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Chilean Wine Flies Its Freak Flag. Very Cautiously

While Chile makes tasty, reliable wines, it also has a wild streak it’s keen to talk about

Chris Losh By September 15, 2021
Garage Wine Co. uses dry-farmed grapes grown by small farmers in the Maule Valley
Garage Wine Co. uses dry-farmed grapes grown by small farmers in the Maule Valley. Photo courtesy of Garage Wine Co.

People who were there swear that, in 2003, Chile exhibited at a major Italian wine fair under the proud banner “Chile the country with the second lowest level of corruption in South America.” 

You’d have to question whether it’s the best way to sell wine. Certainly for Kristen Chiriaco, manager at Stirling Fine Wines in New Jersey, Chile’s ethical probity is not a major attraction. “All of the Chilean wines are better value, and we would usually recommend them on that basis,” she says.

Not because they’re exciting? Romantic? Poetic?

“Inexpensive. Reliable,” says Chiriaco. “You know what you get.”

There’s a place for reliable, of course. But most wine regions aspire to something more inspiring. So, in 2014, Wines of Chile commissioned marketing firm, Ipsos, to help them liven up their image, which is a bit like trying to be entertaining by rote-learning a joke book. 

But they were right that something needs to change, because there’s a growing mismatch between the country’s bland image and the kind of wines it’s increasingly starting to produce.

The birth of safe wine

When U.K. wine writer, Tim Atkin MW, described Chile as, “the Volvo of the wine world,” 20 years ago, meaning reliable but unexciting, it wasn’t as critical as it seemed. Chilean winemakers know their stuff. Sales and marketing teams listen to their customers, give them what they need at competitive prices, and deliver on promises. Chiriaco even cites reliability of winemaking as a selling point.

Some of the cautious, safety-first Chilean mentality may be explained by its remote location. Cut off behind the vast barrier of the Andes, Chile’s not an island, but it’s definitely isolated. As one insider puts it, “Chileans are still humble and delighted when someone knows something about the country.” The desire not to offend is understandable.

But it’s also true that Chileans are increasingly bridling at this safe but dull assessment, saying that they’re victims of an image problem, not a product problem

“I believe that we have not failed either in the way we do things or in the attractiveness of our country and our products,” says Adolfo Hurtado, managing director of MontGras and former winemaker of Cono Sur. “But perhaps we have failed in the way we have communicated in the past.”

He may well have a point. But the way in which Chile’s wine industry came into being is probably a contributing factor to the country’s mentality, too. 

While the first vineyards were planted 200 miles south of Santiago by Spanish missionaries, the modern industry began in the 19th century when the country’s wealthy industrialists began creating show-off estates for themselves. 

Nothing rounded off a copper magnate’s grand manor house quite like a vineyard, planted, naturally, with the aristocratic varieties of Bordeaux and Burgundy. This is how Chile’s love affair with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay began. 

Picking grapes grown on pre-Phylloxera root stocks in the Maule Valley

Picking grapes grown on pre-Phylloxera root stocks in the Maule Valley. Photo courtesy of Garage Wine Co.

Chile has an enviable climate, and these transplanted Bordeaux varieties did very well. They were easy to ripen, easy to drink, and competitively priced. Everyone was happy. Particularly the world’s supermarkets, who hoovered the stuff up by the container load. 

But it also meant that Chile’s industry grew from the boardroom down rather than the vineyard up. It’s a much more corporate industry than, say, France or Italy. A dozen or so major companies — the five biggest being Concha y Toro, Cono Sur, San Pedro, Luis Felipe Edwards, and Santa Rita — still account for a majority of the wines.

A renaissance

If you want to make great, as opposed to good, wine, vines need to struggle; to be on edge. As pioneering Chilean winemaker, Marcelo Retamal, of Viñedos de Alcohuaz, puts it, “safe places equals boring wine!”

Pioneering winemaker Marcelo Retamal sitting in a vineyard high in the Andes

Pioneering winemaker Marcelo Retamal sitting in a vineyard high in the Andes. Photo courtesy of Marcelo Retamal.

In search of not safe, not boring, for 20 years or so, wineries have been pushing out of the Central Valley to make more of the country’s geography. 

Chile runs almost 3,000 miles north to south the Northern Hemisphere equivalent of going from Oaxaca in Mexico to Quebec all jammed into 150 miles between the Pacific to the west and the Andes to the east. So the opportunities for finding unusual places to plant vineyards are boundless.

