The Big Chile

Foodservice and Hospitality, December 2005

If beefy cabs and merlots at a low price are all you know about Chilean wine, read on. The country's winemakers are not only in the process of improving quality, but they're also expanding their offerings with different varieties and a new take on an old grape.

Chilean wines have been doing brisk business in the Canadian market for the last decade, with sales increases of ten percent every year. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Great White North is Chile's fourth largest export wine market, with sales of $67 million in 2004.

Although Chile has been growing quality wine grapes since the mid-1800s, it remained a backwater until as recently as the late 1980s, when total wine exports amounted to just US$15 million per year. Then the country began to emerge from Pinochet's dictatorship and embrace free trade, eventually signing an agreement with Canada in 1997. Sales soared. Significant investments in wineries in the 1990s have paid off: by 2004, Chilean wine exports hit US$835.2 million and Anibal Ariztia, president of Viņas de Chile, expects sales in excess of US$900 million in 2005.

Today, the success of Chilean producers is no surprise. Much of the country has an ideal climate for grapes - hot, dry summer days with low humidity, and mild winters that get just cold enough for the vines to become dormant (around 10°C). The dryness also means few problems with the moulds and mildews that plague growers in damper areas.

Michel Couttolenc of Viņa Errazuriz, participates in the Wines of Chile roadshow, which markets heavily in Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta. Couttolenc feels Chile has much more to offer than entry-level reds. "There was a blind tasting in Berlin last year [where] we placed the best wines of Errazuriz against the wines of Bordeaux and the result was amazing because in first place was a wine from Chile."

Chile's best bottles are much cheaper than Bordeaux' finest. Vintages [LCBO's upscale sales channel] stocks Don Maximiano at about $80 a bottle, notes Couttolenc. However, even among the cognoscenti who shop at Vintages, there is resistance: "they're hard to sell," said Couttolenc. "Not impossible, but hard to sell."

Steven Campbell of Toronto-based Lifford wine agency says wine buyers lack confidence in higher priced Chilean wines, and attributes this to the fact that its wines are "undermarked" in American wine publications, which favour California. "If there was a blind tasting with the top wines from Napa against the top wines from Chile, Napa might be embarrassed," he said.

However, even though Chilean wines are excellent and reasonably priced, it's vital that they are properly branded. "People want labels they trust, especially at higher prices," says Dewey Von Noordhof, sommelier at Calgary's hip Brava Bistro. "Chile has a way to go. I love Montes Alpha, Carmen and Errazuriz, but there are a number of other [Chilean brands] that just aren't there yet."

Several foreign joint ventures sprang up in Chile in the 1990s, including top producers like Torres, Lafite-Rothschild, Mondavi, and others. That's a vote of confidence in Chile, but they had to make enormous capital outlays - buying land, building wineries, and hiring foreign staff. So even though the wine is good, it's not overly cheap. "You don't get the value out of the joint venture brands," said Campbell. "We prefer to buy from established wineries like Vina Larosa, founded in 1825, and Echeverria, because they don't have huge start-up costs to repay."

One note of warning about "reserve" or "reserva" on a Chilean label: unlike in Europe, there are no quality standards the wine must meet, so it means nothing. Errazuriz's Couttolenc says "we are working to change that."

Carmanere: "Chile's Own"
While cabernet sauvignon is king in Chile - with one third of vineyard acreage -Carmanere now represents about five percent. Carmanere, "the lost grape of Bordeaux", was once used as a blending grape in France, but it fell out of favour over a hundred years ago because it was difficult to ripen fully. In Chile, it had been growing alongside merlot since the 1800s and was mistakenly sold as merlot until recent DNA profiling sorted out the error. Producers then began to bottle it as a single varietal.

Chilean winemaker Francisco Boetteg says carmenere is a great variety if it's ripe - "it has great colour, great intensity on the nose, and round, sweet, velvety tannins. I'm sure it's just a matter of time for the consumer to know and love it." Other experts are not so sure and think that although Chile's better climate means the grape can ripen fully, it shouldn't try to stand alone: "On its own, it's proving disappointing," said Gilberto Bojaca of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers, "but it blends very well with merlot. Another good blend is with cabernet sauvignon and merlot." That said, the judges at the Wines of Chile Awards in spring 2005 picked Echeverria Carmenere as the "top value" of all red wines of Chile, and it has just been released in Ontario at $12.95.

Red hot
The latest excitement in Chilean reds is syrah/shiraz (they haven't settled on either name). "It could well be Chile's next big thing," says Gilberto Bojaca. "In UK's Decanter magazine, Steven Spurrier said that the 2002 Viņa Falernia is among the best syrahs from the New World." Winemaker Francisco Boettig, agrees that Chile is on to something there: "I have no doubt of the potential of shiraz in Chile. We started only a few years ago and ours have their own tipicity. Ours have a lot of fresh fruit, fewer jammy characteristics and some spiciness. [There are] also floral and meaty notes, but they're not austere with leather notes like the French ones."

Lukewarm white
As far as whites are concerned, Chile's heavy hitters are chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Most of the chardonnays are decent and priced fairly cheaply, but the sauvignon blancs, some of which are excellent, have an identity problem. Steven Campbell says "they don't know what to be. You find the sharp gooseberry style like New Zealand, but also the California style, which is more melon-y, peachy and soft, with hardly any acidity. Chilean wines come in both styles and everything in between, which is confusing for the consumer. You have to know the individual producers' styles." However, with a little bit of sampling, it's not hard to find great examples at good prices.

Nevertheless, as investments continue and growers learn more about the microclimates and terroir of this beautiful sun-blessed country, it seems clear that when it comes to Chilean wines, things are only going to get better.

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