Chile’s Quest

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Chile’s Quest

New varietals and terroirs beckon, while solid bargains abound

As a source of value-priced reds and whites, Chile is a winemaking juggernaut. It’s a testament to Chile’s development over the past two to three decades that the country can

offer dozens of bottlings, including international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, that rival counterparts from California, Australia and elsewhere in the New World.

For example, it’s hard to beat the quality-to-price ratio of Concha y Toro’s Marqués de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 from the Puente Alto district, which hails from storied terroir just south of the capital, Santiago. Delivering a suave mix of dark fruit, cherry and spice flavors, along with an appealing hint of green herb, the wine rates an outstanding 91 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale and costs only $26 a bottle.

A white wine such as Lapostolle’s Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Cuvée Alexandre Atalayas Vineyard 2012 (91 points, $24), which offers lusciously spiced tropical and white fruit flavors, is equally impressive. Its grapes are grown in a region near the Pacific shore that barely registered a generation ago yet has taken the lead with the Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Yet many Chilean vintners are restless and looking to deliver something more—a chance at star status or a distinctive niche—which they say has eluded them so far.

The raw materials are there. Chile boasts a range of terroirs that its talented winemakers have just begun to explore. From the desertlike climes of the north (Limarí and Elquí) to the cooler and wetter regions of the south (Itata and Bío Bío), Chilean vintners are pushing the boundaries. But there are constraints: an industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of big players, a risk-averse and export-driven wine economy, and a small domestic market for top-quality bottlings.

“I always have the feeling that Chile is in a constant catch-up process amongst ourselves, and I find that fascinating,” says Sven Bruchfeld of Viña Polkura.

“Although Chile is among the biggest wine producers in the world, and actually one of the biggest New World exporters, there are very few wineries,” Bruchfeld adds. “This is finally changing, and I think this will be one of the most interesting developments in years to come. Winemakers hired by big companies are making their own wines on the side, grapegrowers are starting to keep part of their production to make wine, and there are also more entrepreneurs and winemakers wanting to make wine.”

Industry leader Aurelio Montes recognizes a variety of new grapes and wines on the horizon that could help define—or redefine—Chile’s future. “From what I see, the best results are being achieved by the Mediterranean varieties like Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and, in less dimension, the País grape,” Montes says. “These varieties are doing well not only in Maule and Itata but in warmer valleys in the north that are yielding outstanding quality and freshness. I am personally getting excellent results out of these varieties in Colchagua Valley.”

Since my previous report on the category (“Learning Curve,” May 31, 2014), I have reviewed nearly 350 Chilean wines, one-fifth of them receiving outstanding scores of 90 points or higher. The wines cover a range of regions and grapes, representing the diversity on offer in Chile today. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

Although Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet-based blends are the most well-known and popular reds from Chile, Carmenère remains the country’s distinctive varietal, in much the same fashion as Zinfandel in California. It can be a vexing grape for many producers, sometimes marred by assertively green flavors. Yet in the hands of skilled vintners, Carmenère can offer profound quality. The key is to limit its yields, and apply good canopy management, to control the green notes known as pyrazines.

Leading the pack this year are two high-end releases from Concha y Toro: the elegant and powerful Cabernet Sauvignon Puente Alto Don Melchor 2011 (94 points, $125), a perennial top performer, and the Carmenère Peumo Carmín de Peumo 2012 (94, $200), made by the talented winemaker Ignacio Recabarren, with suave dark fruit flavors matched to delicious savory notes. Just a step behind are a handful of reds at 93 points, including the Viña Montes Purple Angel 2012 ($85), a plush and creamy Carmenère-based blend from the Colchagua Valley that is filled with dark fruit, spice and chocolate flavors.

The other top-scorers at 93 points include a trio of red blends. The rich, lush Viña Seña Aconcagua Valley 2012 ($160) and powerful, vibrant Viña Koyle Auma Colchagua Valley 2011 ($100) are both dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère, while the Lapostolle Borobo Chile 2011 ($85) is an eclectic bottling that combines Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah, Carmenère, Pinot Noir and Merlot for an elegant style showing a minerally richness to its deep, plush flavors.

Other notable Cabernet-based reds are the Viña Almaviva Puente Alto 2011 (92, $180), a big and ripe yet structured blend from the joint venture of Concha y Toro and Château Mouton- Rothschild, and the ripe, dense Viña Quebrada de Macul Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Domus Aurea 2010 (91, $65). Notable values include the Viu Manent Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Valley La Capilla Single Vineyard 2011 (90, $25) and Veramonte Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Valley 2013 (89, $12).

However, it’s not all smooth sailing for Chilean producers. In a world full of expensive wines, high-end Chilean reds can be a tough sell. And the competition is fierce in the world of Cabernets, especially at the low end of the price spectrum, where Chile excels. The U.S. market, with its three-tier system, can also be perplexing for many Chilean vintners. “It’s difficult to sell a Chilean wine above $30, let alone $100,” says Tulio Vera, a native of Chile who co-owns Nolita Wine Merchants in Manhattan’s East Village. “And the guys who are small producers have a hard time navigating the U.S. system.”

Chile is a fertile land for growing grapes, dominated by a Mediterranean climate of cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. The melting snows of the high Andes water the country’s vineyards, and the winds from the Pacific moderate the summer heat.

