Chile Expands its Reach and the Best of the New World
by Sara d’Amato, with notes from David Lawrason and Michael Godel
Chile is a land of varied extremes and has not been shy to showcase those regional differences in their export wines. It is the idea of value, Chile’s hallmark for decades, which has blocked us from appreciating their complete cachet. Premium quality wines from Chile thus suffer due to an export reputation largely focused on the under $15 price range that has gradually increased to under $20. Thankfully, more and more of those premium finds are trickling into international markets although this week’s VINTAGES Release is extremely shy in this regard. The upswing is that smartly marketed diversity within Chile has helped keep their wine reputation innovative and with a high potential to surprise.
One of the most important strategies of Chile, intentional or not, was to focus on various grape varieties expressive of diverse regions as opposed to one star. They have thus avoided the Argentinian malbec albatross; a one-hit-wonder misconception that continues to plague Chile’s neighbour. Although carménère has reluctantly become Chile’s signature grape, it has not overshadowed the bounty of assorted sidekicks that fit easily into leading roles such as cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. Even the underrated Pais, formerly used almost exclusively to produce bulk wine in Maule and Bio-Bio, has been given the chance to shine again. At no point in my visits to Chile did producers come close to a unanimous consensus on investing the majority of marketing on one key varietal. That decision has been instrumental in keeping Chile fresh and exciting.
Chile’s grape growing regions take up an immense portion of the latitudinal length of the globally accepted grape-growing viability zone. This “Goldilocks” band of latitude for wine production is situated between 30 and 50 degrees both in the northern and southern hemispheres. It is here that grape growing is possible as beyond these borders of extremes, climates are too harsh for the growth of vinifera. This fact, in itself, gives you an idea of how well situated Chile is for the growth of premium wine. Its regional span of quality wine production is among the greatest in the world.
However, what makes Chile extra special is its geographical diversity from east to west. Although a very narrow country, less than 180 km wide, the range of altitudes, penetrating valleys and coastal influences are responsible for a tremendous array of climates within the country. This is a wine grower’s paradise. Despite all of this wealth of land, Chile continues to push further into regions thought impossible to grow. Why? Because Chilean wine producers have an intrepid spirit and an enterprising nature that are crucial to perpetual evolution. As encounters with folk across the extremes of Chile’s geography shaped the revolutionary disposition of Che Guevera, so has the land inspired winegrowers to explore, express and reinvent.
An example of this limit pushing in Chile is the Elqui Valley, the country’s northernmost wine producing region. The Elqui Valley has quickly become Chile’s most talked about quality wine region and is certainly pushing the limits of viability on the extreme edge of the “Goldilocks zone”. High altitude, great diurnal shift, strong maritime influences and almost unparalleled sunlight intensity (similar only to that of the northern region of Salta across the Andes) makes this Chile’s hottest emerging quality wine region. Wineries such as Viña San Pedro have become solidly entrenched in this extreme region, a phenomenon only conceivable over the past decade. Due to the valley’s proximity to the Pacific, it thus benefits from cool, coastal breezes so that even cool climate grapes such as pinot noir and chardonnay can thrive here. Its clear skies and virtually no rainfall make this region perfectly suited to stellar observation and some of the most coveted telescopes are located here. Unfortunately, nothing from the Elqui seems to have made it to this week’s lineup but don’t stop looking as some will surely appear before the end of the year.
Even a desert as harsh as the Atacama is no limit for the adventurous Chilean wine industry. Beyond Elqui, which is already located at the edge of the grape viability growing zone, certain wineries are now pushing into the Atacama desert itself – one of the driest places on earth. The pioneering producer Viña Ventisquero has had success with their hand harvested Tara line, an extreme Atacama viticulture product. Despite the cost of production and challenges of high soil salinity and virtually no water, the project goes forth because the results are outstanding. Unfortunately, you’ll be hard pressed to get your hands on one of these costly, extreme and highly thirsted-for bottles.
You likely don’t realize that you, as a Canadian consumer, have a big impact on Chilean wine success. Canada is one of Chile’s top importers of wine and is the 5th largest wine importer in the world. Our purchasing decisions have a direct and measurable impact on Chile’s wine economy and future production strategies. It is time that we no longer shy away from spending a few dollars more on these dramatic and dynamic wines from a country whose track record is proven, a country inspiring the world’s best winemakers to produce a second annual harvest in the southern hemisphere.
