Should we be worried about Chile?
It seems that,whatever Chileans turn their determined, competent hands to, they succeed. Luckily for us, they seem not to be set on world domination, content instead to bombard us with nothing more threatening than their delicious wines.
From small beginnings in the late eighties, Chile is now the fifth most popular source of wine for UK drinkers and they lead the world in terms of the proportion of wine that they export, compared to what they produce. What this tells us is that Chile's growth as a wine producer is not built on domestic consumption: their eyes have always been firmly focused on export markets and you would have to admit that they have succeeded.
Five or more years ago it was fair to say that Chile was fine as a source of straightforward, fruity, gluggable wines for under £5, but that they had a long way to go before they had anything serious to offer in the way of fine wine. Not any more.
At the recent Decanter World Wine Awards Chile (and Australia) were the top performing countries when it came to the ultimate accolades of International Trophies. “Chile's performance”, says Decanter Magazine “was notable for spanning the whole range – red and white, under and over £10.”
Over the last decade Chile's winemakers have worked tirelessly to improve their wines, to broaden the range of varieties they grow and to find the best places in their “paradise for winemakers” for each variety to perform at its best. Rather than following wine styles from other countries, Chile is developing its own unique styles of sauvignon blanc, of syrah and most of all of carmenère, fast becoming the signature grape of the country.
Now, in characteristically efficient and single-minded style, the Chilean wine industry is addressing issues of sustainability. They are doing this not just because consumers are starting to take an interest in it, but because it will give them a strategic advantage over other countries. They have identified that lack of sustainability will be a barrier to growth in years to come and something that simply must be addressed to ensure the continued success of their export-led wine industry.
If all this sounds as if accountants and management consultants are running the Chilean wine industry, rather than horny-handed honest toilers among the vines, then be reassured that the wines themselves are anything but dull. I had the opportunity to taste my way through fifty-odd Chilean wines which had all won either a Gold medal or a Trophy at recent international competitions.
Here are my favourites from the best of the best of Chile:
Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Casablanca – Gold Medal at the International Wine Challenge
The Casablanca valley has built a reputation for high quality, relatively cool-climate wines with a balance of elegance and flavour. This is not in the New Zealand mould of pungent sauvignon with tropical fruit salad aromas and flavours – rather it's dry and satisfying with a more restrained grapefruit character making it a great food wine.
Taurus Wines of Bramley has the 2008 for £8.99; Majestic has the 2007 vintage for £9.99.
Cono Sur Reserva Riesling 2008, Bío Bío – Decanter World Wine Awards International and Regional Trophies for Riesling under £10
It's a cliché that everyone in the wine trade loves riesling, but that wine drinkers, at least in the UK, can't seem to get on with it. If you've yet to be seduced by riesling's lively, limey fruit then this user-friendly example is a great place to start. Bío Bío Valley is relatively recently-developed and one of the most southerly of Chile's wine regions. This being the southern hemisphere, the further south you go, the cooler (and wetter) it gets – so Bío Bío is a great source of cool-climate wines and Riesling has found a home here.
Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2007, Casablanca – Annual Wines of Chile Awards Gold medal and Trophy for Best Chardonnay
Just what is wild ferment I hear you ask? Not as exciting as it sounds perhaps, it refers to the fact that wild yeasts exist all around us and are capable of inducing alcoholic fermentation in grapes. Most New World winemakers prefer not to leave things to chance and will buy specific strains of commercially-available yeast in order to get the wine style they want. Wild yeasts are unpredictable, but can also give a broader range of aromas and flavours. This is youthful and lively-tasting, with juicy, nutty fruit and great length.
£10.50 from Stone Vine & Sun near Winchester (www.stonevine.co.uk)
The Co-op Santa Helena Pinot Noir 2008, Casablanca – Decanter World Wine Awards International and Regional Trophies for Pinot Noir under £10
Pinot noir is another variety that likes things not too hot and seems to respond well to the cooling influence of the Pacific in the Casablanca Valley. This has great purity of fruit and is entirely unshowy for a New World pinot.
£7.99 from the Co-operative
Terra Andina Reserva Carmenère 2007, Rapel Valley – International Wine Challenge Gold Medal
Rescued from near-extinction in its native France, Carmenère has found a new home and great acclaim in Chile. This wine has the variety's hallmark aromas of bonfires and red fruits with good acidity to keep the fruit juicy. An impressive balance of power and restraint.
www.everywine.co.uk has the award-winning 2007 vintage for £100.09 for a case of 12 bottles. Chilean specialists www.qpwines.com list the 2006 vintage for £43.99 for six bottles, £86.95 for twelve.