Chile’s wine quality rises. Here is my best guess why.

6 Mar

This is another thing I needed to do for a wine class & figured I might as well post.

 

The Andes provide water for the vineyards of Chile

The Andes provide water for the vineyards of Chile

Grapes have been cultivated for wine in Chile since the 1550’s. For much of that time, the wines of Chile have been simple & inexpensive. That began to change in the late 1980’s & in recent years Chile has shown that it can produce world class wines. It has also developed a grape in Carmenère that can be a national identifier for its wine industry. There are multiple factors that have converged to create this boom in quality. They tend to work together and it would be impossible to say that one is completely separate from the other. Still, the catalysts of change can be grouped into a few broad areas: political, monetary, viticulture, & winery production techniques.
Political
In 1990, 16 years of brutal dictatorship by Augusto Pinochet came to an end. Pinochet ruled from 1973-1990. During that time, he nationalized many industries (although not wine) & ultimately was responsible for the death or torture of over 30,000 people. The economy was devastated by his rule. The wine industry was not spared economic hardship. Between the 1970’s & early 1980’s about half of Chile’s vineyards were pulled up. This was an economic issue rather than a viticultural one as Jancis Robinson notes that “some of the vineyards were in quiet suitable locations.” The national troubles, both economic & political, decreased domestic consumption & export of wine. The economic collapse of 1982 started a slow move towards a free market economy. The election of Patricio Aylwin firmly put the country on the path to change.
Investment
As might be expected, a country with a dictator prone to nationalizing industry & an economy in free fall did not encourage investment. The transition to a stable free market economy brought major investments in Chilean wineries & vineyards. Major investors have come to Chile from around the wine world. Some key players in the new Chile have included Robert Mondavi & Kendal Jackson from California, Chateau Mouton & Lafite-Rothschild from France, & Miguel Torres from Spain (although Torres came to Chile in 1979).
In the 1990’s, large Chilean wineries like Santa Rita & Santa Emiliana made large investments in the Colchagua region. According to Jancis Robinson, Santa Rita views its purchase of 7,000 French & American oak barrels as a milestone in its corporate history.
This investment allowed wineries to expand. It created new wineries. It elevated the quality of production equipment for the wine industry of Chile. It should also be noted that foreign investment was not only financial. The arrival in Chile of successful foreign wine companies also generated an investment in mental capital. These investors brought their knowledge of quality wine production with them & contributed to the improvements in other areas.
Viticulture
Partially because of high taxes on wine & partially because of a terrible economy, grape prices were at rock bottom in Chile in the 1960’s through the end of the 1980’s. This encouraged growers to over crop. If you had to grow twice as many grapes to make half as much money, then so be it. The problem was that it decreased quality. With the political & economic changes of recent years, growers have been able to make a living by focusing on quality & have reduced grape yields to produce better wine. Yields may still be higher than in some other regions, but they are definitely more quality focused than the bad years for Chilean wine.
Irrigation is crucial in about half of Chilean vineyards. Irrigation water comes from snow melt from the Andes that is diverted into canals & channels. It was only in the 1990’s that vineyards in Chile began to use drip irrigation, which can lead to better fruit by preventing over watering.
Between 1987 & 1993 more than 25,000 acres of vineyards were planted with international varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon has finally overtaken Pais as the most planted grape. Syrah & Pinot Noir have been planted in increasing quantities and have shown that they can produce excellent wines.
Better vine identification was another key change. Much of the Sauvignon Blanc in Chile was actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse. Some of that is being replaced & the rest is being used more often in cheaper blends with the goal being that wines labeled Sauvignon Blanc from Chile will actually be Sauvignon Blanc. More importantly, it was determined that much of the Merlot harvested in Chile was actually Carmenère. This was important for two reasons. The first reason is that understanding the difference enabled higher quality Merlot to be produced in Chile. Carmenère ripens about 2-3 weeks after Merlot. Because they had previously harvested the Carmenère at the same time as the Merlot, the final wines tended to be green if picked when the Merlot was ripe, & overly jammy if picked when the Carmenère was ripe. By picking them separately as much as possible (due to their being planted in field blends this can be difficult), Chilean Merlot has become much more consistently solid. In 1996, Marcelo Retamal produced probably the world’s first varietally labeled Carmenère. Since Chile is the primary country producing Carmenère, it has become a calling card for the country’s wines in general in the same way that Oregon is known for Pinot Noir, Spain is known for Tempranillo, or Argentina is known for Malbec.
More modern canopy management was introduced in the 1990’s. There are now fewer grapes in the tendone or bush vines systems.
Some growers began using grafted root stocks in areas where nematodes were particularly problematic.
Production techniques
Prior to 1990, most Chilean producers used vats made of cement or the indigenous rauli wood (evergreen beech wood). Most of the barrels were decades old. The wave of investment allowed a broad move to stainless steel tanks. In 1979 there were zero stainless steel fermentation tanks in Chile. By 2003, the percentage of wines stored in stainless steel equaled 50% of the total (per SAG Servicio Agricola Ganadero – Chilean Government 2003). As much as 15% of the storage was in French & American oak by that time. The trend has been upwards in recent years. Barrel fermentation in new French or American oak barrels is a common occurrence now & would have been almost unheard of prior to the 1990’s. This has been a particular success with cooler climate Chardonnays.
Other equipment previously rare in Chile has become standard issue. Most large wineries & quality small ones now have new stainless steel presses & modern filters. Many of the new wineries have been designed with gravity flow systems.
Carmenère is not the only older Chilean grape that has benefited from the new viticultural & production techniques. Carignan has been produced in Chile since the 1940’s, but it is only in the last 15 years or so that old vine Carignan has been treated as a premium variety. Carignan from Maule has been winning awards as a single varietal wine. The VIGNO group (Vignadores de Carignane) has helped spread the techniques to turn it into a delicious varietal wine rather than a component in a cheap blend.

 

While poor wine is still made in Chile as it is everywhere in the world, the quality of its wines has grown by leaps & bounds over the last 25 years. It appears that the combination of relative political stability and economic prosperity together with increased investment, better viticultural practices, & more modern production techniques, has elevated the wines of Chile.

Map of Chilean wine regions

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