There is a great deal to learn and more variety than ever before available. Chile is now the 5th largest exporter of wine and is virtually phylloxera free. This means that most of its vines are planted on their own rootstocks unlike the vast majority of classical wine regions – most definitely adding cachet. In this VINTAGES Release, Chile hits hard with classic grape varietals, solidly built and regionally expressive wines. Regardless of missing out on many hot, emerging regions, the selection is solid and evidence not only of the value which exists in Chile but of its quality and variety.
You’ll find below our top picks of this Chilean feature but also the best of the new world. John Szabo will be returning next week to take a closer look at the best from Burgundy and what inspired us from the old world.
Our Top Picks from the September 3rd VINTAGES release:
Buyers’ Guide to Chile
Errazuriz 2015 Aconcagua Costa Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Aconcagua Valley ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – A cool and breezy coastal climate gives this sauvignon blanc brightness and the kick comes from its volcanic soils. A striking mineral profile, impressive depth and torrid vibrancy made this the most interesting sauvignon blanc I have tasted, globally, in quite some time. Especially if sauvignon blanc doesn’t float your boat, give this one a go.
Michael Godel – Errazuriz is arguably Chile’s most successful multi-varietal, multi-faceted winery but their accomplishments with several tiers of sauvignon blanc is just amazing. The Estate and Max Reserva Series available at $13 and $16 respectively are terrific and this single vineyard wine elevates the game, as it should, with more tropical fruit and even more acidity. The crisp and strikingly pungent hyperbole of Chilean sauvignon blanc is loyal to the house style with the ratcheted notes of coastal vineyards and schist soils.
Maycas Del Limarí 2014 Sumaq Reserva Chardonnay, Limarí Valley ($14.95)
David Lawrason – Great value here and interesting to compare to quite similar white Burgundies on this release. It’s fits in well. It’s a quiet, confident, subtle and well integrated chardonnay that hails from limestone-influenced soils in Pacific cooled appellation of Limari in Chile’s northern winegrowing zone.
Junta Momentos 2014 Reserve Syrah/Carménère, Curicó Valley ($16.95)
David Lawrason – This is a creative and effective blend of syrah (65%), carmenere (35%) and cabernet sauvignon (10%), and I like the resulting energy and complexity. Syrah pepper, meatiness and roasted coffee notes dominate the nose, with carmenere currants and tension kicking in on the palate. Very good value.
De Martino 2013 Legado Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley ($18.95)
David Lawrason – De Martino is one of my favourite Chilean producers, finding complexity and cohesiveness and satisfying texture in an unforced way. It leans organic, or is at least grown sustainable and fermented on natural yeasts. Complex, interesting cabernet, read to enjoy now.
Escudo Rojo 2013, Maipo Valley ($18.95)
Michael Godel – The amenability factor runs on high and wide in breadth from this very blackberry red out of Maipo. While there have been good vintages of this recognizable blend in the past, I can’t recall one with such balance and structure. You can serve this to anyone, anywhere, anytime. It will solicit nods of approval every time. I know because I’ve done so recently to a crowd. Nods all around.
Sara d’Amato – A blend of Maipo and Rapel Valley cabernet, syrah and carménère from the Baron Phillippe de Rothschild family of wines. A real stand-out in this release offering elegance, harmony and refinement. I would have guessed the cost to be significantly higher if tasted blind. More polished than powerful but offering excellent concentration of fruit and solid structural components.
Arboleda 2013 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Las Vertientes Vineyard, Aconcagua Valley ($19.95)
Michael Godel – There is just so much to like about this Chilean cabernet sauvignon. It’s fresh and simultaneously savoury and it has that single-locale sense of place in its step. Wood is certainly in charge but freshness, dusty fruit, crisp bites and beneficial bitters keep everything humming along nicely. Big wine for the money.
Concha Y Toro Terrunyo Andes Pirque Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Las Terrazas Block, Pirque Vineyard, Maipo Valley ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – Sitting within the premium growing region of Maipo, Pirque is a cooler climate oasis in Chile’s central valley. Its elevation and situation are thus that temperature differences between day and night are often upwards of a 30 degrees Celsius difference! This incarnation from Concha Y Toro’s Terrunyo is typically firmly structured and ageworthy with enticing, spicy aromatics and impressive depth of flavour. Worthy of the premium price.
