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  • Quality Control: Workers on a sorting table at Viña Montes.
  • Hang Time: Apalta vineyard scene, Colchagua Valley
  • Nighttime harvest at Viña Montes
  • Viña Matetic winemaker Paula Cárdenas
  • Central Valley vineyard scene
  • Trailblazing vintner Maria Luz Marin, of Casa Marin
  • Viña Montes’ El Arcangel Estate, Colchagua Valley
  • Pablo Morandé, of Viña Morandé, aka the King of Casablanca

Fast Forward

Returning to Chile, Judith Lane Discovers Rapid Change For The Better

It’s said that wines are an expression of country, people and place. These days that’s never been truer for the wines of Chile.

In Chile, everything seems to grow, especially grapevines, lots of grapevines. There’s something special about the quality of the light, the long, virtually rainless summers and near perfect growing conditions.

The temperate, Mediterranean-like climate is key as is geography — the Atacama Desert in the North, Andes to the East, Pacific Ocean to the West and Patagonia’s ice fields to the South — which isolates and contains the valleys of vineyards.

Chile’s wine growing regions are situated in the middle third of this long ocean-hugging country, in valleys between the Pacific and the Andes that run from Elqui and Limarí in the north to Bío-Bío and Malleco in the south. These and neighbouring valleys charm with names like Aconcagua, Maipo, Casablanca, San Antonio, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curiço, Maule and Itata that trip off the tongue with only a little practice.

These valleys are becoming increasingly important as Chile ascends the fine winemaking ladder, producing distinctive, captivating wines for the world to taste and enjoy. Regional differences and talented winemakers set these wines apart, make them special. I visited Chile when the 2009 harvest was underway, mirroring a previous visit in 2006. What has made Chilean wines so likeable and drinkable remains, but much has changed.

Three years ago, organic wines were a big deal. Today more and more wineries are transitioning to organic, and some are certified. Caliterra and others are in transition, farming sustainably and using eco-friendly farming methods, not difficult since Chile’s geography isolates it from pests and disease.

Some familiar organic producers include Cono Sur who produced the first certified organic wine — Cono Sur Organic Cabernet Sauvignon Carménère in 2003. Viña Emiliana Organico makes Adobe, Coyam and Novas wines and is transitioning to biodynamic. Emiliana’s G is the country’s first biodynamic wine, and grapes for iconic Seña are farmed biodynamically. Matetic’s EQ and Corralillo brands are organic, as is Morandé’s Edicion Limitada Pinot Noir and Viña Tarapaca’s Natura. Many more wineries use green practices like carbon offsetting, using lighter bottles, solar power and bio-diesel fuel.

Vineyards in cool coastal regions like Casablanca, Leyda, San Antonio and Bío Bío are growing apace as wineries seemingly plant Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir — these varietals thrive here — as fast as they can get vines into the ground. The plantings address increased global demand for these rock star varietals. Wineries are responding and there are few who aren’t bottling them.

According to January 2009 figures, Chilean vineyards cover 117,559 hectares: 75 percent are planted to red varietals and 25 percent to white. Sauvignon Blanc has surpassed Chardonnay as most planted white grape, and Cabernet Sauvignon continues to reign supreme as Chile’s red varietal. Pinot Noir stands fifth but is increasing rapidly as demand for the grape grows. Winemakers readily offer that it’s partly due to the Sideways effect but also because Pinot Noir grows easily and well in the cool climate coastal regions.

Cono Sur, a relatively young winery (established in 1993) lays claim to Chile’s oldest Pinot Noir vineyard amongst its holdings and has specialized in Pinot Noir production since 1999. This year, a new much-needed Pinot Noir winery building with a capacity of 530,000 litres was brought on line. Of its seven tiers of wine, five — Ocio (Cono Sur’s icon wine and Chile’s first premium wine), 20 Barrels, Reserva, Vision and Cono Sur — have a Pinot Noir in the lineup. Cono Sur farms sustainably and organically and Cono Sur Organic Cabernet Sauvignon/Carménère (with the green bicycle on the label) is certified 100 percent organic. More are on the way.

The producer’s other notable environmental initiatives include integrated vineyard management which means the using natural alternatives for fertilizer and pest control; double ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification for its quality assurance policies and environmental production; and carbon neutral delivery status.

