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What I've Learned about Chilean Wine

chile_andes.jpgI thought about titling this post with a bit more gravitas -- something like "New Trends in the Chilean Wine Industry" -- but I didn't feel like I could pull it off. I spent a week there and talked with a lot of people, but can't speak with enough authority on the subject to title this post like it is some sort of whitepaper.

On the other hand, I learned a lot about what is going on in Chile, where the wine industry is headed, and some of the issues and trends that are currently top-of-mind for Chilean winemakers, winery owners, and industry watchers.

Here are some of the themes and ideas that have percolated since I've returned to the U.S.

Appellation Speculation
The Chilean wine industry has seen phenomenal growth and success over the past 20 years or so and continues to grow, especially in the value end of the market. Lots of folks have become very rich planting vineyards, growing grapes, and making decent quality wine. As a result, there is a lot of continued expansion of the industry -- small players getting bigger, large players getting larger, and lots of new people entering the industry. This has led to people snapping up large tracts of land, especially in the more recently established (and less planted) wine growing regions like Limari, Elqui, Maule, and Bio Bio. Many wineries and wine companies are grabbing land in lots of places, not wanting to miss out when one of these regions turns into the next Maipo Valley.

Moreover, these wine regions themselves are quite speculative. Here in the United States, those familiar with our AVA system rightly express some cynicism about the degree to which they are more marketing and political constructions than anything else. But in most cases when we establish appellations here in America, there are actually wineries there first. In several of Chile's established wine regions, there are as few as two or three wine producers. I got very excited about making the long trek down to Bio Bio, only to learn that there was maybe only one winery that I might be able to visit there (there are a number of vineyard sites that have been established by wineries located in other regions).

Water Rights are a Big Deal
One of the serious checks on this speculative expansion of vineyard holdings and plantings, however, is the somewhat odd (to my American sensibilities) Chilean system of managing water rights. In a nutshell, there once was a time in Chile that when you bought a piece of land, you were also buying the right to use any water that you might find on the property, whether that was water from a stream that ran through it, or water that you found by digging a well.

That time, however has passed. Now, when you buy a piece of land, even if it has an existing well on the property or a river rushing on it, you can't touch that water without breaking the law. First, you must buy rights to the water from someone on the open market. Which apparently is sort of like buying pollution credits here in the United States. There are only a limited number of such rights (capped presumably to make sure that the country doesn't deplete its resources) and they are starting to sell for a pretty nice price, effectively barring many people from starting new vineyards as a result.

New Frontiers for Winegrowing
Despite such hurdles, the expansion continues. As the wine industry matures, however, more self-assured winemakers (as well as larger companies) are beginning to take greater risks and seek out more extreme vineyard sites. The quest for the coolest climates and the highest elevation growing areas in the country are resulting in high elevation plantings in the Elqui Valley, and experimental plantings quite south of what used to be considered the extremely southern Bio Bio region.

Flat Land is Cheap and Easy
I found it quite remarkable what a low percentage of hillside vineyards existed in the various wine regions I visited. Now, I may just not be aware of some geological reason why this is the case, but from what I can tell, the lack of such vineyards is mostly due to matters of convenience and cost. Most Chilean wine regions are blessed with excellent soils, thanks to the many rivers and earthquakes that have spread bits of pulverized rock across wide valley floors. Tilling and planting these flat lands produces excellent vineyard sites, making the expense of clearing, planting, and farming sites on the hills much less attractive. I saw a high degree of correlation between how much money a winery had, and the degree to which they had planted their hillsides with vineyards. The fancier the winery building, for instance, the more likely you could stand on the roof and see hillsides planted with grapes nearby.

But the rarity of this sight quite mystified me, especially after seeing avocado trees planted all the way up the incredibly steep sides of the Aconcagua valley, so high that they appeared to be defying gravity.

This may be changing, however, as winemakers learn how to produce better fruit from these sites, and interest grows in pushing boundaries. I saw many instances of recently cleared areas of hillside that I was told were going to be planted in the near future.

