Anthony Gismondi’s Final Blend
The modern Chilean wine business is closing in on 25 years in Canada. That’s right, Chilean wine spans an entire generation of Canadian wine drinkers and is already working on a new generation of wine consumers. Unfortunately what worked in the 90s or even the 00s is unlikely to be successful over the next decade and how Chile evolves and reshapes its image in foreign markets is going to be crucial to its long-term success.
Long known for its value, the time has come for Chile to ask itself why they would want to continue down that path. There is nothing wrong with offering value, especially at all price points, but countries, and important wine regions, usually build their pedigree from the top down. As they say at Ford, ‘quality is job one’ and it’s quality wine from recognised appellations that will reshape the modern Chilean wine landscape.
Chile need look no farther than Canada’s Niagara Peninsula or the Okanagan Valley to see how much money they are leaving on the table. It’s all in how you position yourself. In my opinion, and for too many years now, Chile’s best wines have been suppressed by wholesale buyers, distributors, monopolies and supermarkets content to sell expensive French, Italian or American wine while convincing the Chileans they need to attack the market from the bottom end up, because, well they were Chilean and well, the wine was from South America.
Value was the password and while the French and Italian were busy selling Grand Crus, First Growths and Riservas, Chile was asked to sell a case of wine at the same price its competitors were getting for a single bottle. That kind of thinking has to end. I have long been interested in Chile’s ultimate development which surely must move beyond the value for money moniker that attaches itself to Chilean wines in the same way an early morning Pacific fog blankets Chile’s coastal vineyards.
The current mantra is to get to the coast or up the mountains, but beyond that it’s more about exploring all of Chile and finally matching each grape with a specific soil. It’s not breaking news; we know the wine will be better, but the point is the Chileans have finally come to see that their future success will be dependent upon their ability to be different from the rest of the wine world and not to be at the beck and call of British supermarkets, giant American distributors and, of course, our own monopolies, all of whom have ridden the pony for a generation demanding nothing but cheap, loss leader wines to get customers to come into the store.
Arguing against value is not something I’m used to doing but if it means an end to bland, faceless brands that bring nothing to retail wine aisles, I accept the challenge. Chile’s blanket value brand identity has to disappear if it is going to make the jump to prime time.
Last week I spent some time with a number of the WineAlign team in Chile and we found plenty to rave about starting with Winemaker Mario Geisse of Casa Silva, who blew me away with his Lago Rancho 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from the Futrono, Region Austral Patagonia, Chile. The vineyard is eight years old and dry farmed thanks to 70 inches of annual rainfall. Futrono is situated in the Chilean Patagonia, 904 km south of Santiago where the average maximum temperature is 18.5 degrees Celsius from January to May. Extreme? You bet. Electric, you bet. Different than anything you will see in Canada from Chile, you bet.
About 1700 kilometres to the north in the Atacama desert, winemaker Felipe Toso was pouring the Ventisquero Tara Red from Huasaco. The vineyard, now seven years old, is located at 28º 31’ 54,85’’ S and is planted to ungrafted syrah and merlot over chalky soils. The mix is 66/34 and the fruit was all picked in the first week of April. The two varieties are fermented separately in small, open 500-kilo tanks, ‘pinot style.’ After a week of pump overs it was racked to fifth-use French barrels, where the malolactic fermentation took place. The wine is simply amazing and has nothing to do with the Chile you know.
Another sure sign of change is a movement among the big wineries to be more responsive to the need for Chile 2.0 wines. Case in point, the Marques de Casa Concha Pais Cinsault 2014 made by winemaker Marcelo Papa. The hundred plus year old país vines are grown at Cauquenes, Maule Valley; the 50-year old cinsault is from Trehuaco in the Itata Valley. The mix is 85 percent país with 15 percent cinsault, a blend no one would have thought possible even a decade ago. Fresh bright red fruit flavours dominate, revealing a minerality and freshness that is the polar opposite of those old icon reds. Make no mistake; Papa is taking a chance by attaching this wine to the famed Marques brand but he wanted people to pay attention to it and at $20 a bottle this wine is making waves.
The question is will it make it to wine lists in New York, or London or San Francisco where traditionally you can check off the likes of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Shiraz, Brunello, Chianti and lately even Mendoza malbec. Yet more often than not, Chilean wines are nowhere to be found. True, you may find some carmenère but like South African pinotage these curiosities do not a country establish.
Chile’s strength is its fabulously natural and isolated wine regions, uncontaminated by most of what goes on in North America. Naturally made wines should be the focus of its future. My notes from numerous trips would suggest sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, carignan, pinot noir, and yes, old vine pais, will likely be the stars of the next decade along with riesling, chardonnay and more innovative and creative red blends. Many could be organic or biodynamically grown. But there is more.
As varietal wine comes to the end of its useful life, this more than anything could provide the springboard Chile needs to recreate its international image. Temperature, altitude, longitude and yes even latitude are all part of a new story that should be told. As discussed in the pinot noir tasting there is no need to be Burgundian but we can all learn from them. Pinot noir and chardonnay cover the vineyards but the story is always about its people and its places. Puligny, Chassagne, Meursault, Corton, Faiveley, Leflaive, Latour, DRC: the French are the masters of terroir-based wines because they learned decades ago that no one can copy your dirt.
No one knows better what the wines of Chile have to offer than the Chileans themselves. It is time Chile decided what is best for its future. Shaking that ‘cheap’ moniker is not going be just about raising prices. There has to be an attitude change; the industry’s youngest and brightest will need to step up and pursue the next 20 years with the same passion Aurelio Montes, Eduardo Chadwick, Agustin Huneeus, Alvaro Espinoza and Ignacio Recabarren have done in the last two decades.
Groups such as The Movement of Independent Vintners (MOVI) and Vignadores de Carignan (VIGNO) are a great start. Young and vigorous, the plan is to explore the limits of Chilean wine while respecting its history. MOVI calls itself an association of small, quality-oriented Chilean wineries who have come together to share a common goal to make wine personally, on a human scale and to promote a passion for the endeavours of growing grapes and crafting fine wine.
But can you be a serious wine producing region if you don’t produce so-called first growth, a grand cru-like wines or in the case of Chile — a super-premium blend? Frankly, I seldom measure a wine region by its greatest wines but rather by its most simple. Using that scale Chile moves well up my world wine chart of quality producers and with 1700 kilometres of potential vineyards to explore the possibilities are limitless.
Winemaker Aurelio Montes has fought the good fight for a long time and he is to be congratulated for pushing The Wines of Chile and its members to think outside of the box as it moves forward. Montes suggested the entire industry needed to “be brave,” moving forward as it reveals the story of the New Chile. Indeed as the song says, “Honestly, we want to see you be brave.”
Oh and be Chile, because no other country can replicate that.
(Photos courtesy of Wines of Chile & MOVI)