Thoughts on Chile


In 2009 I spent three months touring the vineyards of Chile. Here are some of my impressions from that time.

Chile: A Glimpse

I have only been in Chile for a few days, but my first impression is of a wine rich culture. Akarana, the restaurant I went to for New Years Eve had a fabulous wine list at very reasonable prices. The local grocery store has a decent selection of affordable wines, and even our hotel room had a bottle to try.

When one thinks of Chile, at least from afar, they think of Cabernet and Merlot, usually well priced but with moderate expectations. Those who know their wine might also expect to see the intriguing Carmenere grape well represented. Certainly all that has been my experience, but it is only the beginning.

I have also had a very good Pinot Noir and a late harvest wine made from Muscat and another from Sauvignon Blanc. Clearly Chile is a wine producer with much greater range than it appears from outside.

That is exactly why I am here. To learn for myself what the true Chilean wine scene is about, and of course to report it all back to you. My mission even has the catchy name of the Andean Wine Crusade, replete with logo and a great deal of press.

I will have the opportunity to visit many wineries and regions in the country, and I am greatly looking forward to it. If what you know about Chilean wine comes from the selection at your local store, be prepared to discover a new truth, right along with me.

It may take years before the greater variety of wines from Chile find their way to the US and other shores, but their high quality and low prices make it likely to happen. Countless others have gone before me, but my turn has come to explore the wine diversity of this southern vinous giant, and I am looking forward to being able to disclose what I find.

Mountains of Wines

I have been in Chile for more than a week now, and I have visited four wineries and seen five of the nine main wine producing regions and tasted around 50 wines . I am far from finished with my exploration, and I will be posting about the specific wineries in the days to come.

My first impression of the Chilean wine scene is that it is in a state of flux. Years of making big, rather indifferent wines has given way to a newfound search for the holy grail of modern wine, fruit.

The warm weather, mitigated by cooling breezes form the nearby Andes and Pacific Ocean translates to highly alcoholic wines with a tendency not to ripen well. The move to cooler regions and better vineyard practices is rapidly changing the wines that Chile is producing.

Almost everyone we have talked to has voiced their desire to express more of the grape in their wines. This is a trend that I applaud and that will make the wines of Chile that much more sought after on the world stage.

Carmenere is ubiquitous here. This grape, thought for so long to be Merlot, hails form the Bordeaux region of France, where it has long all but disappeared. In Chile it ranges from a rather indifferent red wine full of green pepper flavors, to a powerhouse of rich notes, but often lacking in complexity.

The desire to create a unique identity for the wines of Chile has led many to embrace and improve the Carmenere wines and from what I have tasted they may be on the right track, but the battle is not over yet. The propensity of the grape to produce an overwhelmingly green flavor is a strike against it, but when dealt with skillfully I was more impressed with the results.

Cabernet Sauvignon reigns here, as it seems to almost everywhere. The Cabs of Chile tend towards the softer, more drinkable side. This is all the more appropriate when you consider the low prices that the market allows for these wines. The $3 to $8 range is well populated and the quality in this value niche is much higher than in other parts of the world.

The high end is not completely devoid of players. Most of the wineries we have visited are producing a super blend that pushes the price envelope beyond $30. A price point that keeps the wines off the shelves here, but will be well received abroad. It may be a bit of an uphill struggle as the less expensive offerings have characterized the wines of Chile for most people.

I came here to find out if the wines from Chile are just well priced, or if there were gems that have yet to surface in the US market. With only 10% of my trip behind me I have already discovered the wines I was looking for, and I fully expect to learn about many more in the weeks to come.

A Dichotomy of Practices

Last week I visited four wineries with four very different points of view. A bulk producer in search of a newfound quality identity, a modern winery with an eye on tourism and two giants that have recently merged to create a monolithic presence.

J. Bouchon situated in Mingre in the Maule Valley is an old style hacienda with a suitable rustic looking winery to match their style. The facilities sport epoxy lined cement tanks in a white washed room, kept cool by the meter thick walls. This is all a facade of sorts as there is a modern production area situated just feet away.

Bouchon's history is that of a producer of indifferent and bulk wines. A history they are working hard to rewrite. Their top tier wines are terroir driven with a clear sense of identity from the vineyard. They are helped along this path by consultant Patrick Valette who until recently was the owner of Chateau Pavie in Saint Emilion.

In a rugged landscape of steep washes they carefully apply modern vineyard management in stark contrast to their bucolic setting. The results are good and improving. Expect to see their very best wines appear on the US shores with world class quality and pricing.

Casas del Bosque is well aware that their location in the Casablanca Valley, just an hour from the bustling metropolis of the capital city of Santiago affords them great opportunities for tourism. From their ample parking for busses and cars, to their very fine restaurant and meeting facilities, they are well prepared for visitors.