The Buried Treasure of Ancient Vine Carignane
Just as Spain has seen a resurgence in interest in and revitalization of its ancient neglected vineyards, Chile has recently seen an explosion of interest and attention to some of its ancient vineyards. The winegrowing region of Maule, about 120 miles south of Santiago, apparently has a treasure trove of ancient (60- to 90-year-old) Carignane vines. Many wineries, from larger conglomerates to smaller boutique labels are either buying up these neglected vineyards and revitalizing them or securing long term contracts from farmers.

These vineyards are being carefully dry-farmed in this extremely dry region, and are yielding very little fruit (around one ton per acre in most cases), but the fruit that they do produce is extraordinary. Some of the best wines that I tasted on my trip were Carignane or Carignane blends.

The interest in these vines, and the wines being made from them are definitely one of the most exciting recent developments in Chilean wine. I learned while I was there that a group of producers had just gotten together to form an organization of Carignane makers dedicated to increasing awareness of these wines.

Carmenere is Not a Good Candidate for Natural Winemaking
I was surprised to learn that nearly 100% of all Carmenere wines made in Chile are acidulated. For those unfamiliar with the term and practice, this means that the winemaker adds tartaric acid to the wine during the winemaking process to boost the acid levels of the finished wine. Wines without enough acidity don't taste very good, of course. Carmenere, by the time it gets fully ripe, apparently doesn't have enough acid to make a well balanced wine on its own. At least not the way it is grown in Chile at the moment. So apparently Chilean winemakers are faced with only two choices: add acid, or blend in other grapes that can correct the lack of acidity. I was told by several winemakers that they used Petite Verdot for this particular trick, but if they wanted to make a 100% Carmenere wine, they would most certainly have to add acid.

Chilean Pinot Noir is Not The Next Big Thing. Not Yet Anyway.
I'm sorry to say it, but there isn't a lot of great Pinot Noir being grown in Chile, despite much excitement to the contrary. While there are some competent Pinot Noirs on the market, only a very, very select few manage to rise to the level of excellence. This is most likely a function of both site selection (people haven't quite figured out where to grow it yet) as well as winemaking expertise (it's a very different beast than Sauvignon Blanc and Carmenere, and Chile has only been trying to make really serious wines for about 20 years).

Having said that, there are people who know a hell of a lot more than me about Pinot Noir paying very close attention to Chile. Several big names from Burgundy are rumored to be starting projects in Chile.

And of course, even though Pinot Noir has been grown in Chile since the mid Sixties, serious attempts to grow and vinify it properly are only a decade or so old.

Is Chile the Biodynamic Eden?
Chile may well be the best place on the planet to be a Biodynamic winegrower. Geographically isolated by virtue of its topology, it is already the world's greatest source of own-rooted vines, untouched by the ravages of Phylloxera that literally destroyed most of the globe's vineyards around the turn of the 20th century. Pressure from pests and disease is relatively low compared to many locations in the world, and biodiversity is quite high. Add to that the cheap cost of land and labor, the ability to situate yourself away from pesticide-spraying neighbors, and you can easily do what many producers in more crowded winegrowing regions can only dream of. Emiliana Winery, based in Chile's Colchagua valley, is the world's largest Biodynamic producer, with more than 1000 acres of Biodynamically farmed vineyards.

Chilean Garagistes
The Chilean wine industry is still quite young, having really begun in earnest around 30 years ago, when Miguel Torres introduced many of the techniques and sensibilities that are currently standard practices in high-quality modern commercial winemaking. The first decades of the industry were marked by big players like Concha y Toro establishing their dominance and pushing the industry to worldwide prominence.

Recently, however, the industry is beginning to see the emergence of the garagistes -- small, independent winemakers who are starting boutique wineries or just their own labels. While quite common in the U.S., the concept of a wine label without vineyards and a winery attached is a pretty new thing in Chile. So new, in fact, that it is seen as threatening to the established order. At least two Chilean winemakers have been fired for starting their own labels on the side.

A small group of these independent winemakers has coalesced under the banner of MOVI (Movimiento de Vinateros Independientes), and will no doubt continue to grow as more and more winemakers begin to spread their wings.

I had a chance to taste a number of wines from the members of this group while I was in Chile, so stay tuned for those notes in a future post.

