BACK IN THE EARLY NOUGHTIES, UK WINE WRITER TIM ATKIN FAMOUSLY DESCRIBED CHILE AS "THE VOLVO OF THE WINE WORLD", drawing a parallel between the safe but dull image of the Swedish car manufacturer and Chile’s reputation for being a safe but dull choice.
In a later column for UK newspaper The Observer in 2006 he backtracked and suggested that Chile was now a sports car, admitting that he regretted making the Volvo comment. But the reason this metaphor stung the Chileans so much was that it contained enough truth to make it hurt.
Given its amazing array of terroirs and conditions so benign for the growth of the vine, Chile has been a relative underachiever. It has delivered what the market wants: affordable, tasty wines with no nasty surprises. But it has struggled to make compelling fine wines.
And Chile’s reds may have come from a range of terroirs and be made from different varieties, but they have a tendency to taste alike.
Change is coming, though. It looks as if Chile’s wines are about to take a significant step forward in terms of interest. Commercially, they are already a success, so you may ask why there is a need to fix something that isn’t broken. It’s because the changes that take place in the fine wine dimension often trickle through to more commercial wines.
If Chile breaks the image of being a dull country with a limited fine wine dimension, then all Chilean wines are likely to benefit, and there’s a good chance that a higher proportion of Chile’s wines will be able to move away from the bottom end.
There are three key factors in the growing interest in the fine wine dimension. The first is the move to new wine regions. This has been taking place for a couple of decades now, but it has recently begun to gain pace and have more traction in the marketplace.
The first of the new cooler-climate areas to be explored was the Casablanca Valley. Then there was a move coastal with Leyda and San Antonio, a move south down to Bío Bío, and a move north to Limari, Elqui and most recently the Huasca region in the Atacama desert, where Ventisquero has been a pioneer.
As well as the new regions, however, there is the rediscovery of the treasure trove of old, dry-grown vines in regions such as Maule and Itata. Even the lowly Pais variety, a Mission grape that usually ends up in cheap jug wines, is now getting some love and attention. Torres and Concha y Toro have both recently started working with Pais.
“In the Itata and Cauquenes area we have old vines of Pais, Carignan and Cinsault,’ says Marcelo Papa, winemaker at Concha y Toro. He is using 100 to 120-year-old Pais bush vines and 60-year-old Cinsault to make a new wine for the Marques de Casa Concha label. “Why not use this heritage of very old vines?” asks Papa. “They are currently going into Tetra Paks, sold very cheaply.”