What I’ve Learned about Chilean Wine

I 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.