Women Winemakers Rock!
This is entirely hearsay, but I was told by one female winemaker that nearly 50% of the winemakers in Chile are women. If so, that is staggeringly great, considering that here in California, the numbers don't even approach half that many.

There Aren't That Many Wineries in Chile
I was quite surprised to learn that despite being a relatively strong presence in the global wine industry, Chile has perhaps at most 300 different wine producers, of which only about 200 actually export outside of Chile, and of that number somewhat fewer of them might be considered "fine" wine producers, as opposed to bulk producers.

A significantly fewer number of these wineries (the exact number is a subject of debate by some of my readers -- I was told around 100) make up the vast majority of Chilean exports (north of 95%). The fact that with these kinds of numbers Chile has had such an impact on the global wine industry is quite a testament to the heft of the country's biggest producers, the marketing savvy of the industry as a whole, and the quality of their products.

* * *

Chile is an exciting place, and quite deservedly it has been recognized as one of the world's greatest producers of high quality wine at a reasonable price. Ounce for ounce, my recent trip proved that in the $20 price range, there are few countries that can match Chile on quality and deliciousness.

But most interesting to me are the people, brands, and places that are beginning to push beyond traditional grape varieties, planting locations, and climates to find out what the country is really capable of. In many ways Chile is just getting started when it comes to wine, and it's going to be quite exciting to watch where it goes from here.

Comments (24)

Jon Bjork wrote:
12.09.09 at 11:44 PM

Nice write-up, Alder! Makes me want to hop on a plane down there. I take it many in the Chilean wine industry can speak at least some English for challenged people like me?

Regarding Carignane, I'd love to see it succeed in the new world. Unfortunately, I've seen 60-year-old vineyards in Lodi being yanked with older vineyards ready to go. That varietal is the one that a few winemakers around here prefer even over Zin. I just think so many of us are glued to Chard, Cab and Pinot that Carignane receives very little focus. It's going to take some doing to find a profitable solid following.

Alder wrote:
12.10.09 at 7:51 AM


People generally spoke fantastic English at wineries. Embarassingly good, in fact, compared to my very rusty Spanish.

jamie goode wrote:
12.10.09 at 9:01 AM

Interesting report. I think that Chile performs very well at the commercial end, but there are still a lack of really interesting wines at the top end.

Syrah is very promising, though, especially when it's planted in the right places. Sauvignon Blanc is quite exciting.

The big problem is the lack of small boutique wineries - these often create the dynamism for an industry.

Don't be surprised about acidification - as you know, virtually all Australian reds are acidified. Adding a bit of tartaric isn't all that dramatic. Unless Carmenere is given a long hang time it isn't very interesting.

tom hyland wrote:
12.10.09 at 9:12 AM


Very thorough writeup - informative and balanced.

I agree that Pinot Noir needs some work, but it has only been a few years. It sure took California a few decades to get it right. I'm not sure Chile will ever get to that level, but there are a few bottlings from San Antonio and Leyda that are notable.

Interesting also about the excitement of new appellations with so few wineries. New discoveries are always interesting, but perhaps a track record is necessary before anyone proclaims an area as the "next great one."

12.10.09 at 2:46 PM

A good, balanced and insightful report.
Just one question is Crignane the same as French Carignan?


Dean Tudor wrote:
12.10.09 at 5:31 PM

Excellent writeup -- can you also get it to appear in print somewhere? I'd hate for it to get lost in cyberspace.

Skip the tasting notes writeup, just continue to prognosticate.

I'll expect the same level of analysis from you, Alder, after your next trip.


