How Hot is Chile in America?

Doug Frost, Master of Wine, Master Sommelier

June 17, 2020

The short answer to the question posed above is, not so much. But notwithstanding, there is something quietly bubbling up from under the ocean of pleasant but non-descript wine that has defined Chile for decades. The rise of old vine wines, from Cinsault, Carignan and even Moscatel de Alejandro and Pais, is one such source. Perhaps more broadly, Chile has been undergoing a rationalization of its vineyards for more than a generation. Cabernet and Merlot are moving to warmer spots or into the Andean foothills; more and more coastal vineyards are being planted in pursuit of success with the cooler climate varieties of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and more. Re-consideration of past behaviors extends to the wineries too, with the now commonplace concrete eggs joined by larger format European oak barrels, concrete vats, new oak sources and both reductive, modern winemaking and Old School oxidative winemaking finding their adherents. Whether or not these bubbles merely pop and disappear or gather steam no longer seems a matter of debate. The rest of the world is realizing that profound riches are swelling in South America’s thinnest country; the U.S. is likely to notice too.

Almaviva - this is what the top estates look like on the inside

But there are still grave misunderstandings among American consumers not least that ALL of the Western Hemisphere (but particularly Central and South America) can’t conceive of why U.S. citizens view themselves as solely “American” when all these other country’s citizens live on an American continent too. And while Chile has enjoyed a successful run in U.S. retail stores, half-baked though it may be, price has been its primary or perhaps only asset. Dating back to the 80s and 90s, Chile was quite successful at being a cheaper version of something famous, particularly if it was French wine. Historically isolated; with Antarctica at one end, the treacherous Atacama Desert on the other; the vast Pacific on the west and the high Andes on the east, Chile found commonality more with France than Spain or any South American neighbor. Until recently, it followed the edicts of its French consultants.

Alvaro Espinoza is an adherent of Bio-Dynamism. Here he is sorting through the preparations and teas

A few decades ago, French wine and particularly Bordeaux were the world’s benchmarks, so why not be a pale imitation? Well, as Oscar Wilde put it, be yourself, everybody else is already taken. Of recent, Chilean producers seem keen to do just that. Two of the grower collectives, focused upon seemingly parochial concerns, offer broader lessons to the country’s industry. VIGNO (Vignadores del Carignan), a producer group working with old vine Carignan, and MOVI (Movimientos de viñateros independientes or the Independent Wine Producers’ Movement) personify another Chilean character, one that is quietly proud of its heritage.

Santa Rita - the interior of a beautiful mansion

This is not to ignore the excellence of once novel and benchmark setting estates like Almaviva, Don Melchor, Clos Apalta, Chadwick, Montes, Don Maximiano and Seña. They continue to drive both quality and price. And there are new estates that want to muscle into the spotlight, such as A Los Viñateros, Alcohuaz, Baettig, Viña VIK (established by Patrick Valette, formerly of Chateau Pavie) and many others.

Chile’s past success has bedeviled its present. There may seem to some no compelling reasons to buy these wines, unless price is the motivation. But whether or not the U.S. market is ignorant of these developments, Chilean wines are better than ever and more themselves than ever before. Unquestionably, the early aughts saw wines that sought to be international, which is to say, not identifiably Chilean. Those wines have evolved.

Santa Rita - the beauty of the winery grounds reflect its history and legacy in Chilean wine culture

A reconsideration of Chile’s wine regions is part of this considerable transition; where once the simplistic regional groupings of Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Central Valley, South, and Austral seemed sufficient, we now tend to think less north to south and more coastal climes (Costa) to the middle (Entre Cordilleras) to the Andes. The fascination of Chile is that neither delineation is exhaustive; both have something to teach us.

Thirty years ago, it began with a movement towards the coast. Casablanca and, chronologically speaking, San Antonio Valley inspired a generation to plant closer to the Pacific. Early results seemed exciting; but may have stalled for a while. It is not that Casablanca was a disappointment, but that transitions take time. When I first visited in 2000, Pablo Morandé described the discovery of the place – winemakers at a luncheon comparing wines they made at home and one co-worker brought along a Chardonnay. Tasting it, Pablo asked, where did you get the grapes? From my backyard, he said. Yes, Pablo said, but where do you live? Thus Casablanca Chardonnay was first but soon enough Casablanca Sauvignon Blanc was expected to be the South American answer to New Zealand. Again, a cheaper version of someone else’s success.

