Chilean Wine On The Cusp
Beverage professionals face a constant swirl of information about emerging wine regions, a term of convenience that is applied equally to regions that only started being serious about wines in the late 20th century and those where grapes have been grown for millennia. Slots on wine lists are fought over fiercely, whether that space means an opportunity to be in 400 operations or four, and the levels of evaluation – wine quality, price, suitability with market and menu, region, grape, etc. - are weighed and measured carefully. Or, more often it seems, not at all, with lists thrown together by a supplier or friend of the family.
It’s not an easy task, picking which wines to offer customers, and past performance can leave a taint on a country or region’s wines. Not long ago considered the cheap and easy choice if complexity of flavor didn’t matter, wines from Chile have improved by a magnitude in the past decade. Tied to an image established in the 1990s for inexpensive but undistinguished value brands, Chileans didn’t often graduate buyers to more sophisticated wines, generally because few were available, primarily because as a country fairly new to the international wine world, many Chilean winemakers were pressured to produce volume rather than quality.
They watched as their Argentinian neighbors produced oceans of Malbec to great acclaim, at least in the U.S. Partially as a result, many Chilean producers focused on an equally obscure varietal, Carmenere, with not such interesting results in general. And while wines made from Carmenere can be found on lists and at wine shops all over the US, not many are making the sort of impact producers sought.
Though many consumers still think of Chile solely as a producer of value wines, a revolution has occurred in the quality and range of wines being produced in this fast-developing country. Efforts of many vintners to figure out how to take advantage of the enormous diversity of soil and micro-climates in the numerous producing valleys, and to exploit combinations of region, climate, vineyard and varietal, have resulted in particular valleys and sub-regions developing reputations for certain varietals. The Casablanca Valley, for instance, which has carefully developed a reputation for well-priced, fresh whites suited for everyday consumption, has pushed on to develop Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with more complexity and depth but still attractively-priced.
In other parts of the country, it’s fresh and elegant Pinot Noir that seems to be emerging; in others, ripe and spicy Malbec, dense and intriguing Syrah, sleek and sophisticated Cabernet Sauvignon, and wine blends with four or more grape varietals, a style that may be key to the true future of Chile.
That ability to produce a wider range of wines has helped producers make inroads here: Emiliana supplies grocery chain Whole Foods with a line of organic wines and has recently partnered on a series of wine dinners including six of their labels with the 33 unit Legal Sea Foods.
Whether the wines come from better-known areas like the Maipo and Colchaugua valleys or less known regions like Bio-Bio, what’s being crafted in Chile is getting another and much closer look. This is especially true in terms of organic brands and even those made with bio-dynamic principles, a method that often is suffused with new age gobbledegook and too little quality – not true in Chile. Overall, though, producers to look for include Emiliana (Coyam, Novas and Emiliana Organic), Los Vascos (especially Cabernet and rosé of Cabernet), MontGras (especially Sauvignon Blanc and the Antu Ninquen Syrah), and Undurraga (Syrah under a variety of labels), among others.
Already well known vintners like Clos Apalta and Montes Alpha need no introduction, but two initiatives are worth pointing out: the group of small, independent producers called MOVI, who will visit the US this fall in search of buyers, and the wine slam known as Vigno, in which 12 producers of various sizes from the Maule Valley bottle under the Vigno label wines made from at least 65 percent old vine Carignan with some spectacular results.