Impressions from Wines of Chile Tasting, 7th September, by John Earle

Having changed several of our sources of supply over the past few months for the company’s Chilean wines I thought it behoved me to check we weren’t missing anything so I set forth for London on the train yesterday to attend the annual Wines of Chile Tasting.

There was a lot to see and much to appreciate as well as reject. Chile is an amazing success story. Talk about a stratospheric rise in such a relatively short time. As little as fifteen years ago it would have still been seen as a relative novelty on most wine lists whereas now it forms an essential part of most On Trade offerings. The official figures reveal that in 2006 UK sales volumes were around 500,000 cases against sales today approaching 1.5 million cases; a threefold increase in 5 years and the envy of many other wine exporting countries.

Impressive as this increase in market share is it is notable that most people still associate Chilean wines with 4 familiar grape varieties; Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in whites and Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon in reds. Furthermore a large amount of consumers consider Chile as a source of  lower-priced, good value wines for everyday drinking. The popularity of Chilean wines in providing us with good, honest value for money wines is well deserved but there is much more to enjoy and appreciate beyond such wines as I certainly discovered during this tasting.

To begin with Chile as a country is long and thin and its various vineyard areas stretch from the 30th to 38th parallel – a distance of over 1000 kilometres. In the north the area is hotter and more suited to the growing of Pais and other lesser varieties used in the production of Pisco, the national spirit of Chile. The heart of the various wine regions stretches from the Aconcagua Valley, some 100 kilometres north of Santiago down to the much cooler Bio Bio Valley which lies about 600 kilometres south of this city. To the east of these vineyards lie the Andes Mountains which provide much of the water needed to irrigate the valleys. To the west, much of the topography is characterised by the lower Coastal Mountain ranges. The climatic differences between the more northerly, and therefore generally warmer, and the southerly and cooler vineyards governs the choice of grape varieties planted to a great extent but there are as always micro-climatic variations. Taken together with a wide and varied geology which provides many different soil types the opportunities are there for a wide choice of grape varieties.

Riesling and Gewurztraminer figure strongly in the cooler Bio Bio valley along with the more ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc and the Pinot Noir is also showing some promise here. Syrah is making a well-earned name for itself in the hotter Aconcagua valley where it can resemble quite closely a peppery, spicy Hermitage from this variety’s heartland, the Rhone in France. Carmenere, which often used to be mis-identified as Merlot in the vineyards, is re-establishing itself as a serious and more uniquely Chilean red variety clearly capable of rich, fruity and spicy reds of great complexity.  I was struck by the racier, crisper styles of the Casablanca Sauvignon Blancs which for me resembled more the greengage, gooseberry Sauvignon style characteristic of the limestone/sandy soils of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre.

It is clear that Chile with its many wine growers is still a country in relative viticultural infancy. What it has achieved so far and in such a short time is truly amazing. What this tasting proved to me is that many of its growers have made significant steps towards producing wines of greater complexity and depth and therefore greater quality. They are not limited by anything other than their imaginations and their gradually deepening understanding of their varied terroirs. With this in mind the prospects for the future of Chilean wine look very promising indeed.

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