Focus on Chile, September 2020

What a Chilean range can do

David Williams makes some suggestions for independent wine merchants who are looking to add some extra spice to their Chilean selection

Chile has been dogged by allegations of competence for years. This supposed criticism has always seemed a little baffling to me. I mean, really, when did making consistently popular, well-priced, well-made varietal wines become problematic? And why do so many Chilean winemakers still seem so sheepish about what is still arguably their country’s biggest strength?

No matter: I’ve never been all that sure how much the public shares the trade and specialist press’s slightly sneering attitude to Chile’s ability to pump out attractively fruity wines just above the entry point without resorting to excess sugar or manipulation. As far as I can gather, people still like them. They still trust them. And so, even if you think they’re terminally unhip, it seems silly – counterproductive – to do without them.

Which is not to say, of course, that all Chilean varietal ranges are equal. Chilean producers may have mastered the art of consistency-verging-on-(in a good way)-predictability, but they’re not automatons. The best in the around £6 to £7 region – which, for me, include Santa Carolina’s Las Condes; Montgras Aura; and Santa Rita 120 – feel like wine, rather than a standardised FMCG. They are a solid listing that meets many a customer’s weekday needs. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In other words: consumers are unlikely to get bored of a wine category which has diversified enormously in the past five years. Argentinian Malbec has never had such a broad range of winemaking styles and price points, from the almost Syrah-like herb-etched fine wine wildness of PerSe to the consistent entry-level excellence of Trapiche’s Melodias; and from the highland depth and power of Colomé up in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, to the silky polish of Patagonia’s Bodega Noemia.

Another criticism of Chile’s big wineries concerns a sometimes-formulaic approach to branding. It’s the idea that every range must satisfy a place on the marketing department’s grid: six varietal wines (the usual international suspects, please) at £7 plus six reservas at £11 made with exactly six months’ oak treatment from the same six varieties plus three super-premium (£19.99) wines with 12 months’ oak made from the winemaker’s choice of variety (must contain at least one Cabernet and one Chardonnay) etc.

It’s true that this approach lacks a bit (OK, a lot) of creativity, but it seems slightly odd to single out Chile for criticism here. Do Rioja winemakers get it in the neck for making a jovén, a crianza, a reserva and a gran reserva, accompanied by a similarly sliding pricing scale? Or Burgundian negociants for working their way up the pricing gears from AC Bourgogne, via villages to premiers and grands crus? In both cases it’s just seen as “tradition”, a magic word that makes everything in European wine marketing OK.

The thing about those rigidly formed ladders is that, when the brand knows what it’s doing and the wine quality isn’t compromised, they work. They are a helpful guide for consumers just beginning to take the first big step into wine appreciation, and understanding what spending a bit more cash brings – more flavour, usually, and more texture, but also, in the best examples, more elegance and flair. Chile has got rather good at this level, too, with reserve tier wines from the likes of Errazuriz, DeMartino and Tabalí among the best-value wines of any origin currently available in the UK market.

That isn’t a sentence I would have imagined writing 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. At each of those points, the great Chilean vineyard diversification project was either just beginning or featured very young vines.

Now that many of the new vines have matured, however, a wine industry that was once overwhelmingly concentrated in the Central Valley is able tell the story of the country’s extraordinary geography, of that famously long, thin strip that transforms from the Antarctic to the world’s driest desert along its 3,000 miles, with seemingly every variation of climate and terrain in between.

That means a country that once struggled with differentiation and regional identity now makes a superb place to take a crash course in the effects of terroir.

You can do this with a grape variety, as Viña Ventisquero did in a recent tasting of its range of Pinot Noirs, showing marked differences between Casablanca, Leyda and, most astonishing and promising of all, right up in the Atacama Desert.

But, although none of Chile’s regions is as yet exclusively tied to a single variety, you could also tell the country’s story through varieties that seem to thrive in specific places, be it Maule Carignan, Itata País, Maipo Cabernet, Aconcagua Costa Pinot and Chardonnay, San Antonio Riesling, Leyda Sauvignon … the list is long and getting longer.

That Chile is much more heterogeneous than it’s ever been isn’t simply down to the thousands of hectares of new vineyards, or the greater varietal diversity found there. There’s a much wider range of winemaking approach, too, a stylistic experimentation that is hugely exciting, even if it is still very small in scale, and has made only a sporadic impression on the UK market so far.