Even their barrel room is a show piece, designed to delight the tourist, while a few steps away beyond the ornate doors the real business of wine, with all of its unglamorous mess takes place. The wines too are designed to be crowd pleasers, and they hit their mark on all accounts.

The vines here are planted on their native roots, a testament not only to the lack of phylloxera in Chile, but to the mindset that ignores any possible benefits that root stock my give. Similarly the well manicured rows of vines seem to be planted more for ease of maintenance than with the heat of the sun in mind.

The wines are none the less fresh and modern, although the team seems to be struggling to find their ideal style. Experiments with oak aging may be going too far as one of the best wines I tasted was still in barrel and ready to be bottled, but the plans are to leave it for some time more.

Vina Tarapaca is in a world apart from the other properties of the Maipo Valley, literally. You enter the property by passing through a hidden gate far on a hill top, only to then drive miles through their vast vineyards down to their own little town and production facility. Everything they need from worker housing to carriage houses are sequestered in their private little valley.

The mansion that serves as the guest house rivals anything I have seen the world over. The grounds are replete with a pool, tennis court a four hole golf course and even a private landing strip for visiting dignitaries. Every weekend is booked for weddings and events and it is no wonder given the fairy tale elegance of the grounds.

A huge producer of a wide variety of wines, they still managed to impress me with quality even at the lower ends. The highest end push the price envelope for Chilean wines, but given their complexity and rich style, do so deservedly.

Vina San Pedro dwarfs them all. This 140 year old producer in the Curico Valley is large enough to have recently swallowed up Vina Tarapaca, creating the second largest wine property in Chile. The scale of San Pedro is evident in the 3000 acre vineyard that surrounds the winery. While this is one of the largest single vineyard plots I have ever seen, it is only about 1/3 of their total acreage.

Realizing the importance of keeping their high end wine making separate from their bulk efforts, San Pedro recently added individual wine makers to each facet of their operation. No longer does one person have to oversee everything from their gargantuan GatoNegro line to their very limited premium wines.

The vineyards too reflect the many styles the wines encompasses. On one end we find very old dry harvested vines with their gnarly twisted trunks while at the other end of the property is a text book operation of precision agriculture that embraces satellite maps and organic teas for irrigation.

All of the wineries I have seen so far have in common their desire to produce the best possible wines they can. They are all aware that in the past the wines of Chile may not have lived up to their potential and each property is doing what they feel is important to correct that.

Differing scales and approaches dictate what effort each producer concentrates on, but they all have the same goal in mind, and from what I have seen, they are all on their own tracks towards producing wines they may be proud of.

The Luxury of Casa Lapostolle

Like a wine cathedral the Clos Apalta winery rises out of the Colchagua in the Rapel Valley perched on a hill and looking from a distance like orange being offered to the gods. This is no coincidence, Casa Apalta is the flagship wine of Casa Lapostolle, which is owned by the makers of the orange and brandy flavored Grand Marnier.

The incredible gravity fed winery is only part of the reason to visit this stunning panorama. Adjacent to winery itself is the equally impressive Lapostolle Residence. Four "casitas," individual houses, await those who value comfort and pampering above anything as mundane as budget.

For $650 with dinner, or $550 without you can experience one of the finest and most comfortable overnight stays anywhere in the world. The meals are served at a central guest house that is replete with an infinity pool looking out into the vineyards.

The food was as resplendent as the view and the service and staff were uncommonly accommodating. They are ready and willing to fulfill any wish you may have to make your stay even more perfect. From horseback riding to the unforgettable Grand Pisco Sours while resting in the shade your needs are anticipated with a smile.

Once you can drag yourself out of the lap of luxury, stroll the few meters from the guest house to the winery for a tour unlike any you have ever expperienced. Designed to delight the eye as well as perform with simple ease, the Apalta winery is a descending spiral of beauty.

The grapes are given the royal treatment from the moment they arrive. Individual berry selection, usually reserved for the finest dessert wines is the initial step. This removes the ubiquitous stemmer crusher that blind tasting has shown to reduce the quality of their top tier wine.

The grapes are loaded into small hoppers that are wheeled to the top of the vats to discharge their load into the oak fermenters. Cooling coils ensure the control on the inside of the vat, while a bevy of misters and active cooling keeps the room at the ideal conditions.

The tanks drain their free run juice through a pipe system built into the floor, using the most gentle of gravity processes in order to prevent any harm that might come from pumping. The must is placed in a rare vertical press and the press wine is sent off for other endeavors, leaving only the finest ingredients for the Apalta bottling.

Down the spiral stair case to the first year barrel room reveals a sight that is rarely seen outside the first growth houses of Bordeaux. Perfect lines of new oak form a picture that speaks of the care and love that goes into producing the wine.