Vintage variations tend to be nominal, but there are some exceptions. The two most recent vintages in the pipeline are 2013 and 2014, yet many of the top-scoring wines in this report are late releases from the cool 2011 vintage, which yielded a small crop that ripened steadily and evenly in most of the country’s major wine regions.

In general, 2013 was also a cool vintage, delivering fresh flavors with good balance in terms of concentration and flavor. “Coming out of a warmer vintage like 2012, you will find a little more tightness in the 2013s, more structure, but at the same time, nice balance and length compared to the ’12s, which were richer, rounder and fatter in general terms,” explains Rodrigo Soto, winemaker for the Veramonte winery in Casablanca.

In 2014, a severe spring frost cut the crop by 30 percent to 60 percent in some coastal districts, and the rest of the year was cooler than normal across the board. But if vintners managed their vineyards carefully, they harvested high quality grapes.

Syrah is a varietal punching above its weight in Chile today. In total, 14 of the 43 Syrahs under review, or about one-third, rated 90 points or higher, an impressive percentage. Among the four highest-scorers, at 92 points, is another success from Montes—his Syrah Colchagua Valley Alpha 2012 ($22), a voluptuous red exhibiting dark berry and plum flavors while also representing excellent value.

Bruchfeld’s Polkura also crafted one of this report’s top Syrahs, the Marchigüe Block G+I 2011 (92, $40), a lusciously ripe and layered red that shows flavors of dried meat, blackberry and dark plum. The wine comes from a hillside site filled with granite and clay in the Colchagua Valley. Situated about 20 miles from the Pacific, the vineyard lies between maritime influences and the warmer interior of the region.

“In terms of quality, I think Syrah is one of the most consistent varieties, and I believe Chile has a lot to offer,” Bruchfeld says. “I am afraid the market has undervalued Syrah in general, and that doesn’t mean much to me, but it stops wineries from developing more, leaving it just for the enthusiasts like us.”

Another varietal worthy of attention is Pinot Noir, which grows best in the cooler regions near the coast, most notably Casablanca, where Kingston Family is among the top producers, crafting outstanding wines such as the Casablanca Valley Tobiano 2013 (90, $20). This fresh and open-textured version shows an engaging minerality. The nearby Leyda Valley and San Antonio appellations also have flavorful bottlings. Leading producers include Viña Leyda, Viña Casa Marín and Valdivieso.

If you’re searching out the country’s white wines, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are your best bets, with both grapes delivering consistently high quality and solid value. In addition, Sauvignon Blanc offers a good case study in how Chile has improved yet still faces challenges. In the past, many versions were flat-tasting and characterized by canned fruit flavors—partly due to an inferior clone that dominated Chilean plantings. Yet quality has risen sharply, and today two dominant styles have emerged.

I prefer the fresh and fruity style, evident in wines such as the Montes Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley Limited Selection 2014 (89, $15), showing lively flavors of melon, apricot and tropical fruits. The second type is an attempt to mimic the New Zealand style of Sauvignon Blanc, marked by firm acidity and aggressive green pepper and jalapeño notes. This style is popular in the United Kingdom, a key export market for Chile. That Chile’s vintners can adjust the wine’s flavor profile for leading customers is impressive on its own, but it does little to promote distinctiveness.

Among this report’s top Chardonnays are the richly spiced Viña Leyda Chardonnay Leyda Valley Lot 5 2013 (90, $30), which offers notes of apple tart, dried apricot and roasted pineapple, and Viña Santa Ema Chardonnay Amplus 2013 (90, $24), from the cool-climate Leyda appellation, exhibiting a range of white fruit and cream flavors.

As for the future, where are those wines that may shift the paradigm? They’re there, though you will have to look to find them. The O. Fournier Carignan Urban 2013 (90, $14), delivering flavors of roasted plum, truffle and black currant, and De Martino Carignan Vigno Old Vines Dry-Farmed 2011 (90, $42), a minerally and exuberantly fruity red, both come from old-vine, bush-trained and dry-farmed vineyards in the Maule Valley, a region that’s better known for its production of bulk wine.

Another fascinating wine is the Garcia & Schwaderer Facundo Chile 2011 (90, $35), with flavors of cherry tart, roasted plum, mint and white pepper. It’s a distinctive blend of 46 percent Carignan from the Maule Valley and 41 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Itata Valley, with 10 percent Cabernet Franc from Maule and a dash of Petit Verdot from Colchagua. And for a solid bargain from Maule, look for the Altamana Malbec Maule Grande Reserve 2013 (91, $18).

For Veramonte’s Soto, the challenge of regions such as Itata and Maule—as well as those that lie on the frontiers to the north and south or into the high Andes—will be to establish a track record of quality and experience.

“I think you will be seeing wines with more personality, some more extreme than others, but at the same time trying to accentuate sense of place,” Soto says. “Some are going to be really interesting and some other ones disappointing. Some of them will be very well-balanced, some other ones completely out of whack and trying to prove a point rather than thinking of quality and flavor. It is going to be a really interesting process, the outcome of which will be a much more diverse, interesting and mature country in terms of finding its own personality and knowledge of its geography, climate and geology.”

It is up to Chileans like Soto to push the process forward if his nation is to chart its next course—and spread its wings.

Managing editor Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Chile.

 

Fuente: Wine Spectator