Moving ahead to a new country now, and keeping with the “New World first” approach, we begin our descent into Chile, land of “big bang for your buck” value wines and increasingly, some great new high end stuff as well.
Chile is part of the South American wine tradition that is second only to Europe in wine production. It was first to become an important producer, though Argentina out ranks it in terms of volume. European vines were grown in S.A. as far back as the 1500’s, thanks to the Spanish immigrants (invaders?) who arrived at that time.
Chile is an anomoly of isolation thanks to its geography. The Pacific Ocean borders it on the west with 5,000 km of coastline, and the Andes mountain range hems it in on the east. The north offers the driest desert on earth, and bitter Antarctica hems it in at the south. This isolation, coupled with bug-unfriendly soils, has given Chile the distinction of phylloxera-free vines, where new vines are cultivated by simply sticking cuttings into the ground, without having to graft them onto phylloxera-resistant root stock. This is key, because when phylloxera devasted Europe in the 1860’s, original French cuttings still survived in Chile. Ungrafted vines are heartier, with better sap flow and pest/climate resistance, and they typically survive for years longer than their gibbled grafted cousins. Chile also likes to suggest that their “pure” vines produce grapes that are higher in flavonoids, like resveratrol in their Cabs and Malbecs, which make them even more heart-friendly.
Chilean vineyards are cultivated in the low fertile valleys, as well as, increasingly, on hillsides. Long days of sunshine, and warm daytime temperatures that drop significantly at night time, both contribute to great clarity in the grapes’ fruit flavours. Overall, there tends to be three more weeks of ripening than there is in Bordeaux. Irrigation is very important, as there tends to be precious little rainfall in the summers. Although we tend to think of South America as being very hot, Chile has some lovely cool climate areas where there’s been great success with white wine production.
Important regions (all valleys!): the Coastal Valley, including Aconcagua, Casablanca, San Antonio, and the Central Valley, including Maipo, Rapel, Maule, and Curico.
Since the volume of cheap exports that brought Chile to our attention in the 1990s, the region is now moving away from less-inspired, over-cropped volume production to focus more attention on quality… and the resulting price points that quality demands. The wineries have gone from being the world’s dirtiest to the cleanest, and producers have been embracing technology that help them to produce their high end offerings.
Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenere, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, and Malbec (they call it “Cot”)
Whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel of Alexandria (used to create the national spirit pisco, a Chilean grappa), Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztramminer