By Ken Ohashi MW / 12 Sep, 2022
On the world wine map, Chile can no longer be overlooked as a producer of premium wines. As per U.S. customs data, Chilean wine shipped to United States which’s the world's biggest wine consumer increased by 1% in volume which remained almost flat, while increased by 8% in value in a comparison of 2021 versus 2020. Further, according to Nielsen’s data, the U.S. market in 2021 saw Chile wine increased by 56% in the segment of $50-100 per bottle and 62% increase in the category of $100+ per bottle (Nielsen IQ, 52 weeks to November 6, 2021). We can find that, Chile wines in the super-premium segment are making remarkable achievements in this huge consumer market.
Wines of Chile, the promotion body, has started working on premiumization strategy for Chilean wine in major markets around the world. Tim Atkin, a London-based Master of Wine, awarded 95+ points to 78 Chilean wines in his recent Chile Report. Five Chilean fine wine have been traded on La Place de Bordeaux, a sales platform for mostly Bordeaux wines as well as luxury wine brands from around the world. Chile has established vineyards and regions boasting Grand Cru - equivalent status, as well as combinations of these areas and grape varieties. Here I would like to introduce some of them, based on my personal experiences and opinions.
As a premise, Chile is a long and narrow country stretching more than 4,200 km in latitude from north to south and an average width of about 180 km from east to west. With the cold Humboldt Current that flows North along its western coast, the 6000-meter Andes to the east, the Atacama Desert in the north and Patagonia in the south, Chile is a highly geographically isolated country. As a result, even climate change is progressing presently, Chile is said to be the least affected country among wine producing regions in the world. The extremely cold Humboldt Current, wide latitudinal range and the attitude brought by the Andes certainly have contributed a lot. Generally, there are abundant days of cloudless sunshine during the growing season, and snow melt from the Andes makes an important contribution to the supply of irrigation water. Furthermore, Chile has remained phylloxera-free and all these factors make Chile ideal for wine production.
Later when we get into the wine regions and grapes varieties of each region, there is another thing to keep in mind in addition to the D.O. system, which is the new regional denominations enacted in 2013 by highlighting the type of terrain with indications of vertically sliced sub-regions.
The east-west topography of Chile is influenced by the collision of the Nazca plate and the South America plate in the east-west direction, as a result it is vertically sliced into three sub-regions. These are Costa (Coast) for coastal areas, Andes for foothills of the Andes and Entre Cordilleras (between the Coastal Range and the Andes). Generally, in Costa, granitic soils with clay texture are common; In Andes, the majority are basaltic rocky soils; In Entre Cordilleras, a lot of soil variation has been recognized and soil textures ranged widely from sand to clay. Under this premise, now I would like to get into specific regions and relevant grape varieties.
Elqui Valley lies at the southern edge of Atacama of northernmost Chile, it boasts altitude up to 1,600-2,000m above sea-level. It is located in the Coquimbo region and known as the area producing pisco even today. The annual rainfall here is very low (100 mm is quite common), and the soils are mainly granite with sandy texture providing good drainage that allows the vine roots penetrate deep into the soils.
It is also known for extremely strong UV rays, the air is extremely clear due to the high altitude and the beauty of the night sky is a spectacular sight here. At this high altitude, it produces cool climate Syrah showing abundant rotundone, and Grenache reminiscent of high-quality Pinot Noir.
This region is located 400-500 km north of Santiago. It is very arid and dry due to its proximity to the Atacama Desert. While UV rays are also strong here, this region can be covered in fog in the morning due to the influence of the Pacific Ocean. The presence of soils mainly composed of calcium carbonate (with around 2-10% active calcium) helps produce world class Chardonnay in particular. (Tim Atkin MW, in his Chile report, commented on a Chardonnay wine that it rivals the quality level of Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru.)
In the Central Valley region which contains the capital Santiago, Aconcagua (especially outstanding Chardonnay from Costa) and Casablanca Valley (outstanding Sauvignon Blanc also from Costa) have established status as prominent wine regions. These wines would be perfect match for Sushi, a Japanese traditional food that has been a boom in Chile now. Some sub-regions within the Central Valley are gaining worldwide fame for producing Grand Cru-equivalent quality. Several of them are listed below.
It is Chile’s largest producer of wines awarded 100 points by world’s prominent journalists. It’s located in a district called Maipo Alto / Maipo Andes at around 650 m above sea level, within the Maipo Valley. Influenced by the Andes Mountains, the soils here are infertile with a very shallow topsoil having low content of potassium. The diurnal range between day and night during the growing season is over 10℃ and annual rainfall is as low as 300mm.
Puente Alto produces excellent Bordeaux blends boasting seamless texture. Besides, Pirque, the other sub-region of Maipo Alto, is also known as a source of splendid Bordeaux blends.
It is located 100 km south of Santiago and a sub-region of the Cachapoal Valley. The Cachapoal River moderates the summer temperature somewhat, while Peumo located at relatively low altitude around 150m on the flat land of Entre Cordilleras. The soils here are Alluvial based soils and the common soil type is granite, with fine texture ranging from clay to loam. Peumo is recognised for producing outstanding wines mainly from Carmenere, a late-ripening grape variety that prefers fertile soils with thick topsoil.
Known as one of Chile’s oldest wine regions, it is a valuable region for vineyards planted with old vines which benefited from its history. Maule has twice the rainfall of Santiago and is known as a region cooler and cloudier than Santiago. The soils here are typically infertile volcanic soils with low content of nitrogen and potassium. It produces a variety of excellent wines from old vines, notably Pais, Carignan and Malbec.
Heading south from Maule towards Patagonia, there are wine regions that have been attracting a great deal of attention for their high quality. Though I also hope to touch on the quality of red wine made from Cinsault planted in Itata and Bío Bío, here I would like to go further south to Malleco.
Malleco is known as the region where the late Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux invested in 1995. It is cooler and wetter with 1200 growing degree days (GDDs) and annual rainfall of 1,100 mm, showing similarities to the climatic conditions of Burgundy. Only 60 ha have been planted and the soils here are reddish basalt. We have already seen very high-quality wine from Malleco in the market, particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Landed at the nearest airport called Concepcion Airport, you will be greeted by a landscape with deep greenery and four distinct seasons, which is clearly different from regions mentioned above. (Personally, it is reminiscent of Tasmania in Australia). It can be said that Malleco is definitely a high-quality wine region to keep an eye on in the future.
Above are views based on my personal experience and may be somewhat biased, because there is difference in the quantity and variety of wines from different regions that I have tasted. However, it is no doubt that Chile has a variety of outstanding quality level wines representing wine regions mentioned and these wines have been improving the status of Chile in the global wine market.
Not only cool regions such as those influenced by the cold current, high-altitude regions and high-latitude regions, traditional regions at relatively low attitude have also achieved tremendous quality from the compatibility with specific grape varieties. The distinct characteristics of each region and the diversity of varieties will surely become the attractions of Chile in the future.