I was in Santiago just a few weeks ago and participated in a lively, informal discussion about iconic wines from Chile. We were enjoying a casual lunch, and in our group were Chilean wine professionals, as well as seasoned wine writers including Robert Joseph from England and Jorge Lucki from Brazil.
"Can we even say that there are iconic wines from Chile?" asked Lucki. After all, the oldest famous wine from Chile is Don Melchor with its first vintage in 1987, a mere 25 years ago. In regions such as Burgundy, where winemaking dates back more than 1,500 years, a 25-year old vineyard is considered young. Mature vines are considered at least 30 years old and ideally between 40 to 60 years old.
So the first question is whether Chile, as a relative newcomer to the arena of fine wine, is qualified to use the word "iconic" to describe its best production. If we define the word broadly, to include high quality wines that have become synonymous with the best wines from the country and have achieved international recognition, then there would be a handful.
We rattled off names such as Almaviva, the joint venture between Mouton Rothschild and Concha Y Toro in 1996; Don Melchor, as mentioned, in 1987; Sena, initially a joint venture between Errazuriz and Robert Mondavi, with its first release in 1995; and pioneer Don Maximiliano, with a debut back in 1989.
After this initial list of four, we debated over another group of about 10 names. Does Clos Apalta, a Carmenere-based red wine established by Casa Lapostolle, belong in the iconic group when its first vintage was a mere 15 years ago? What about Montes M, Altair or Carmin de Peumo from Concha Y Toro?
Why not Casa Real from Santa Rita or Kai or La Cumbre from Errazuriz? Has quality from these wines been consistent enough over the past decade, which is about how long most of them have been around?
Have these wines achieved sufficient recognition in Europe, the Americas and Asia to be iconic? While we quickly agreed that the first four names qualified, the other names triggered a lively discussion. How much does heritage and history matter? If so, then how many vintages must the wine have produced to enable an assessment of its ageing potential?
This last point was critical since iconic wines, by our definition, must possess high quality, which includes having ageing potential. For reds, this would be at least a decade or two. Our conclusion was that while about five qualified, others were debatable. Robert Joseph brought up a good point when he concluded, "A half-dozen iconic Chilean wines is not bad. How many do you think South Africa would have?"
There is definitely improvement in grape growing and winemaking in Chile. I am less impressed by the technology, which can become a winemaker's crutch, but the vineyard improvements are certainly very interesting.
There are now many serious wine explorers going beyond traditional regions and moving all along the coast from the northern-most Elqui and Limari Valleys down to the far south in the Bio Bio and Malleco Valleys. Many more vineyards are being planted on slopes, something that was new only a few decades ago.
There is also much work being done in the form of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Sena recently celebrated the opening of its biodynamic centre, and the vineyards have been cultivated biodynamically for nearly the past 10 years. Vina Emiliana is a pioneer in the area of organic and biodynamic viticulture, spearheaded by Alvaro Espinoza. Emiliana cultivates over 200 hectares organically and biodynamically, with no traditional pesticides or herbicides.
Some of my favourite wines that express unique Chilean character and distinctive terroir include: 2011 Casa Marin - Cipreses Sauvignon Blanc Leyda; 2008 Concha Y Toro - Carmin de Peumo Carmenere; 2010 Errazuriz -Kai Carmenere; 2009 Morande - Edicion Limitada Carignan; 2010 Errazuriz -La Cumbre Syrah; 2009 Altair; 2009 Almaviva; 2009 Concha Y Toro - Don Melchor; 2010 Santa Rita - Casa Real; 2010 Sena.