Remember when instead of straight up admitting you wouldn’t date someone because of their looks you would euphemistically say “Oh…he/she has a great personality”?
That has been the fate of Chilean wines up until recently.
Chile, with its geographical uniqueness, has given the world a vast assortment of remarkable wines at great value. But that has also been its downfall. For years, the wines of Chile have been known as “value wines”; wines that are good for the price but without much more to add. But that has changed consequent to the Chilean winemakers who have been hard at work to grow out of the wine “industry” stereotype into a reputation more aligned with the considerable efforts to craft wines of style and substance while still, yes, at great value.
Chile, with its almost 2,600 miles of coastline, has a dizzying array of climates and soils from where different varietals can show their character. However, soil studies have shown that there’s more diversity of soil in the country’s “width” which averages 100 miles. This is essentially a function of a west/east topography which places vineyard sites anywhere from the cool Pacific coast, through the warmer valleys, and up to the altitude of the mighty Andes. In addition to the Atacama Desert to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south, these are the geographical features that to this day have safeguarded the region from the scourge of Phylloxera; the nasty louse that, upon feeding on vine roots, almost wiped out the great vineyards of Europe during the late 1860’s.
Chile is not your traditional “wine culture” country as you would see, for example, in Argentina where people reflexively drink wine with their meals. Instead, Pisco (a local brandy shared with Perú) and beer remain very popular. Whereas Argentina’s wine culture was a byproduct of its immigration, Chile’s wine industry was imported with the Francophile ways of the mining tycoons of the 1800’s. Many of these metal barons, in accordance with their appetite for all things French, ended up bringing back many of the cuttings whose pre-Phylloxera progeny still exist.
Here are some of the Chile varietals that I recommend you try. Most live up to the traditional “value” character of Chilean wines. But remember, “value” does not mean poor quality.
1. Carmenere – Arguably the national grape of Chile. Brought from France where, while now almost extinct, it used to be one of blending grapes of Bordeaux. The grape found a thriving home in the soils of Chile where, when grown and vinified in the old style, it can grow to develop “green” and excessively savory notes. However, modern winemakers have been toiling to stay away from those stereotypical flavors to now produce wines with great structure. This is a great bottle to enjoy with roasted meats and anything braised.
2. Cabernet Sauvignon – If you are looking for the traditional taste of this robust and broad-shouldered varietal, Chile has a great portfolio at a fraction of the price you would pay in California where you do have to pay up to drink the similar quality good stuff.
3. Syrah – Look for cooler climate sites where the peppery and meaty character of the grape shows best. This has become my steak wine!
4. Pinot Noir – This ever-contentious grape (I have found from my classes that no other grape causes more friendly controversy!) shines in those cooler sites. Yup, you guessed it: near the coast, way down south, and up the Andes. These are crafted as more delicate expressions of the varietal when compared to California and even Oregon versions where it can often be marketed as “the Pinot Noir for Cabernet drinkers”.
5. Sauvignon Blanc – If you are looking for something between a New Zealand and California expression of this grape, again check out some of the cooler sites of Chile. Although still with some herbaceous notes, these wines are not as tropical fruit driven.
6. Chardonnay – Want to take a rest from sucking on oak barrel staves? Search no farther than cooler areas such as Casablanca Valley for less opulent expressions of this renown varietal.
I am confident that once you put on your Chilean wine goggles, the once “great personality” K-Mart underwear model will become your Victoria Secret/International Male partner for the night.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.