In The Shadow Of The Andes

“Welcome to Santiago” said Christian, the driver assigned to me by Wines of Chile. For the next six days he and I were to tour vineyards at the rate of three a day, clocking up a sniff/slurp/spit of nigh on 400 individual bottles in a mission to assess the progress made by the country’s winemakers.

Chile, a slender stick of a country, is dominated by the Andes, the South American backbone that separates it from its neighbours. It reminded me a little of South Africa’s Cape where from almost every vineyard you have a view of Table Mountain but I was unprepared for grandeur on this scale. The Cordilleras de los Andes, to bestow their proper name, are the highest mountain range outside the Himalayas.

Vinis vinifera, the wine grape was brought to Chile by the conquistadors at the behest of the army of priests who came in their wake. Initially a lacklustre red grape, the Pais, was the favoured communion variety but this has thankfully been supplanted by Cabernet and Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, Carmenère and, latterly Syrah as Chilean producers began to emulate what their Californian and Australian counterparts had done so successfully, i.e. give the world a wealth of clean, fruity, easy-to-drink wines.

The majority of Chile’s vineyards are located in the Central Valley, a depression lying between two mountain ranges, stretching out like a three-fingered hand. Here the hot sun and the rich, fertile soil makes grape growing a picnic. The adjacent slopes give some necessary respite, ensuring the grapes don’t turn to raisins before they can be gathered. Rivers criss-crossing the valley provide water for irrigation. The high grape yields do inhibit quality however and it took some time for Chilean producers to realise this. Fortunately, a new and well qualified generation of wine makers has emerged; many have worked overseas, in France, Australia or New Zealand and all are passionate about what they do. Everywhere the talk is now of ‘green harvesting’ – thinning the crop in summer – and of ‘stressing the vines’ – making them work harder to produce less but better fruit.

Our initial destination was Errazuriz, long established as the dominant winery in the Aconcagua Valley where we were introduced to Chile’s own signature version of the Cornish pasty, the empanada, a favourite food for high days and holidays, albeit that this was a more sophisticated version than the norm, filled with corn and ricotta. We ate under a shady arbour adjacent to the impressive visitor centre. Wine tourism in Chile is, compared to, say, California or Australia is in its infancy but Errazuriz seems to have embraced the concept earlier than many of their peers.

In the afternoon we journeyed to the San Esteban winery which possesses what is almost certainly Chile’s highest vineyard. From the summit above we gazed down on new plantings of Syrah and ancient Indian rock paintings which feature on the labels of San Esteban’s top red wines, cuddled in new French oak and designated In Situ.

We drove back to Santiago as the sun was setting. Tired as I was, I succumbed to the temptation to wander abroad and was delighted to find a thriving restaurant and bar quarter a mere stone’s throw from the hotel. Enjoying a local beer I dithered over whether to patronise what looked like a stolidly traditional Chilean restaurant or content myself with a tapas or three. I decided on the latter and was soon seated in a stylish establishment owned by Torres. This enterprising Catalan winemaking family were early to spot Chile’s potential, acquiring their first property in Curico in 1979. An Torres innovation was to replace the traditional rauli (beech wood vats) with stainless steel. By the mid-nineties everyone else had followed suit, a significant factor in Chile’s progression to making clean, modern wines. Torres’ tapas proved delightful and, by Dublin standards, inexpensive, three dishes including some excellent foie gras, two glasses of wine (a red and a ‘sticky’) and an espresso for around e27 including a tip, symptomatic of the value for money I found everywhere when dining out in Chile.

I was collected at 8am next morning, further evidence, if any is needed, that a wine trip is not all sybaritic junketing. Our first visit was to Cousino Macul at Buin in the Maipo Valley. Their wines were introduced into Ireland by the Ecock brothers in the late 1980s, when their quasi-European styled Cabernet found favour with critics. Alas, standards plummeted in the mid nineties and I was not expecting a great deal but the wines I tasted went well on the way to convincing me that Cousino Macul is set to recover its reputation.