Tarapaca - soils in certain spots in Chile, as here at Tarapaca, reflect a sparse and sometimes harsh landscape that can nonetheless provide the ideal bedding for grapevines intended for high quality grapes

Yet Casablanca’s notoriety heralded the reconsideration of all of Chile’s considerable coastline, 2653 miles of it. Tasting San Antonio Pinot Noir a few decades ago, I saw a new face for Chilean wine, misshapen though it was then. Now we have many more coastal options.

Matetic in San Antonio Valley is one to consider. The Sauvignon Blanc Coralillo 2019 San Antonio is very, very drinkable. Their other two Sauvignon Blancs are even more compelling: EQ Coastal Casablanca 2019 Viñedo Valle Hermosa and Matetic EQ Limited Edition 2017 San Antonio are wines I need to drink again. The Chardonnays are just as thought-provoking and the Pinot Noirs should be sought-after: Coralillo 2017 Casablanca, EQ 2015 Viñedo Valle Hermosa Casablanca and EQ Limited Edition 2017 Casablanca. Syrah too is considerable here.

Viña Leyda - the beautiful and chilly vineyards of Viña Leyda on a "warm" summer afternoon

There are many winemakers and wineries to mention but Tim Atkin, who has spent a good deal of time in Chile, calls out Viviana Navarrete of Viña Leyda as his winemaker of the year and for good reason. Chardonnay, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir and Syrah are awash in personality even if I found them a bit frosty in my tasting. In the midst of Chile’s summer, it was a bone chilling lunch overlooking Leyda that briefly made me long for a return to Kansas City winter - at least I wouldn't be in shorts and a t-shirt and I’d have my damned coat. Viviana was draped in several shawls (you got that in a man’s size?). But this is not Chile as we have taught it.

And once large scale and formerly pedestrian names like Luis Felipe Edwards are not the same as they once were: Luis Felipe Edwards LFE 900 Single Vineyard 2015 Colchagua ( with 80% Syrah, 10% Petite Sirah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot); their LFE 900 Malbec 2017 Colchagua; Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Mountain Vineyards from Colchagua and the Doña Bernarda (78% Cabernet Sauvignon,19% Syrah, and 3% Peite Sirah) are cut from some new and fancy cloth.

Viña Leyda - Viviana Navarrete, one of the many heralded young Chilean winemakers

Apalta and the Colchagua and Cachapoal valleys have become centers for vibrant Carmenère, even if it’s a grape still in search of international lovers. The U.S. market has not yet spotted its comely attraction, but these new versions ought to change that for good.

Of course, Maipo Valley has excellent Carmenère too. I met Álvaro Espinoza decades ago at Carmen; now he and his wife Marina Ashton have pared down to a smaller, more personal estate called Antiyal. His skills with Carmenère are demonstrated by the elegance of his wines, though I have never before thought of that grape as such. Carmenère has always been a challenge for me; of course, Montes and a handful of others made lovely wines from it. But skittish fear of its herbaceousness sent winemakers to the far side of ripeness. Now by finding the best sites and accepting the grape’s essential character, producers have dramatically improved the quality of those wines. Marques de Casa Concha, Carmin de Peumo, Casa Silva, Maquis, Errázuriz, Santa Rita Medalla Real, the list goes on and on of those for whom I never gave a second thought to Carmenère. Now I want to show them to you.

The classic producers are giving us compelling wines, albeit without Carmenère or with it more often the background to better known Bordeaux varieties. Don Melchor remains first rate; the 2017 is lovely. Almaviva’s 2017 is seductive and the 2016 is proof that Michel Friou is an undeniably great winemaker; this wet and challenging vintage is nonetheless elegant and balanced. Montes is still excellent, and there is a Francis Mallmann restaurant on the premises in case you need amazing food too. But I was content with every one of his wines, from the Leyda Sauvignon Blanc to the Outer Limits Old Roots Cinsault, to the Alpha M Carmenère to Folly Syrah and particularly Purple Angel 2017 (92% Carmenère and 8% Petit Verdot).  Montes is working farther south too, Chiloé Island is being planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño.