Because of geography, it’s naturally easy for Chilean wineries to be organic and many are turning to biodynamics. Others are innovative with regards to equipment but the rest of process is fairly organic and even old school as most grapes are picked by hand. It’s a gentler method and with so many vineyards planted on steep slopes, it’s the only method.

It seems that in Chile, grapes nearly grow themselves. But it’s the winemakers who shepherd them from vineyard to vat and tank, and to barrel and bottle.

Three years ago, it seemed that everywhere one turned there was another — often-female — fresh-faced winemaker. Some are still there like Pinot-phile Matias Rios who oversees Cono Sur’s new Pinot Noir winery facility, Santa Rita’s effervescent Vivian Alamo and Paula Cárdenas of Matetic, while others have gone off to experience the world of winemaking in other lands. The old guard — senior winemakers — and pioneers of modern Chilean winemaking, are the vanguard of Chile’s iconic wines, making them not for others but for their own wineries.

Bright light consulting winemaker 47-year old Alvaro Espinoza (Viña Emiliana Organico, Concha y Toro, Viña Undurraga and Viña Perez Cruz) started his own biodynamic winery, Antiyal, in 1998 and sits between the young and old. (Notably, Espinoza was one of the first to bottle a true Carménère after the mix-up with Merlot came to light.) Other established winemakers — Aurelio Montes, Pablo Morandé and Maria Luz Marin — predated him by a decade or two and continue to make indelible marks on Chilean wines.

Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes, head winemaker at Undurraga and San Pedro for 25 years, has consulted for Casa Lapostolle, Echeverría, Viu Manent, Pisco Capel and others, and was named Chilean Winemaker of the Year in 1995. Montes is credited with improving the country’s wine quality standards, planting on slopes and planting in the Apalta and Marchigüe valleys. Montes started Viña Montes in 1988 with three partners and little money, and led the charge to produce respected, quality wines in Chile. To this day, he’s considered one of the top winemakers in Chile — allegedly a wine superstar, the Mick Jagger of Chilean wines. Montes’ wines like Montes Alpha M, Purple Angel and Montes Folly, regularly garner top scores in and appear on wine lists around the world.

Pablo Morandé is affectionately called the King of Casablanca for putting Casablanca Valley on the Chilean wine map in the 1980s as a “producer of quality wines.” Regarded as one of the fathers of the New Grape-Growing Revolution in Chile, he established Viña Morandé in 1996 to make innovative, quality wines. Like Montes, Morandé got the nod as Chilean Winemaker of the Year (1996). Vetting high-density planting, something that is gaining favour around the world, Morandé plants 10,100 vines per hectare “in order to produce wines of exceptional quality,” he says. “The vines have to work harder and fight for nutrients and water to produce good grapes.” Is he succeeding? The proof is in the bottle. “Throughout all we do, we remain faithful to our pioneering past, always searching for new lands, varietal blends and styles,” says Morandé.

Although 35 percent of the country’s winemakers are women, Maria Luz Marin of San Antonio Valley’s Casa Marin remains the sole female owner/winemaker of a Chilean winery. She recalls the difficulty of being a female winemaker in the 1980s. Older male winemakers were reluctant to teach her, and she was often left out of crucial meetings. This made her doubly determined to succeed. She did, eventually becoming the head of production for Viña San Pedro before establishing her own winery in 1997 in the San Antonio Valley, just four kilometres from the Pacific Ocean.

“I knew the area from coming here as a child,” Marin says. Denied a government permit for a winery because of water shortages, Marin went ahead anyway, drilling shallow wells to supply her needs (vines need less water as they age and their roots go deeper).

She received permission after she established her vineyards and wasn’t impacting local water supplies. The vines flourished and her single vineyard, single varietal wines have gained status worldwide. Marin continues to show how fine Sauvignon Blancs like the Casa Marin Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from San Antonio can be.

Another welcome trend in Chilean wines is the uptick in blended wines. From Concha y Toro’s Trio series, Boltacura’s Syrah Malbec, and J. Bouchon’s Carménère Syrah to Bordeaux-style blend icon wines. Standouts to look for include treats like House of Morandé Red Blend, Santa Rita Triple C, J. Bouchon’s Mingré, Altair and Montes Alpha M.

Chile’s rep for good value wines isn’t waning, but there’s excitement to be found in mid-range, terroir-specific wines, too. Explore. Enjoy.