For more than half a century, Chile has become known as a pantry of good, beautiful and correct wines. But in the last five years, the South American country has become one of the most innovative and dynamic producers in the world
If it is necessary to establish the momentum of this transformation, we should refer to the fateful earthquake of 2010, responsible for shaking the foundations of the industry. Somehow, it was an excuse to reinvent itself.
For decades, the central valley, near Santiago, was the epicenter of wine production. The flat topography and the proximity to the ports and centers of consumption justified the profitability of the business. Why go any further?
Today, however, the transformation of Chilean wine can be seen from the hot Atacama desert in the far north to the rainy and cold region of State at the southern end. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenere, and Chardonnay – the slogans of the Chilean offer in the last fifty years – has been changed to a range of varieties and styles that did not exist a decade ago.
This has, of course, involved a breakdown of paradigms, motivated by a search for identity. And it is something that is perceived almost daily in all the Chilean winemaking geography. Therefore, it is emblematic to begin this route of transformation with Vina Ventisquero, that left the comfort of the Central valley, undertaking a route of more than 1,600 kilometers towards the north, until arriving at the valley of Huasco, in the desert of Atacama. There, the winemaker Felipe Tosso made three natural wines under the seal of Tara, which today are admired not only for their daring but to convey with them a feeling of the place, without alchemical artifices (such as stabilization, filtration or aging in wood). “They are what they are and nothing more,” says Tosso. This search, as Chilean critic Patricio Tapia points out, consists of “highlighting the characteristics of the fruit above anything else”, without any restriction.
About 1,500 kilometers to the south, a traditional winery like Viña Errazuriz, has dared to leave the warm and safe environment of the Aconcagua Valley to open a production front in the coastal area of the same region. Errazuriz extracts from their noble and elegant Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, of world-class, in which they excel the fruity expression and an attractive sensation of freshness. All this thanks to a higher level of natural acidity, facilitated by the slow ripening of the grape, in an environment moderated by sea breezes.
Aconcagua, however, keeps some more classic surprises, such as the project of Mauro Von Siebenthal, a Swiss lawyer who came to the region with the idea of turning it into a kind of Grand Cru Bordeaux. Their assemblages of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot are truly exceptional.
Further south, in the valleys of Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio, El Rosario and Lo Abarca, near the Pacific Ocean, the first Chilean strategy to exploit the benefits of its territorial diversity was born in the early 1990s to change perceptions Of its wines, until then static and without grace.
The Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from these cold areas have reached global recognition, and today they are equated with the best specimens from France, Oregon, Germany and New Zealand. They are fresh, fruity and elegant wines, far removed from those sturdy reds and whites of the past. It takes distance in its brilliant execution Viña Morande, created by Pablo Morande, well-known like “Discoverer of Casablanca”.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chilean coastal geography is the cold, light and sparkling Syrah, which is closer to the original version of the variety in the Rhone valley than to the dense, robust and heavy Australian Shiraz. Fresh fruit, first and foremost. When trying this Chilean variety it is advisable to look for wineries like Matetic, Casa Morin, Luis Felipe Edwards and Casa Silva (Paredones vineyard).
RENOVATION IN MAIPO
In Maipo, heart of the Central Valley, the latest trend is to renew the profile of the Chilean flag variety: Cabernet Sauvignon. Until today, a homogeneous style has predominated, too mature and with excessive breeding in wood. The new style, with fresher fruit and the lesser amount of aging, is present in the wines of wineries like Perez Cruz, and of great ventures like Marques de Casa Concha and Santa Carolina.
This revitalization of Cabernet Sauvignon has allowed Chile to regain its leadership with a strain that represents one-third of all varieties planted in the country. Also worthy of note here is the creation of an exceptional Syrah, made by Vina Maipo, located at a point where the Pacific breezes are found with the air currents coming from the Andes mountain range.
To the south, by the Pan American highway, there are several deviations toward the coast. A case is the Cachapoal region, full of interesting surprises, such as the wine cellar and hotel Vik, in the area of Millahue, where has been elaborating a single red wine, worthy to try and keep in memory.
Contiguous to Cachapoal is Colchagua, where they have their headquarters some of the most recognized houses of Chile in the world. There is also a transformation earthquake, visible in centuries-old wineries such as Casa Silva, which has renewed the wine portfolio in terms of its new coastal and southern vineyards.
In the area of Apalta, a tutelary hill where the granite residues abound in the soil, is where interesting colchagüino developments come up. The wines from this environment are characterized by an intriguing mineral load, which makes them unique and long-lived. Among them are Montes Folly, Purple Angel, and Montes Alpha M, from the Montes winery; The Pangea, of Ventisquero; And the Close de Apalta, home of Lapostolle. Other interesting incursions have been headed by Luis Felipe Edwards, whose winery has colonized a steep hill to grow different types of grapes from those produced by Chile, such as Carignan, Cinsault and Tempranillo. Equally interesting is the creation of low-cost wines made by Vina Santa Helena, in which the fruit expression of the variety is clearly defined in each glass.
Even the Montes house has started a project of extreme wines, from marginal vineyards in Zapallar, Apalta, and Itata. This last one is another of the recent phenomena of Chilean viticulture, not only for the rescue of forgotten varieties but also for the learning of elaboration techniques that go back to the periods of conquest and colonization.
Itata was the place where the Iberian settlers planted the first grape vines Country and the French Cinsault and Muscat, today rescued. These vines were planted like wild shrubs and so have been maintained until today.
At present, young winemakers are attracted to these natural conditions, complemented by a vineyard without irrigation and ideal climatic conditions. In a recent article published by the English magazine Decanter, winemaker Fernando Almeda, from the Miguel Torres Chile winery, pointed out that Itata is a way of rescuing Chilean wine history. “We have developed so fast (in the 20th and 21st centuries) that we are forgetting where we came from.”
THE ITATA RENAISSANCE
According to the English journalist Alistair Cooper, the return to Itata is a return to the past to move towards the future. This town, located 500 kilometers south of Santiago, is considered the cradle of local winemaking.
The first vines arrived there in 1551, coming from the Canary Islands, via Peru. These varieties continue to dominate the small plots of the region. The fate of State has oscillated considerably. In 1860 it was the epicenter of Chilean winemaking activity, responsible for 80% of the total production. However, the revolution in the Central Valley, driven by the incorporation of French noble varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay, marginalized the southern region. This marginalization was accentuated by the success of Bordeaux-style wineries established in the central area by illustrious and wealthy families such as Errázuriz, Concha y Toro, Cousino Macul and Undurraga.
Itata began to look over his shoulder due to his concentration of forgotten varieties and old-fashioned techniques of elaboration. The irony of the matter is that these characteristics are precisely those that have given rise to his rebirth.
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