David Copp, Wine Writer
I feel sure that many of you will have visited a vineyard or a winery at some stage of your life. I have been lucky enough to visit many around the world. But the most glorious vineyards I have yet seen are in Chile.
Missionaries from Mexico brought the first vines to Chile to make communion wine. When the Conquistadores came, they preferred the local wines to the travel sick Spanish wines. Then European immigrants brought vines from Portugal, Spain, France and Italy and the industry got under way.
Grape-growing was restricted under Salvador Allende but his successor repealed his laws and Miguel Torres made a serious investment bringing modern wine-making equipment and French barrels in 1976.
In the last 40 years, Chile has emerged as one of the finest wine producers in the world. And because her wines were unknown, they were reasonably priced. I consider they offer the best ‘value for money’ wines we import.
Chile started by producing excellent cabernet sauvignon and merlot wines in the Maipo region, close to the capital Santiago, where Chilean copper rich landowners had decided to showcase their wealth by buying fine country properties and planting vines.
It so happened that the conditions were almost perfect for these tried and tested Bordeaux varieties. The towering Andes provides a superb backdrop and their snow-melt waters irrigate the sun-blessed valleys. Cloudless skies and cool breezes from the Pacific during the heat of the summer are priceless benefits when one is seeking fruit flavour. Good drainage is always helpful because vines are encouraged to dig deep to find the minerals that make them healthy, and add complexity and interest to their finished wines.
Fruit ripens remarkably well here and that is why the imported Bordeaux varieties do so well. Eduardo Chadwick of Errazuriz, one of the very top Chilean producers, has had the courage to arrange tastings of his wines up against Bordeaux First Growths and Super Tuscans in Berlin, Rio, Tokyo, Beijing and New York. He made the point that Chile does produce refined and distinctive world class wines. The advantage of having wealthy proprietors is that they are prepared to do what is necessary to get the best by lowering yields and ageing wines in French wood before bottling.
Lower yields and imported barrels mean higher prices for the top wines but I marvel at the sheer value one gets from Chilean wines across the board. The structure of the Chilean wine industry helps. There are a number of larger companies such as Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, Errazuriz, and Luis Felipe Edward competing with each other.
And in order to compete they have invested well in manpower and machinery. Many of the world’s leading viticulturalists and oenologists such as Michel Rolland from France, Paul Hobbs from California and Brian Croser from Australia have been brought in. The wineries are superbly equipped and the industry is well led by Chadwick and others. I cannot remember the last time I tasted a bad or even indifferent Chilean wine.
Whereas cabernet sauvignon and merlot introduced Chilean wines into world markets they have been followed up with some quite wonderful chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir wines. My Burgundian friend, Paul Bouchard, really admires Chilean pinot noir which he considers world class. It may take the Chileans a few years to catch up with the polish of the centuries-old burgundian estates but they will do in time. Even less well known varieties like gewürztraminer perform well when planted in the right soils and micro climates.
Apart from Maipo and Aconcagua regions there are several other fine wines. The Casablanca and Maule Valleys both produce exceptional white wines. I particularly like Wine Society’s Limari chardonnay and sauvignon blanc (both around £6.75) and its biodynamic silbador chardonnay from the Casablanca valley. I consider the Society’s merlot my house wine and Leyda pinot noir elegant enough for treats. But every good wine merchant, and we are blessed with Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Co-op and Vineyards in Sherborne, will have similar treats in store to tell you about