Another flight down yields the second year barrel room and a beautiful glass tasting table for those lucky enough to take the tour. Below the glass top rests the wine library that fewer still are given access to. Here every vintage of Apalta is stored waiting to be tasted at a much later date.

All of this is built into the solid granite that makes up the surrounding hills, and as if to accentuate that fact a wall of rough hewn granite graces the wine library and the stairwell of the winery. This look into the geology of the region is almost as telling as the obvious effort that went into building the imposing structure. Only a great deal of expense and love could have imagined and produced such a unique facility.

The Apalta Wine, which was recently award with the appellation of "The Best Wine in the World" by a leading publication is only one of many wines that are produced by Casa Lapostolle. In an epic tasting of 16 wines I was able to taste the past present and future of the winery. I was impressed not only by the wines, and the ever capable winemaker Andrea Iriarte but by her deep desire to continue to excel and acknowledgment that there is room for improvement. A typically Chilean attitude that the rest of the wine world would do well to adopt.

Visit Chile, visit the Colchagua where some of the finest wines hail, but above all if you can at all swing it, visit the astounding Apalta Winery and Residence. It is an event that you will cherish forever.

Wine Economics 101

A full month of wine tasting and visiting wineries in Chile has done little to dampen my enthusiasm. I am more than ever a fan of the wines here, with a few caveats. The most notable of which is that the wines here are good in the "drink now and enjoy without scrutiny" class.

As it happens, this is one of my favorite classes of wines, and I believe it is the most important for consumers. The big expensive "age and wax poetic" wines get plenty of press but are not really what most people drink every day.

I have had a few age worthy wines, but even these fall much more into the 5 to 10 year range than the 20+ style of tannic, huge fruit and acidity types. It also means I haven't run across the "so hard they will never age" genre that too many producers in other parts of the world make.

The talk among the winemakers here is that the hard tannins of the 20+ wines are very difficult, if not impossible to achieve in Chile. They blame the ubiquitous heat. Certainly heat here is a huge problem that they are just starting to address.

Newer planting is being concentrated on microclimates that are a degree or two cooler than the existing vineyards, but the really cool regions are still being mostly ignored.

The coast (of which Chile has an abundance) and the Andes mountain slopes both seem to be obvious areas to explore. Logistics are problematic in that these regions are far from the existing winery facilities. Trucking grapes means cooling and expense, or reduced quality.

High heat also translates to high alcohol. I have heard rumors of experiments with reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol without affecting quality. There has been some promising examples of this is the similarly heat plagued vineyards of Napa, California. From what I have seen this is still something that is being talked about rather than actually practiced here in Chile.

One look at the local grocery store shelves points out the economic realities of the industry. $2 bottles of wine are not uncommon, and the more expensive labels tend to top out around $10. Expectation for the local industry here is much the same as in the rest of the world, well priced, simple wines are what Chile produces.

The higher priced, more complex and dare I say "better" wines are primarily destined for export. The very wines I came to Chile to find are actually more common in the US and Europe than they are at their birthplace.

This has led to a near schizophrenic attitude in Chile. They want to make better wines, but they know they have to export them to get the prices they need, and exporting leads to lower margins. And so, most wineries make a great deal of lower priced wines that help to defray the cost of making and exporting their best efforts.

This in turn perpetuates the market for lower priced wines in Chile. Since the local market doesn't get to experience what a few dollars (or in some cases double or more the dollars) will buy, they don't clamor for it. The classic chicken and egg.

This is really evident in the dessert wines. The market will not bear the necessary expense of sweet wines. Since they by definition are expensive to make, they tend to sell for a premium, everywhere but here. Most of the examples I have seen are priced in the $10 a bottle range, and too often that is all they are worth.

I am not expecting Chile to become a powerhouse producer of dessert wines, it is not their future. What is in the cards is greater quality for export, and a slowly growing appreciation for the higher priced wines in their own country of origin. In a nutshell, Chile is good, and getting better!

Vina San Esteban / In Situ - A Beacon of Quality

Sometimes everything comes together just perfectly. A winery that doesn't have to outgrow its comfort zone because it is family owned. Vineyards that were planted on the hillside, a decade before it was fashionable. Grape variety and clone choices that many advised against, but ended up working out.

This is the legacy of Vina San Estaban winery in the Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago. Originally, the family grew fruit and grapes for others. This can still be seen in their thriving table grape business. Now they have to buy grapes to meet the demand for their lower end wines. The estate grapes go into their own In Situ line.

In Situ literally means in place, and while the term refers as much to the archeological finds on the property, that can be view "in place" it is also appropriate for these wines which reflect a sense of place more than most. One of the local hieroglyphs grace the label and it is a strong reminder of the people that have lived in this valley, not only thousands of years ago, but for the last few generations.