Claude Vaillancourt wrote:
12.10.09 at 5:34 PM

Chile has a track record for Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the Maipo valley. These Cabernet wines are often stunning values, and they can age amazingly well. Aging potential of the Chilean red wines is the best kept secret in the wine world. Part of the problem is because the Chileans themselves are not promoting them in that way. They are not selling older wines. It is a shame. They work hard and invest a lot in developing new cooler regions, all that is great, but at the same time they neglect this huge aspect that would help them changing their image of a country only producing cheap, fruity, and sometimes overoaked wines. Try a good Maipo Cab with 10-15 years in the bottle, and you will never think about Chilean wine in the same way. For the rest, it is a story in the making. But a very interesting one to follow. The quality of the wines from the new cooler regions, often made from 3-5 years old vines, is most of the time awesome. The potential for the future is great, but as I said, the main problem of Chile is still one of image. To some extent they can be blamed for being too commercially minded, but on the other hand, are the wine geeks really interested in Chilean boutique stuff? I like Chile for the QPR of it’s wines, but value means that I am at the good end of the deal. Who is willing to pay more for a specially crafted Chilean wine? It is the old dilemma of the chicken and the egg. Some producers are willing to take the risk of investing to produce special wines. Casa Marin was a pioneer, with the coastal move, but there are many new projects in new areas for winegrowing. It will take time, but the wine world needs to look at Chile in a way that is reflecting the huge improvements made by this country over the last two decades.

12.10.09 at 7:29 PM

Alder, this is a very well-thought, brilliantly presented piece of writing. As with all articles of its quality, it makes us want to know more because it is so good. I second Dean Tudor's comments that it needs airing in additional forums because it presents the kind of current, on-the-ground analysis that one cannot get simply from tasting the wines here.

I would add just one expansionary comment if I might. I had the opportunity to travel to Chile almost a decade ago, and in preparation for my trip, which was highly encouraged by Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen who had his own efforts ongoing down there, I read up on everything I could find on the Internet and found that those who had already been there were full of praise for Chile's potential.

All except Frank Prial, who, upon making his own second trip a decade after his first, remarked that the potential has not been realized and he worried that it might not ever be.

My conclusions were that there was great potential. Your conclusions seem to be that there is great potential. Yet, there is no evidence in the wines reaching our shores that the potential is being fully realized.

Not that Chile is not making lots of good wine as its old practices get modernized. But, even while agreeing with Claude Villaincourt's comments about aged Chilean wines, it is as if that special, unique character that will make the place come alive to the world has yet to be unlocked.

Alder wrote:
12.10.09 at 9:04 PM


Couldn't agree more on all points, especially about the necessity for hang-time with Carmenere. Acidulation isn't particularly damning. I'm not dogmatically opposed to such adjustments.

Alder wrote:
12.10.09 at 9:18 PM


Thanks for the thoughtful comments in turn. I do not have enough experience with Chilean wine to make a grounded assessment along the lines you're hinting at. Perhaps I will need to have my own visit a decade later like Frank.

Steve Raye wrote:
12.12.09 at 11:45 AM

Adding my two cents from a limited visit in October...further to your comments about women winemakers...Paula Cardenas at Matetic may be quiet and introspective, but she sure has oenology chops. And while I'm still on the side of the fence that thinks biodynamic wines aren't a commercially viable concept, Paula's wines are a liquid retort to that argument.

And sure, the Pinot Noir needs work, but talking to folks like Ignacio Casali of Leyda is like being in Napa 20 years ago. Young, technically competent and innovative winemakers who don't know know that "things aren't done that way." Only in Chile's case, they aren't limited to the geography of one small slice of CA, but just beginning to discover the potential of a country with 1476 kilometers of west-facing land with terrain ranging from the driest desert in the world to the latitude of the Roaring 40's.

The part of my visit that really captured the character of Chile for me was a comment Max Darraidou of Leyda made about some "old vines"...I asked when were they planted...answer...10 years ago. I can only imagine what the next ten years will bring.

12.13.09 at 11:00 AM

Excellent write-up, but don't backtrack on acidulation! It is phony, like chaptalization, and can often be tasted because the acid appears to be in one room and the fruit in another. For industrial product, these practices are fine, but I prefer wine that reflects what the grape can do in a particular place during a specific growing season. In the Andes, it is often structurally impossible to make such wine.

Alder wrote:
12.13.09 at 11:47 AM

Thanks for the comments. I'm not particularly dogmatic about winemaking. No reflection on your opinion, Oswaldo, but vilifying wine made with added acids I see as sort of like vegetarians wearing leather sneakers. While I might prefer in a theoretical sense to not to drink wine with any added acid (or chapatalization, or water, for that matter), only drinking wines that meet those criteria is highly impractical, not to mention a way of missing out on some very good wine.

