My Taste: Chile

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Carol Emmas reports from a wine tour through Chile.

After a recent visit to Chile, exploring Elqui to Bío Bío with Wines of Chile, it was interesting to see how producers were embracing the new diversity cooler climates offer and moving away from their “safe and reliable” reputation.

With a near-perfect climate for grape growing, vast tracts of land and little disease, Chile resembles a vinous playground where producers can toy with land and terroir.

Elqui Valley

My first stop was the chilled-out, esoteric region of Elqui Valley, Chile’s most northerly winegrowing region. It is more famous for people coming to stargaze than to plant vines and now sees producers climbing skywards to cultivate at up to 2,000m altitude in Andean vineyards.

The country’s recent move towards high altitude and cool coastal climes means many of the wines have more minerality and higher acidity than what we have come to expect from Chile.

De Martino is one producer playing with altitude and mountain shade, and keeping to its origins using non-grafted rootstocks. Soon to hit the UK market will be a small parcel Altos los Toros Syrah 2008, Elqui (demartino.cl), with it’s bright and fresh fruit nose, followed by a concentrated glacial and restricted palate. It will be interesting to see what this does in the bottle given time.

Still in Elqui, Viña Falernia and Mayu are Chile’s most northerly wine estates and are planted at both high altitude and on the river bed. One of the most interesting grapes to be produced in Chile is Torontel, the sister grape of Argentina’s Torrontés. Making the best of the grape’s bountiful flavours, the Mayu Torontel 2009, DO Elqui Valley (mayu.cl), has a lovely tropical fruited and banana nose with a fresh, invigorating palate of papaya, banana and pineapple.

Likewise, Syrah is proving to be one of the most interesting grapes produced in high-altitude Elqui and the Falernia’s Alta Tierra Syrah Reserva 2007 (rrp £10.99, Direct Wines/Laithwaites), is a wine for Islay malt whisky lovers with its spicy, wood-smoke nose, and peaty, savoury characters.

What may set consumers in a spin are coastal Sauvignon Blancs, such as Castillo de Molina 2009 (£7.49, Majestic). This is different from the breezy, fruity Sauvignon Blancs that consumers of Chilean wines can safely grab from the shelves. You’re looking at higher acidity, more restrained fruit, minerality and intense citric notes. This is a hardline, stony and serious Sauvignon Blanc in comparison.

Limari

The next move was down to Limari, where Viña Tabali and Tamaya are situated. Felipe Muller-East, winemaker at Tabali, thinks the next 10 years will be big in investment for the young Valle de Limari. “We have a cold but dry climate with little risk of rainfall – this means we can grow red grape varieties that in other cool-climate areas is impossible.”

He adds the average temperature is similar to Marlborough and doesn’t go beyond 25°C. Interesting was Viña Tabali’s Reserva Especial Chardonnay 2008 (rrp £9.99, Boutinot Wines), which has a toasty nose, concentrated fresh palate of salted butter and a dry, lively acidity.

Family-owned Viña San Esteban is an interesting winery in the upper Aconcagua Valley, with its high-altitude plantings sitting almost vertically around nearby Mt Paidahuen. Its In Situ brand reflects general manager and winemaker Horacio Vicente Mena’s laid-back, organic attitude.

Here is a man who believes a tilt towards American oak and not French is the way forward for his Carmenère and Syrah. Striking was his Bordeaux-styled, complex, sumptuous, soft and elegant Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (rrp £11.99, Oxford Wine Company). Its deceptive 14.3 % abv demonstrates the high quality of the fruit through the smooth integration of the alcohol and oak. 

Still in Aconcagua, Errazuriz is doing some great things with its coastal region. Styles have changed since I last tasted Errazuriz wines a few years ago. Its Sauvignon Blanc seems the most improved to me and, instead of the forward, aggressive style of five years ago the Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc Estate 2009 (rrp £6.99, Oddbins) has moved to a cooler viticultural aspect near the sea and is using different clonal varieties, which give a more sophisticated, fresh limey vibrancy and good mouth-tingling acidity.

One of the grapes I want to shout loudly about is Sauvignon Gris and I think it has great commercial potential (don’t forget you heard it here first). Montana’s first Sauvignon Gris from New Zealand is top-notch stuff and coming to the UK early next year. But from Chile is the Leyda Sauvignon Gris Kadun 2009 (£9.50, Great Western Wine), with its attractive pink hue, spicy aromas and grassy, floral, succulent and unctuous palate.

Of course I’ve yet to discuss the equivalent of Argentina’s Malbec – the lost grape of Bordeaux, Carmenère. This is a stroppy variety to cultivate and is acting like a reluctant teenager, refusing to become Chile’s flagship grape. For me, some of the best were produced in the more temperate climes such as Central Valley, where this expressive grape seems to prefer to  languish in the hot sun than tolerate the cool.

The easy drinking, entry-level Vistamar Carmenère 2009 (vistamar.cl) would make a great house red with its commercially soft flavours of mocha, vanilla and spice.

More expensive is the ripe and well-structured Terrunyo Carmenère 2006, Peumo Vineyard, Rapel Valley (rrp £11.95, The Wine Society). But that’s not forgetting all the research which has obviously paid off for Casa Silva, with its Microterroir de Los Lingues Carmenère 2006 (rrp £25, Jackson Nugent). This unusually 100% Carmenère was my favourite, with a nose of mocha and soft leather, dense fruit on the palate, silky soft tannins, weighty mouthfeel and long finish.

On the other hand, Carignan seemed to be one of the more agreeable friends to Chile and the Santa Carolina – Specialities Dry Farming Carignan 2008, Cauquenes Valley (rrp £9.99 Justerini & Brooks), is showing very well, with its intense nose of raisins, plums, black olives and dark berry fruit, earthy, well-balanced tastes and floral finish.

Bío Bío

Finally pushing the limit of the Chilean winegrowing frontier is Bío Bío – the most southerly of wine regions and said to be on a par with Burgundy. The comparison doesn’t stop there at Corpora Family Estates, which has the young Louis Vallet from Vallet Frères of Gevrey Chambertin on board under the guiding eye of consultant winemaker Pascal Marchand. Light and refreshing was the sophisticated Agustinos Pinot Noir 2008, Reserva Privada, Bío Bío Valley, Santa Carla Estate (vcfamilyestates.cl).

When you talk to winemakers and viticulturists in Chile you feel there is indeed much excitement. There is undoubtedly an embracing of the experimental and the new.
As with anything, not all of it works. But as a young country, Chile has plenty of time to move from  being a one-trick, fruit-driven pony to producing some pretty serious wines.

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