Casa Silva Cool Coast Pinot Noir 2013, Colchagua Valley, Colchagua Valley ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato – Many of Chile’s iconic wines come from the Colchagua Valley which offers both heat and sunshine along with cool coastal breezes as the name of this pinot noir suggests. Here is a complex pinot noir of terrific value. Not too modern but also very clean and offering wide appeal. A great weeknight go-to red when something lighter and more fragrant is what you crave.
Oh, Canada and other New World
Cave Spring 2013 Estate Bottled Gewürztraminer, Cave Spring Vineyard, Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Love at first sip, the evolving style of gewürztraminer from Cave Spring has really hit its stride in this 2013 incarnation. Its slow maturity has unveiled new complexities and the length is outstanding. Be sure to pick up a bottle for now and three more for the cellar. One of many in a lineup of strong Canadian showings in this week’s Vintages release.
Burrowing Owl 2014 Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia ($34.95)
Michael Godel – The Owl’s chardonnay shows some yet seen elegance in 2014, cooler in temperament and slower on the swelter and the smoulder. I really like the balance struck and the length is better than many, including versions of itself. To me this 2014 Burrowing Owl is an exemplary poster child for cool-climate meets rich and creamy Okanagan chardonnay.
Fielding Estate 2013 Cabernet Franc, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($21.95)
Michael Godel – Fielding’s consistent take on Cabernet Franc might be labeled as boring in proportion to its lack of ego but it is getting better with each passing vintage. Winemaker Richie Roberts’ end game is temperance, modesty and goodness. Fielding’s Cabernet Franc is not one of Ontario fiction in requiem of drama, egotism, vanity and venality. It’s the real deal.
Inniskillin 2013 Montague Vineyard Pinot Noir, Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($29.95)
Sara d’Amato – Still holding on strong due to finesse, concentration and structure, the 2013 Montague Pinot Noir received a noteworthy silver medal at the most recent National Wine Awards of Canada. A compelling, old world inspired pinot at the top end of Niagara’s premium pinot pyramid.
Château Des Charmes 2104 St. David’s Bench Vineyard Gamay Noir Droit, St. David’s Bench, Niagara-on-the-Lake ($17.95)
David Lawrason – The critics are getting excited about Ontario gamay. This was a gold medalists at the 2016 National Wine Awards and the Ontario Wine Awards. From a gamay clone developed at Chateau des Charmes, this is a quite substantial gamay, with impressive, creamy texture and intriguing red fruit and peppery complexity.
Auntsfield 2013 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, Southern Valleys, Marlbrough, New Zealand, $31.95
David Lawrason – Something good is happening at Aunstsfield in Marlborugh. This is their second wine this year I have rated above 90 points. What a lovely, pure and generous pinot! It is certainly in NZ’s somewhat riper style but not at all blowsy or overdone. Sara d’Amato – Auntsfield has proven its consistency and has now become a coveted find at Vintages among new world pinot lovers. Modern in style with impressive structural components and exciting verve on the finish. Keep an eye out for this sophisticated find.
L’avenir 2014 Pinotage, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($14.95)
David Lawrason – Here’s a pinotage that has not succumbed to commercial ‘mocha-fication’. Which leaves you able to actually make an informed decision as to whether you actually like or don’t like South Africa’s signature variety. It’s a mid-weight, sour-edged but quite smooth example good energy and length at the price.
Rodney Strong 2013 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, Sonoma County, California ($35.95)
Michael Godel – I have always considered Sonoma’s Knight’s Valley appellation to share equal or congruous footing with many parts of Napa Valley. Cabernet can ripen consistently and also develop complexity some other Sonoma valleys don’t always succeed at doing. This 2013 from a great vintage is rich and dark as per the Knight’s Valley give. Rodney Strong moves to accentuate and celebrate the darkest of the valley’s fruit qualities. Very complex Sonoma County cabernet with three times the value as compared to the three times more expensive Rockaway kin.
Zuccardi Q Malbec 2013, La Consulta and Vista Flores Vineyards, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina ($19.95)
Sara d’Amato – A blend of two premium malbec growing sub-regions from one of Argentina’s most influential and innovative wine families. Zuccardi has invested significantly in pushing altitude boundaries in order to produce extreme and chillingly haunting reds. This thoughtfully crafted assemblage is both youthful and poised with a pulsating and full-flavoured palate.
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