At the London Wine Fair last week, I gave a masterclass called Redefining Chile. I had the opportunity to choose the topic and all the wines myself - quite a rare thing. I wanted to talk about Chilean wine because I think it could be poised on the brink of a new era. What follows is a summary of my talk, with a list of wines at the end.
I started by talking about trends in the UK wine market. Since I started in the wine trade 14 years ago, we've seen the 'Savalanche' from New Zealand, the Prosecco boom, new wave Australian Chardonnay, the rise and fall of en primeur, and more recently movements like IPOB reacting against the heavy manipulated styles of wine that became popular throughout the 1990s.
The question is: do normal wine drinkers care? To a certain extent, that's up to us. Everyone who works with wine, from buyers to bar staff, has the chance to get behind the trends they love. I think Chilean wine has the potential to become one of the next categories to energise our market.
Here's what we usually get told about Chile. It's a long, thin country with deserts in the north and glaciers in the south. It's phylloxera-free. It uses irrigation water from the Andes. They've made wine since the 16th century.
All of those facts may be true, but they don't really signify anything. Every country has variations in temperature and soil, and they all claim to be unique in one way or another. Lots of regions are phylloxera-free and besides, many Chilean producers choose to plant on rootstocks anyway. Irrigation is not interesting, and as for history, there's always someone else with at least as much as you, if not more.
None of the established Chilean wine stories offer anything to really compel consumers. I think there's a new way of talking about Chile.
Chile's new stories
I asked Peter Richards (a Master of Wine and authority on Chile) and Alistair Cooper (MW student with a strong interest in Chile) why after so many years of being known mostly for inexpensive, fruity, simple mass-market brands, Chile seems to be reaching beyond those limits now.
Part of the reason is to do with an increasing sense of permissiveness. Until quite recently the structure of Chilean politics and business favoured the big producers and resulted in a conservative outlook. Now, there is change coming from within. The current generation of Chilean winemakers are more widely travelled, more open-minded and there is a more relaxed attitude in the boardroom too.
Movements like MOVI and VIGNO have championed small scale, artisanal wines. The global growth of natural wines has encouraged producers everywhere to consider minimal intervention winemaking. And the increasing exploration of Chile has led to the rediscovery of areas such as Itata, where old, dry grown, bush vine Cinsaut is being lauded for its quality potential.
These stories are generating a critical mass of interest in Chile, and the best wines can stand alongside their peers from anywhere else in the world. Here are the seven I selected to represent the best of Chilean wine, across all sorts of styles, origins and varieties.
Seven exciting Chilean wines
- Ventisquero, Tara Chardonnay 2014 Atacama
From a desert in the north of Chile, near the coast. Unfiltered and unfined, this looks cloudy in the glass but offers a gorgeous unoaked expression of pure Chardonnay.
- Tabalí, Talinay 2014 Limarí
From the Fray Jorge national park, on a site of pure limestone. Aged for 11 months in French oak, which integrates seamlessly with the fruit.
- Aristos, Duquesa Chardonnay 2007 Cachapoal Andes
A very different style of Chardonnay, from a site planted at 1,100 metres. Heavy, full and rich but retaining freshness that would shame many a Burgundy at this age.
- J Bouchon, Salvaje País 2015 Maule
A remarkable unoaked light red (only 12% alcohol) made from native País vines that grow wild in the forest surrounding Bouchon's vineyards.
- De Martino, Viejas Tinaja Cinsaut 2014 Secano Interior
Made in old clay amphorae, this Cinsaut comes from the resurgent Itata region. As a minimal intervention wine, it has the sort of vivacity and rawness associated with many natural wines.
- Clos des Fous, Pucalán Arenaria 2013 Aconcagua Costa
When a country starts making world class Pinot Noir, you know they are mastering wine. This is a powerful style loaded with gorgeous perfume and pure red fruit
- Concha y Toro, Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Puente Alto
This is one of Chile's most revered reds, and rightly so. It's a classic New World Cabernet Sauvignon with superb ageing potential. It's vital that big producers can demonstrate their ability to produce top quality wines on a world stage because it produces a visible, well-branded wine that the industry can be proud of.