Chilean wine has a reputation for offering reliability at the HK$100-a-bottle level. It's easy drinking with ripe fruit and some oak on the reds. It may not be sensational, but it's not offensive, either.
In the past two years, we have seen another side of Chilean wine at vertical tastings of iconic brands such as Seña and Don Melchor. Exciting no doubt, but consumers should take note of the mid-range wines from the coastal areas.
Chile's wine industry is young and export-oriented. High-volume vineyards have tended to concentrate in the central valleys of Conchagua and Maipo, where a reliable climate produces wine with ripe fruit characters but not much identity. But in the past 10 years, adventurous producers have been discovering new regions throughout the country, with more interesting climates and soils, resulting in wines with distinctive characters.
Surprisingly for this narrow country, there are three distinct zones from west to east. In the coastal region (Costa) vineyards are cooled by winds blowing off the cold Humboldt Current, which flows up the coast from Antarctica. The days are still very warm, but morning fog lets cool climate grapes ripen slowly.
The Andes in the east offer a cool climate. The sedimentary soil in the region is also more fertile than the mostly granitic clay found on the coast.
The central valley (Entre Cordilleras) has a warm to hot Mediterranean climate, great for ripening big red grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and carmenere. These three zones (which were given official names in October), combined with the original north-south Denomination of Origin regions, map out the diverse terroir.
Chile lies on the Ring of Fire, where most of the world's volcanoes are found. Its geology is complex, resulting in soil with a high mineral content. This may explain why its wines, no matter the alcohol level, always have a lean and fresh element. I particularly like the whites from the coastal regions. I recently tasted a range from vineyards in Limari in the north to Bio Bio in the south.
While there are different winemaking styles, all displayed that minerality. They have the ripe fruit characters of the New World yet are also somewhat restrained on the palate. The sauvignon blanc is somewhere between Sancerre of France and Marlborough of New Zealand.
Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc still dominate, but the new-generation of winemakers are experimenting with alternatives. Terroir consultant Pedro Parra believes there is a place in Chile for minerally white grapes such as riesling, alvarinho and vermentino.
I am impressed by Casa Marin in Lo Abarca, San Antonio (available from Watson's). Its riesling starts with intense lime and floral notes with a slightly savoury finish. I'm sure there will be more quality riesling coming out of this region.
Parra is excited about the "New Chile", as he puts it. "Most vines were planted about 20 to 30 years ago. Now they are older and more mature; they are more expressive."
Viticulturists have a better understanding of the interaction between land, vine and wine so are searching for more suitable places to plant the right varieties. Improved clones developed to suit the soil also help.
Winemakers have also rediscovered some of the country's oldest vineyards, growing dry farmed, head trained carignan. These were dismissed before because of low yield and the product was often blended with mass volume wines or simply discarded. Now it is being made into some excellent wine. The Clos des Fous old vine blend 2011, made from grapes grown in Itata, was concentrated yet elegant. At the 10th Annual Wines of Chile Awards, the trophy winner in the Best Other Red category was Vigno Garcia Schwaderer 2009, a 100 per cent carignan from the Maule Valley.
Most countries have a flagship grape that consumers identify with, such as tempranillo in Spain or malbec in Argentina. Chile's logical choice would be carmenere, but unfortunately it has limited appeal. The variety is a late ripener and is difficult to ripen on cooler sites. Worse, winemakers used to focus only on yield to keep the cost down. No wonder so much carmenere available outside Chile is green and bitter. Luckily, serious carmenere is now being made. De Martino Legado Carmenere 2011 and its single vineyard Alto de Piedras Carmenere 2010 (available from Kedington Wines) stand out. Both display a finesse that is not too common in a Carmenere.
Chile should keep improving the quality of its carmenere and explore the potential of other varieties. There will always be a place in the market for both mass volume and iconic wines, but Chile's future lies in the mid-market: quality wine we can enjoy without breaking the bank.