There is so much to learn about Chile as a wine-producing country, not just its geography and climate, but its agricultural practices, regions and, of course, its overall development which continues apace.
Thanks to its relative isolation the country has been spared the curse of phylloxera and the need to graft the vine-cuttings. The Andes to the east, the Pacific and cooling Humbolt Current and fickle El Niño to the west, the Antarctic to the south and dessert to the north ensure that its vineyards are highly favoured and have an adequate supply of water.
In early days information was frankly pretty scant. With the exception of the indigenous país grape (called mission in California), varieties were predominantly European in origin: pinot noir, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, carmenère, merlot for red, riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for white. The all-embracing term ‘Central Valley’ covered vineyard locations with scarcely a nod to regionalism. To a certain extent this practice is still ongoing even today.
However, major exporting companies such as Santa Rita and Concha y Toro became more savvy. Their labels started to display sub-divisions of the Central Valley south of the capital Santiago such as the provinces of Maipo, Curicó and Maule. Some retailers added further refinement by introducing the two main valleys of Maipo, Cachapoal and Colchagua, to start to mimic the more renowned wine-producing area of the world. This was the start of differentiation.
The next step was the realisation that the valleys north of the capital, Casablanca and Aconcagua, were worthy of serious attention. Casablanca Valley in particular gained a well-deserved reputation for rivalling Sancerre and Marlborough at much more approachable prices. An Aconcagua pinot noir featured on the shelves of J. Sainsbury a week or so ago.
The expansion continued both north and south. The two southern provinces of Itaca and Bío Bío with their cooler, damper climate came into the reckoning. Comparisons with Northern France and Germany inevitably transpired. North of Santiago up towards the Atacama Desert, the two provinces of Limarí and Elquí benefited from heat and irrigation and bought to mind recent changes in South Australia. Both these two regions were present recently in Majestic, for example.
There is still a tendency in Chile not to blend with varietals dominating the market and clearly labelled as such but the choice of grapes has been augmented of late with viognier, gewürztraminer and syrah/shiraz making an appearance. Bonarda has come over The Andes.
Other exporting companies have entered the market most notably Cono Sur and Castillo del Diablo, so that these days there is a very wide choice of highly respectable wines available both in supermarkets and independent wine merchants often at very competitive prices. Our wine appreciation groups (WAGs) can enjoy many a fruitful visit to the viticultural riches of Chile.
The image shows Spring Vineyard, Elqui Valley, in the Chilean Andes.