Chile has significantly ramped up the quality and variety of its winemaking in recent years. But the country’s winemakers have had their share of challenges, from learning how to cultivate some of the newer varietals to trying to shed Chile’s rap as a low-cost wine producer.
While Chile has been producing and exporting wine for centuries, winemaking for the purposes of selling abroad started in 1980, says Santiago Margozzini, head winemaker at Montgras in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. “We realized there was a market for wine outside Chile, but we had to make improvements,” he says. After spending 15 years improving technology, in the late ’90s “we realized we had to plant varietals in different areas.”
Ed Flaherty, chief winemaker for Vina Tarapaca in Chile’s Maipo Valley, agrees. “In Chile in the early 1990s, you looked at the commercial appeal of the varietal and then planted— without really thinking what works.” But Chile has learned a lot in the past 20 years, according to several winemakers based in the Santiago area.
PERFECTING PINOT NOIR
“The problem with the country is that we can produce a lot of good varieties of wine; it’s harder to stand out,” says Andres Turner, managing director of Montes Premium Wines. And some of its wines from those varietals that Chile was less familiar with, such as pinot noir, were not great a few decades ago. But Chile is getting a better understanding of pinor noir—where to plant it, when to pick it, Turner says.
Chile is a very young producer of pinot noir, concurs Matías Alberto Garcés Silva, partner and executive director of Amayna in San Antonio, Chile. “In the 1980s, we didn’t have too much history with pinot noir. But now we have been doing a lot of planting,” and the product is much better.
“The first pinot noir I had in Chile disgusted me,” says Brett Jackson Powell, chief winemaker for Valdivieso Vineyard and a native New Zealander. But pinot noir has a great future in Chile, he notes. “We now understand the different areas, and the [pinot noir] vines are starting to get some age on them.”
Chile is more of a cool-climate than people realize, Powell says. “The air movement from the Humbolt Current and the snow on the mountains has a cooling effect on summer.” Chile’s climate is different from Argentina, which produces more textured wines, he notes. “The aromatics are more intense in Chilean wine.”
It’s not just the newer varietals that have posed a struggle. Many Chilean winemakers are still trying to master carmenère, the country’s signature grape. “Carmenère was an ugly duckling—juicy but flat—it was hard to get fresher flavors,” says Rafael Urregola winemaking manager Underraga. “But we are learning.”
One of carmenère’s challenges is that it’s “a big berry that doesn’t have a lot of structure,” Urregola says. “It has a peppery herbal character,” and should be picked on the edge of greenness to retain the freshness, he notes, although some other winemakers swear by picking carmenère later in the season.
Carmenère is green, hard to grow and has very low yields, says Andres Caballero, winemaker director for Carolina Wine Brands. “About eight years ago, we understood that carmenère needs a certain kind of soil, with green leaves all the time.”
The character of carmenère is a lot of fruit and spice and backbone, says Christian A. Wylie, commercial director of Carolina Wine Brands. “It took a good 10 years to get right. There is a lot of better carmenère getting to the market now.”
For certain, says Matias Rios, winemaker for Cono Sur Vineyards & Winery, “We are just now starting to show the potential of carmenère from Chile.”
LESS OAK, MORE FRUIT
Winemakers in Chile used to be very aggressive with oak, says Margozzini of MontGras, but now they’re cutting back and focusing more on expressing the fruit. When you have good fruit, he notes, “all you have to do is not screw it up.” Jorge Gutierrez, winemaker at Montes USA, notes that working in California, “it was amazing to see the changes in chardonnay in the past five years” in terms of oak use. “Here in Chile, we have made changes to show the fruit more.”
Also, oak will mask issues with the wine. “As a winemaker, sometimes you try to fix fruit problems with oak,” says Flaherty. The hard work should be happening in the vineyard.
Speaking of hard work, “harvest in Chile is a form of torture for winemakers—it’s too long,” Flaherty says. In 2013, for instance, the harvest started the last weekend in February for sparkling wine grapes and went to the last week in May with picking the carmenère.
What’s more, it was a hard season, with a lot of rain in December “and in January we didn’t see the sun for three weeks,” says Ignacio Casali Larrain, vitcultor with Amayna. On the up side, “the most difficult vintages produce the best wine,” notes Amayna’s winemaker Francisco Ponce.
Indeed, 2013 was a cold year with a delayed harvest—both good conditions for wine, says Cono Sur’s Rios. “I think 2013 will be one of the best years for Chilean wine.”