Pable Morandé remains a force; his discovery and championing of Casablanca has not ended: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah and Pinot Noir are worth your dollar. He has delicious reds from both the Maipo and Cachapoal too. There is Carignan from Maule, Cinsault and even Pais from Itata and Secano Interior. It is not only the iconoclasts working with old vine versions of those grapes; the whole country is at it. The quality has risen upward; I might not have expected noteworthy wines from labels like Santa Ema or San Pedro in the past but they see the present too: only excellent wines have a future and they’re making some. Of course, producers such as Santa Rita, Tarapaca and Veramonte have smartly embraced these new challenges; they have long been focused outside Chile’s borders for their business.

And within? The strife and violence in the streets in Chile last fall were shocking to many Americans (who burns down their own subways?), though we now have our own street protests engendered by racial inequities to offer not quite similar violence. A drive through downtown Santiago only a week after things quieted a bit revealed not just boarded up buildings and florid graffiti but the aftereffects of some well-aimed Molotov cocktails. The origins of the uprising might not be the same but a heavy hand from the military and the police, like in U.S. cities, quelled nothing and sparked far worse.

The deep disparity between the have’s and the have-not’s are not unique to Chile. Still, it’s a country that carries inequities in its DNA. The early European settlers found safety only in and around the largest cities, especially Santiago, with native peoples (the Araucanian and sub-groups like Mapuche and Quechua) proving nearly impossible to subjugate until the late 19th century, though they were increasingly pushed southward. Power remained concentrated geographically and politically. The wealth of the young country was extracted from the north in the inhospitable Atacama Desert, drier than virtually any other place on the planet but rich in copper, gold, silver, iron, boron, lithium, sodium nitrate, and more. By the mid-19th century a small group of families had become fabulously wealthy and, as befitted a noble person of the era, their children were sent to Paris for university. They returned less fired by the rights of man and more inspired by the show of affluence: great homes, botanical gardens, beautiful vineyards.

Their mentors were French, and Chile’s vineyards began as French wanna-be’s. Visiting lustrous estates like Concho y Toro, Casa Silva, Cousiño Macul and Santa Rita provides continued proof of those riches, but also a serene sense of calm and beauty. Wine has ever been the result of hard-working men and women, often at the behest of some “beneficent” aristocrat. My December visit offered a variety of views on why things are as they are.

The more extreme views, like those I confronted on my first visit back in 2000, seem to have crawled under a rug. With democracy only a decade old, there on that first visit, my host (for whom I still have affection), subjected me and my colleagues to a two-hour lecture on the greatness of the Pinochet era. A few people got up, yelled something rude and left. I recall asking what I thought was a smartly pointed question and was told that until I had been thrown in jail for my political views my opinion was not welcome. Sigh.

And yet. This trip saw more and more young winemakers creating something very much unlike what has previously been offered as internationally marketable Chilean wine.

Longevity among these wines was once another rap against Chile. At Almaviva I tasted 1999 (dry like 2019), 2003, 2009 and 2011 – all were very good, but the 2011 was complex, truly excellent and vibrantly Chilean.

And yet, I cannot hide my enthusiasm for what is newest in Chile; an appreciation for old vines. The VIGNO wines and those from MOVI ought to be fought over in the U.S. market. Each leans towards its own distinctive personality; isn’t that what we seek in wines? DeMartino, Garage Wine Company, P.S. Garcia, Laura Hartwig, Kingston Family, Casa Bauzá; these wines are fun if nothing else.  Ed Flaherty, who has been here for decades, once crafted Mondavi’s efforts in Chile; now he has his own projects (in MOVI) and there are solid Carmenère and delicious Tempranillos on offer.

White wines too are being re-thought: Santa Rita makes Floresta Blanco, a field blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Vert, Moscatel de Alejandro, Torontel and Corinto, itself a very Moscatel clone with a few very old vines in Apalta. Icy cold spots down south in the Austral Region, like Los Lagos are making head-turning Riesling. Julio Bouchon, under his own label and with another called Longavi has some very special wines. I recommend his reds, but Julio Bouchon’s Granito Semillón from Maule Valley needs to be in my cellar, and probably yours too.

Politics remain fraught. The April 2020 election, expected to change everything, was postponed by COVID till October. How patient will the people be? It seems every country across the globe is being confronted with such questions. Surely no one knows how these things will turn out. But I feel fired by the enthusiasm and fortitude of people everywhere, in my own country and in Chile and among its winemakers. Can I taste that in the wines? I’d like to think so.