They have managed to carve a world class winery operation out of the steep hillsides they have planted with vines. The 2,400 feet of altitude help keep the grapes cooler than most vineyards in Chile, but it is the attitude, more than the altitude that is most refreshing.

As with so many others in Chile the winemaker and vineyard manager at San Estaban are not content to leave well enough alone. They are constantly striving to find new and better ways. Where they rise above the norm is in the execution of their desires, and how it is reflected in their wines.

New wine drinkers tend to enjoy the obvious flavors of oak, and so too do nascent wine drinking regions. Chile is at this point of their evolution, as the US was not long ago, and Australia even more recently. The market here clamors for over oaked wines with hardly a hint of fruit. Many winemakers recognize that the need to propel more of the fruit flavors, but few do much about it, driven by market realities.

San Estaban has solved this problem by simply exporting almost all of their wine. Except for visitors to their estates, you can only find the wines in Europe or the US. Not feeling compelled to create a wine style that would sell well in Chile Horacio Vincente Mena has taken his family's winery to a world class level.

The wines are a near perfect marriage of structure and fruit, with oak playing a supporting role instead of the all too often lead. Here the ubiquitous Carmenere of Chile has found a champion who understands how to balance the potentially overwhelming green flavors without loosing the character of the grape.

With a strong emphasis on organic farming and keeping yields lower than what almost anyone else in this country would consider viable, Horacio is making the wines in the vineyards without having to resort to the heavy handed practices of so many of his contemporaries.

Acidification is a common in this land of great heat and over ripe grapes, but Horacio has sought balance by allowing some of his crop to remain less ripe, thus adding acidity from the grapes, and not from chemistry. The results are evident in his wines which have the layers of complexity I have been searching for throughout Chile.

I came here in quest of the future of Chile. Hunting for those that recognize the potential of this mammoth wine making region. Many have glimpsed the future that lurks just ahead, but Horacio Mena and Vina San Estaban are living examples of what can be done.

Cooler vineyards, careful attention to growing practices, a light hand in the winery and a scale that does not have to resort to the industrial methods employed by the enormous wineries that dominate the industry here. These are the keys to quality, and for many it may remain out of reach as long as they continue to make inexpensive wines for an unappreciative local market.

Chile has a great future as a world class producer, but until the Chileans themselves learn to demand quality over quantity, and are willing to pay the difference, craftsmanship may remain the purview of those few who eschew their own market.

It is not only San Esteban that has learned that their wares are most appreciated overseas, almost without exception all of the wines I have been most impressed with are created with these foreign markets in mind.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Exporting brings money into the country and is great in an age when so many are looking for ways to prop up their economy. None the less, we have already heard the laments of the locals that all of the great fruit that is produced here can only be found in supermarkets abroad, and so it seems, that the best wines too are not to be found at home.

A Final Look

Our time in Chile has drawn to an end. These 10 weeks have been a great eye opener. I have discovered the Chile I was hoping to find. Not only are the well known value wines here, but so too are an increasing number of higher end quality wines that the world needs to know more about.

By far and away two things struck me the most about Chile. The first is the size of the vineyards and wineries, and the second is the fact that in this country they are looking forward towards the future, instead of relying on their past. The first may be changing, and the second is why.

Chile is wine production on a huge scale. We visited a single vineyard that was almost 5000 acres. And it was only half of their holdings. Compare this to the whole of Burgundy's 13,500 acres or Oregon's 13,700. And this is just one large producer. A medium sized grower here has about 1000 acres, and that is more than the whole acreage of a large California producer like Mondavi.

To combat the industrial scale of these numbers the best large producers have teams of winemakers that keep the different levels of wine separate. It is like having several wineries under one roof. That way the finest wines can still be made with the hands on attention that a small winery can afford to give.

Everywhere we went the wineries speak about how they are experimenting, and how much more they have to learn. This is a pleasant contrast to so many other regions around the world where you are more likely to hear about their traditions and how they make wine like their predecessors did. Making great wine works, no matter if you use the most modern or the most ancient techniques, but striving to improve yourself or your wine always gets my vote.

It is this predilection to forward movement that will propel more small wineries into existence. 20 years ago there were only a handful of wineries, and they were all industrial sized. Now there are closer to 200 properties and they range greatly in production. The smaller artisanal efforts are just starting to appear, and I expect to see the trend continue, and the general level of quality to continue to improve.

The hospitality we received was remarkable. Everyone that we visited went out of their way to make us comfortable and to take care of us. We made some great friends on the trip and look forward to having the chance to see them all again at some future date. While we only got to the chance to visit less than 10% of all the wineries, we got a look at a good cross section of the market.

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