12.13.09 at 12:52 PM

I agree that vegetarians should not wear leather sneakers! :)

david pierson wrote:
12.13.09 at 10:26 PM

No mention of viognier?? Cono Sur makes an awesome viognier for $11 Cdn.. awesome value

Alder wrote:
12.13.09 at 10:36 PM

Had a couple of decent Viogniers while I was there, but nothing that blew my socks off (including the Cono Sur Viognier). Not much of it being made in Chile.

MR wrote:
12.14.09 at 10:13 AM

Alder, I must take exception to your statement:
"...and Chile has only been trying to make really serious wines for about 20 years).

What I think you mean it that Chile has only been exporting serious wines for about 20 years. I learned to drink wine in Chile in the early 1970s (long story, not worth the discussion) and there were some excellent wine even back then. But they did not get serious about exporting until about 20 years ago.

Max Morales wrote:
12.14.09 at 3:21 PM

The most interesting chilean wines are in Chile and do not go very far away from our borders. Very few have the opportunity to get a distributor or an importer interested due to limited production or lack of marketing strategy. In Chile we have several "superb" wines coming soon like Louis Michel Belair (Chateau Vicomnte Belair) with Francois Massoc doing Pinot Noir in Chile (Small productions)..or Quebrada Macul since quite few years ago (According to me, the best wine of Chile)....or a group of independent winemakers from Movi......but....we are just starting....Just wait a little bit!...

Alder wrote:
12.14.09 at 9:47 PM


I am basing my comments on the general consensus of all the winemakers I met in Chile, which is that the "serious" winemaking, i.e. quality winemaking began when Miguel Torres arrived and brought with him techniques that transformed the industry. i.e. 1980.

Sommeliere wrote:
12.15.09 at 2:33 PM

Alder, 1980 is almost 30 years ago.

12.15.09 at 2:42 PM

OK, so instead of writing "Chile has been trying to make serious wines for 20 years," which I thought was generous, Alder should have written 30 years. Let me know when they succeed. Objection! OK, I take it back. Let me know when they succeed in making a serious wine that is not spoofed.

12.15.09 at 6:35 PM

The involvement of Miguel Torres in Chile is the beginning of the modern era, with a technical modernization. But there was good wine made before that. Jay Miller was reporting a few months ago, with very good comments, about a vertical tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Antiguas Reservas, from Cousino Macul, with bottles back to 1968. Here is a link to another tasting of Antiguas Reservas, from 2008. The oldest bottle was a 1960, and was showing nicely.


12.15.09 at 6:53 PM

About Pinot Noir, new grapes, and new terroirs, remember that wine people from California, France and even Australia are involved in many projects in Chile. Sometimes directly as owners or partners, or as consultants. The list of very knowledgeable foreigners involved down there is very long. This is a good way to speed up the learning curve of the Chileans. But at the same time, Chile is not California or Burgundy, and as Steve said, it is a very large and diverse country. I imagine that making Pinot in Bio Bio, is not the same as in San Antonio or Limari. Also, from what I read, there is a lot of competition between wineries, and they are, in general, reluctant to share acquired knowledge. But these days in Chile, probably because of this competitive spirit, winemakers are moving quite a lot from one winery to another. This is not very good to develop a winery long term view, but it is a good way to spread the knowledge around. I read that Kingston Family Vineyards, Americans doing wine in Casablanca, are trying to change the mentality over there. They launched an event, a few years ago, where winemakers from around the valley were invited to gather to taste one another’s wine and share information. The first year only eight people showed up, and the last time they were 30. The mentality is changing as well as the Chilean wine map.

Jen wrote:
12.16.09 at 8:49 AM

I'll jump into the fray on acid additions. I don't think there's anything wrong with it per se, although it may not always be done well. First, if acid is added correctly, you won't be able to taste it. That would only occur if the winemaker was heavy handed. Second, as fruit ripens, acidity drops. Really ripe wines with big, full flavors and soft tannins will therefore taste flat without an acid addition. Carmenere, in particular, tastes green if it's harvested too soon. In this case, a more interesting wine can be made by ripening the fruit and then adjusting the acid in the winery.

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