Some of the most exciting recent projects are led by wineries that have explicitly looked back to the country’s surprisingly rich vinous history (well, it’s surprising to those of us who had only known the country’s wines through its mass-market arrival on the export scene from the 1990s onwards).

Among my favourites is J Bouchon’s remarkable work with 100-year-old País vines for its Salvaje label. Produced from plants that have grown wild from seed in forests near the Bouchon family vineyards in the Maule Valley, and fermented and aged in clay tinajas, the red and (blanc de noirs) white are, as the name suggests, brilliantly, deliciously wild.

DeMartino and Mauricio Gonzalez are ploughing a similar (and equally delicious) furrow with old Muscat and País vines in the Itata Valley, while Santa Carolina’s investigation of old pre-phylloxera vines and bygone methods has found remarkable expression in its Luis Perreira Cabernet. And Bodegas RE’s collection of old vines and amphora- and flor-aged wines is among the most excitingly eclectic in South America.

These are just a few examples of a new wave of Chilean wines, each as far from the country’s traditional strengths as it’s possible to get. Are the two in conflict? I don’t see why they should be. That Chile is these days able to appeal to the novice and the nerd has to be a good thing. Or, to adapt that popular meme about boyfriends: why not get yourself a wine country that can do both?

Photo by Luis Dalvan on

Chile’s perfect blank canvas

Johnny Bingham of JNV believes the sky’s the limit for ambitious Chilean wine producers

There’s no doubt that, for some consumers, Chile has a reputation for reliable but unremarkable wines. The kind of stuff that can be picked up in most supermarkets, safe in the knowledge that it won’t cause offence.

What frustrates importers like Johnny Bingham of Casa Silva importer Jackson Nugent Vintners is that some independent merchants share this “blind ignorance” about what Chile is now offering.

“I can’t understand it,” he says. “You talk to these really funky people who have funky wines all over their shelves. Interesting wines from Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, even Argentina … and they say they can’t really do Chile at £14 or £15.

“Some of them are so well-educated in terms of their knowledge of wine, and engaging and easy to get on with, and you would have thought that their customers will listen to what they recommend.”

Bingham acknowledges that Chile is perhaps a victim of its own “big-scale marketing” and UK-bottled supermarket-friendly brands.

What excites him – and other Chile afficionados – is the “perfect blank canvas” that Chilean winemakers can work from, and the results this is producing.

“Every single winemaker, producer and grower has got this perfect scenario,” he says.

“There’s an amazing selection of terroirs. As soon as people begin to look at these smaller areas, the range and diversity is off the scale. I’m not just talking about these expensive clones and plots – just the general production.

“I think it’s the only country where you can produce cool-climate whites and full bodied but balanced and well acidified reds within a 90-mile distance of each other, with no compromise. They’re all very good and grown for a reason.”

The learning process is continuing, Bingham says, with the most progressive growers still taking pains to truly understand their terroir and the varieties that best suit it. “The sky is the limit, it really is.”

So how much do consumers need to spend to tap into all this creative energy? “The fun starts at £12,” Bingham says. “You can really get some edge, a myriad of flavours and textures and complexity – maybe even something you won’t like, but which is going to be knockout for that region.

“You’re going to get that really strong expression, because you can reduce the plot size, you can go smaller scale in the winemaking – that’s where you’re going to get the really strong identity coming through.

“Every pound you spend more than that, it’s just exponential: £15 wines are just astonishing. You go up to £20, £25 and you’re getting more finesse, more precision, pure fruit and amazing complexity.”

One independent merchant who has definitely “seen the light” with Chile is Duncan Murray, of Duncan Murray Wines in Market Harborough. But that isn’t exactly a new development.

“It began, I suppose, in my Oddbins days,” he says.

“You had the cheap Sauvignons and Merlots but actually the other end, like Errazuriz and the posh ones which were £20, were just out of this world.

“Some of the stuff we get from Johnny Bingham, things that are £30 or more, are flying. If you put together a mixed case and you bang in one of these bottles, one of these £36 Carmeneres, I’d say 99% of the time people come back and say, shit, that was good. They are fruitier than Bordeaux, but they are on a par … and just exciting.

“We had a tasting with him outside the shop last Friday and we were using the drain as a spittoon. It created a nice buzz on the street.”