklers alone?, he wonders.

He also points out that coastal areas seem very attractive but first you need to assess the percentage of clay in the soil, the different exposures, water availability and many other factors that make it possible to produce high quality wines. “The approach is different. You need to aim for total balance. Not just try to find aromas like you would for a still wine. Philippe Dumont –the legendary producer from Champagne– used to tell me: ‘Mario, we are lucky that Dom Perignon existed, because this wine is simply undrinkable’. That’s right. The base wine is quite unbalanced. Only a few are really capable of assessing its potential. So you need to use your imagination and project what the wine will be like. This is very complex,” he explains.

Juan Aurelio Muñoz, winemaker of La Ronciere and advisor to some revolutionary sparkler projects like Ribera Pellín in Osorno and Errázuriz in Aconcagua Costa, shares this view. After developing his expertise at Valdivieso in Chile and Bollinger in Champagne, France, he returned with a clear idea. He worked as an advisor during the development of Tamaya Reserva Especial 2008, my then favorite, and now of my new favorite: Ribera Pellín 2010, a sparkler that offers deep wild and mineral notes.

“In Chile we did not know how to make high-end sparklers. The principles applied were the same as for white wine. The best Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays came from Casablanca, so it seemed only logical that the valley would be good for sparklers too. But it isn’t. Today the best sparklers do not come from Casablanca or Leyda. We don’t need such intense aromas. You need grapes that are more neutral so that the sparkler can gain in complexity as it ages. The south is the real Promised Land. And that’s where we are going,” he affirms.

Just like Mr Geisse, who surprised us this year with a lively Fervor de Lago Ranco, Mr Muñoz is currently working on a sparkler from Selva Oscura, in the highlands of Victoria. We tasted the still unreleased 2014 vintage, which should complete 4 years aging on its lees before hitting the shelves. And it is already a serious, deep and complex wine.

“When you age a sparkler, it lasts for much longer than a wine. You need to be patient if you want to launch a super product. The secret of the French lies in aging. It is not just a whim. And that surely makes a difference! The second factor is management and respect for the origin. What I hate about advisors is that all their products are the same. You need to respect the location. That is the key,” he concludes.

A MATTER OF PATIENCE

According to Mr Amenábar, who also produces a still unnamed sparkler of his own together with his good friend Álvaro Espinoza, the sparkling wine category is poised to continue growing and consolidating. “Some wineries are already exporting with great success. But our local market has a cap. So if we manage to position ourselves as good producers of sparkling wine in Asia the sky is the limit,” he affirms.

It is very unlikely that a sparkler made with the Champenoise method can sell as a value wine, as was the case with varietals in the 1990s. Production costs are too high for that. It is hard to work with lower costs because then the product is no longer profitable.

“With Charmat we need to be more careful to protect a good image. The average consumer cannot tell the difference. This niche is still quite unexploited, but we need to preserve quality. It is not a question of wanting to produce a sparkler. You need a well defined concept, a philosophy and investments that are by no means negligible. Quality has skyrocketed over the last 15 or 20 years. We need to protect it,” Mr Amenábar adds.

According to Mr Geisse, who dreams of a small winery in the bucolic landscape that surrounds the Ranco Lake –the place deserves it, he affirms wholeheartedly–, the great fear is that Chile once again makes the mistake of selling too cheap. “This is a very tempting decision but it would deeply hurt those who are developing the more sophisticated side,” he points out.

Mr Muñoz agrees that patience is crucial to compete in the higher-end league. “I am not sure if everybody has got this right. You need two, perhaps four years to make something interesting. If you release it any time sooner, there will be no difference with a good Charmat. The label would read Champenoise but that would be a deception. Now we are finally beginning to understand the importance of aging,” he says.

- But do we have the capacity to compete against the world’s best sparklers?

- Chilean sparklers, like the ones we produce in the south, can very well compete in the Champagne market. Can we beat Bollinger? We need time but we surely can. We have to be patient. Surely we will not win in tradition, but we can offer better character and quality V if we work in the right areas, he affirms with resolute conviction.