The main grape was the pais, a thin skin red grape producing a light wine often compared with Beaujolais.
This robust, easy-to-grow vine explains its popularity and, produced largely for celebrating Mass, the focus was more on quantity than quality. For decades, the pais was the most planted vine in Chile before being replaced by a more serious and complex grape - the Cabernet Sauvignon - around 1880, now widely regarded as the founding grape of the country’s wine industry.
By the end of the 19th century, Chile had around 20 million vines planted with the main varieties from the Bordeaux region. Other grapes started to show - such as Pinot Noir and Riesling - but, more importantly, the famous Carménère, irrevocably decimated in 1867 in Bordeaux, but brought to Chile before its disappearance.
Today the Carménère, a red grape with thick and solid skin that gives a very dark wine with powerful aromatics is the emblematic variety of Chile.
The influence of France and particularly Bordeaux has been fundamental to the development of Chile’s wine industry. As international travel took off, many Chileans travelled to Europe and many French winemakers came to Chile. There they found a combination of climate and soil ideal for making wine.
By the end of the 19th century Chile was already exporting its wines to Europe with great success, winning the 1889 ‘Grand Prix’ in Paris specializing in a sample. By the beginning of the 20th century, Chile had 100,000 hectares planted, almost equivalent to the whole Bordeaux region today.
However, World War II and ensuing political turmoil saw the wine industry plummet and struggle until the end of the 20thcentury. The industry slowly recovered to become, as of today, one of the major players in the world.
Today, Chile has over 220,000 hectares of vines, making it the world’s seventh largest producer and fifth largest exporter.
The main varieties are the traditional Bordeaux blend; Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc etc. White varieties, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, are predominantly planted in the warmer climate of the Pacific coast.
Chile is quite protected against most vine diseases by its climate and the Andes, hence the low use of insecticides and a large number of wineries turning to organic production. Chile is also the only country in the world not to have been contaminated by the Phylloxera, making it the stock holder of original Bordeaux vines.
This narrow strip of a country, situated between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, gives Chile a wide variety of climates, favourable to the development of numerous wines along 14 main regions (called valleys). While there is no clear recognition of specialities among the various valleys, Casablanca is mostly famous for its whites while Colchagua and Maipo (Santiago region) are known for their reds.
In six days, we tasted close to 40 different wines (and one very special Pisco). What we discovered were amazing Chardonnays, almost all from the Casablanca Valley, and resembling Meursault; Terranoble and Quintay ‘Grande Reserve’ and surpassing all of them, the Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre. An explosion of flavours, these Chilean Chardonnays outshine any we have ever tasted in Australia and are definitely a force in the market.
Equally interesting were the Rieslings; mineral, floral and long-in-mouth while the Sauvignon Blancs were totally different from their New Zealand peers - a delicious mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris with an occasional touch of Semillon. The Lapostolle and the Garces Silva from the Leyda valley come highly recommended.
Regarding the reds, the Flaherty blend (Cab Sav, Carménère, Merlot, Petit Verdot), the Andes Plateau Cota 500 Cabernet Sauvignon, the Koyle Royale and the von Siebenthal Carménère all had superb nose, long palate, full of black fruits and very subtle and smooth tannins.
Wineries to visit
There are two wineries close to Clos Apalta that differ vastly. Montes is a winery with 1.1 million cases of wines including their iconic Montes M and the Taita (only 3,000 bottles produced). Created by four friends, it has an innovative Feng Shui approach and Gregorian chants are played around the clock in the cellar where the ambience is surreal.
Neyen is a very old winery that is linked to the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in 1886, coming straight from France. Here only one wine is produced, a 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère, that is powerful, full of black fruits yet extremely pleasant with smooth tannins and a long palate.
Finally, on our way to the airport we stopped at the Vik Winery. Opened in 2014 and created by the Norwegian Vik family, the 380 hectares of vines are planted on a property with 12 different micro climates.
They cultivate five grapes and their blends are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère with a touch of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and no more than 2% Shiraz. This creates extremely powerful wines with very soft tannins, black fruits and long palates.
Back in Sydney we can’t forget our experience and journey with Chilean wines and have promised to make them better known in Australia. Because wine lovers deserve them.