While many imported wine varietals are known for price inflation, Chilean wines have generally been labeled “cheap” in recent decades — especially compared to most foreign pours. It’s a reputation that doesn’t always translate to elite drinkability.
“Chile has been known to produce a lot of wine,” said Chilean winemaker Rene Merino at the “Wines of Chile” wine dinner at the Sonnenalp in Vail on Jan. 17. “And it has been sent all over the world for very cheap prices.”
Merino is the managing director and owner of Merino Wines located in the Limari Valley. He explained how “The New Chile” portfolio, released in May by Vine Connections, a California-based importer, represents the wine culture of the country in an entirely new way.
“The fantastic thing about ‘The New Chile’ is that we are nine wineries working together, and that is quite unusual in the wine world,” he said. “We are here with five of the wine producers sitting at the same table and trying our wines together, which is quite unique — you won’t find this very often.”
Wine production paradise
Chile’s long shape stretches more than 2,880 miles from north to south and is just 265 miles from east to west, at its widest point. Interestingly enough, its shape is quite similar to North America’s prized place for wine production, California. The climate, however, is flipped upside down.
“The map is opposite of California,” said Lizzy Butler, U.S. brand ambassador for Vina Mayu winery in Chile. “The farther north you go, the hotter and dryer the climate; farther south gets more rainfall.”
Chile’s natural boundaries play a significant role in the country’s climate, and therefore its wine, with geographic landmarks that include the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes Mountains to the east, Patagonia glaciers to the south and the Atacama Desert to the north.
Butler said what Chilean winemakers are now realizing is how much potential they have, with all the country’s resources.
“Chile is a viticultural paradise,” she said. “It is completely protected by four major geographic regions, and they all box-in Chile to protect it from huge rain and other severe weather patterns.”
Chile has been producing wine for more than 500 years and began to expand on a global scale in the 1980s with the introduction of French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks. Today, Chile ranks fifth in wine exportation at more than 400,000 metric tons, according to Vine Connections.
The 14 wine growing regions of the country are in a series of valleys that stretch 700 miles from the Elqui Valley through the center of the country to the Malleco Valley in the south. “The New Chile” portfolio represents nine boutique wineries and 12 growing regions from all over the country.
The Sonnenalp’s second wine dinner, in a series of four this season, highlighted four of the nine wineries: Merino, J. Bouchon, Amayna and Mayu — each represented with food pairings and informative discussion from the winemakers themselves.
“When it comes to these winemaker dinners, it’s all about the wine,” said Jarrett Quint, sommelier at the Sonnenalp. “These are small scale wineries. These are from ‘terrior’; these are wineries that are focused on quality.”
Julio Bouchon, of J. Bouchon wine in the Maule Valley (180 miles south of Santiago), said his great grandfather started the winery after coming over from Bordeaux, France. Like the legendary Right Bank and Left Bank regions of Bordeaux, Bouchon said his grandfather started growing grapes on the opposite sides of the valley in Maule. The wines are called “CantoNorte” and “CantoSur”; he said “canto” means “the edge.”
“These wines are like twin brothers,” he said. “CantoNorte is on the north side, and it’s merlot-based, and CantoSur, from the south, is a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend.
“We don’t use any oak, just fruit,” he said. “We want to show the terrior expression.”
Bouchon said 45 percent of the vineyards in Chile are planted in the Maule Valley.
“This area is usually known for big production, but not for quality,” he said. “But we are trying to change that.”
Matias Silva owns Amayna, located on the Pacific Ocean, west of Santiago. The word “amayna” loosely translates to “calm before the storm.”
“My winery is a family winery,” Silva said. “It began 15 years ago with my parents. I have a beautiful farm very close to the ocean, just five miles away, so we produce cool-climate wines.”
Silva explained that the region where his winery sits is between mountains and ocean, which creates complexities in the soil. Amayna’s Sauvignon Blanc is more of a French style, rather than that of a New Zealand varietal.
“This is a very ripe wine,” he said, “with more tropical fruits from the cool region, and the freshness and natural acidity from the ocean.”
Butler said these stories, family histories and innovations in winemaking bring a whole new quality of Chilean wine to the table.
“It’s an adventure in itself because you hear about where it’s coming from and it just totally transports you,” she said.
Jake Pippin, Chile brand ambassador for Vine Connections, said at the wine dinner that the new portfolio is a long-term project dedicated to changing the Chilean wine conversation.
“We want to redirect what people think about it,” he said. “We can’t do that selling $8 wine that we have five million cases of because there is no soul to it. Where our hearts and our passions lie is in the story — in the soil.”