At least, as long as you can find water and your corporate backer is prepared to sanction the expense. Neither of these things are easy, and planting new areas has been slow. Even so, there are now vines from the Atacama Desert in the north to the windswept island of Chiloé, 800 miles south of the capital, Santiago.

Those old southern vineyards planted by the missionaries in the 16th century have also had a renaissance. Naturally cooler and naturally damper, the likes of the Maule and Itata Valleys have thousands of acres of old vines that can tolerate dry periods without irrigation and, if handled correctly, can give wines that are different in style to other Chilean regions.

Oh, and land down south is cheap. Experienced winemakers have been able to buy vineyards or grapes as side projects and experiment with unusual varieties and different winemaking techniques, free from the commercial needs of their employer’s customers.

The new wave also comes from a very different mindset. “It is volitional and parcel-oriented,” says one of the pioneers, Derek Mossman Knapp, of Garage Wine Co. “It has to do with old vines and focus. The cellars make different wine on purpose, not because of a next big thing mentality.”

It is a shift from boardroom to vineyard even if bigger companies have seen what’s happening and jumped on the bandwagon too. New thinking and new plantings have given Chile a very different narrative, albeit one that was hiding in plain sight the whole time. 

Mossman Knapp describes it as a movement that’s about “land not brand.” 

“I can’t think of another country or wine region in the world that has developed so much, and with such a level of diversity as Chile has today. It does not seem fair to me when Chile is named as a solid industry but that does not take risks. I believe that today we are perhaps the country that offers the greatest diversity, attractiveness, novelty, and enthusiasm.” —Adolfo Hurtado, managing director of MontGras and former winemaker of Cono Sur

Diversity and novelty

From old vine Semillon, País, and Carignan to Rieslings on the side of a volcano and Garnacha (Grenache) halfway up the Andes, Chile’s journey of exploration and rediscovery is leading to some exceptional wines that are way beyond $12 Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc.

Not everything has changed, of course. The typical Chilean wines, so beloved by Kristen Chiriaco’s customers, are still reliably good and cheap. And Chile has maintained its status as the second-least corrupt country in South America.

But now there’s romance and poetry too. No need for consultants explaining how to be interesting; the wines themselves do all the talking.

3 classic and 2 new wave Chileans to try:

bottle of Errazuriz Max Reserva Aconcagua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Errazuriz Max Reserva Aconcagua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($14)

Chile is justifiably well-known for its Cabernet Sauvignons, and this is a quality example for the money. As soft and comforting as sinking into a bean bag full of plums.

bottle of Garage Wine Co. 215 BC Ferment Maule Valley 2019

Garage Wine Co. 215 BC Ferment Maule Valley 2019 ($20)

País is Chile’s oldest grape, yet this wine is part of the new wave. Its name alludes to the fact it was planted 215 years Before the first Cabernet. It’s a wonderful pale, light, sappy easy-drinker, with flavors of raspberry, currant leaf, and flowers. Great for lighter food or drinking on a warm evening terrace; you can even chill it and have it with fish. *** 

bottle of Marques de Casa Concha Limari Valley Chardonnay 2018

Marques de Casa Concha Limari Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($21)

Chile is mostly about reds, but when its whites are good, they can be very good indeed. This comes from the cooler, northern Limarí Valley, and it’s a winning combination of bright pear and apple fruit, balanced by just the right amount of vanilla oak and lemony acidity. A steal at this price. 

bottle of De Martino’s Gallardia Itata Valley Cinsault 2019

De Martino’s Gallardia Itata Valley Cinsault 2019 ($24)

If you want a more full-bodied, southern-valley red, this is a bargain: redcurrants and boysenberries with good freshness but a little more tannic grip. One for lamb or pork. ***

bottle of TerraNoble CA2 Costa Colchagua Valley Carménère 2017

TerraNoble CA2 Costa Colchagua Valley Carménère 2017 ($30)

For years much Chilean “Merlot” was actually Carménère, and the variety has gone on to become something of a major selling point. The widely-available $8 Reserva from Casillero del Diablo is a good mid-week introduction, but if you want to see how good the grape can be in Chile, this is magnificent: sage and thyme wrapped in silky plum fruit, it’s complex but not overworked.

*** Chris’s notes are for the latest vintages of these wines: TerraNoble Ca2 2018, Garage Wine Co. Pais 2020, and the De Martino Gallardia Cinsault 2020, which have not yet arrived in the U.S. We have listed available vintages.