Maipo is home to much of Chile’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon and a whole lot more besides. Carmen and Santa Rita, both well known brands in Ireland, are under the same ownership and share the same valley but with their own delineated plots. Among both feature plantings of Carmenère – from ‘carmine’, red, nothing to do with the winery although it happily espoused the grape – which has come to be regarded as Chile’s ‘signature’. The story of its rise to fame is an interesting one; Carmenère is an old variety of Bordeaux where it is also known as Grand Vidure and now largely extinct in its homeland. The grape was identified in Chile in 1994 by a visiting French viticulturist in the middle of a patch of Merlot. Further investigation brought the conclusion that most of what was thought to be Chilean Merlot was, in fact, Carmenère. It’s hard to see why the confusion occurred. The leaves look nothing like each other and Carmenère is a tardy ripener whereas if Merlot was a spud it would be a ‘first early’. However, confusion there was. It is generally accepted that Carmen’s Alvaro Espinosa, one of Chile’s pioneering modern winemakers was the prime mover in transforming Carmenère from a thin, harsh, aggressively capsicum-scented varietal into the fragrantly aromatic charmer can be today by introducing the concept of drastically thinning the vines to allow full ripening.

In late afternoon, we transferred our presence to Santa Rita on the other side of the valley. The company, owned by a giant conglomerate headed up by Don Ricardo Claro, has a luxurious hotel, set amid 35 acres of landscaped parkland. Alas for the lay tourist, accommodation is restricted to guests of the winery.

I tasted Santa Rita’s wines in the company of export manager Andres Barros. Later, before dinner, I found Andres talking to a distinguished-looking gentleman who turned out to be non other than Don Ricardo himself. After a brief introduction, the Don turned to us and said “I wish to do the tasting. And I wish Ernie to tutor my friends in my wines.” How could I refuse? I had to swallow hard before telling him I didn’t think Chile ought to grow Merlot.

Next morning I was at Cono Sur where I first glimpsed the efforts that Chilean viticulture is making to get to grips with organic and biodynamic methods, particularly when a flock of geese, employed to eat burrito grubs, scurried out from beneath our wheels. The winemaker told me of the war waged on the rapacious red spider by its otherwise benevolent white cousin. Encouraging this ecological conflict obviated the use of a poultice of chemicals on the vine stems. It amused me to see that vineyard workers, many of them elderly, had full-suspension mountain bikes as their preferred mode of transport. The wisdom of this could be seen later that day at Luis Felipe Edwards’ estate as we whizzed up and down precipitous slopes in a 4X4 truck to view vines planted in spots you’d think were impossible to harvest.

Besides Torres, other significant European families play a role in Chile’s wine industry and there is no doubt that much of the quality hike has derived from their involvement, as exemplified by Lafite Rothschild at Los Vascos whose wines are definitely French-styled with a striking degree of ‘backbone’ and Marnier-Lapostolle whose flagship, Clos Apalta now has, at Colchagua, its own ten million dollar’s worth of purpose-built winery-cum-architectural statement, one of the wonders of the wine world.

Ireland is an important market. Mont Gras has its European export manager based here. To my delight, when I visited the winery I found Hans Liebrand newly-arrived from Dublin and we enjoyed catching up on the craic during a memorable hilltop barbecue.

The final part of my trip was spent visiting Leyda, Casablanca and the San Antonio valley. These areas, nearer the coast, enjoy the benefit of being cooled by the winds that blow over the Humboldt current. The white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in particular, have a restraint, elegance and delicacy exceeding that of their inland cousins. At Vina Leyda I found an exuberant experimental blanc de blanc made by the method generally accredited as being the best for sparkling wine (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!).

In San Antonio I enjoyed a reunion with Maria Luz Marin whom I’d last met in Dublin on a damp autumn day. Maria Luz was one of Chile’s first female winemakers, an inspiration to the many talented young women following in her wake. Her Pinot Noir is, for me, one of Chile’s flagship wines. Other masterpieces include her Laurel Vineyard Sauvigon and a new Riesling.

Conclusions? The primary one is that Chilean wines are upwardly mobile. Everywhere I found an intent to pursue the holy grail of quality. Yields are being reduced (though they are still too high); rows are being re-aligned; cooler areas are being explored and planted – watch out for Bio-Bio in the far South. Wine tourism is being initiated – the fine restaurant at Vina Morande to which people take the two hour drive from Santiago for lunch will serve as a role model for others. I can’t wait to go back; though, next time, I will extend my stay. I want to see more of this gloriously diverse country.

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