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Chile Is Hot: Good-Value, Familiar-Varietal Wines Grab Consumers’ Attention

by Sharon Kapnick

Good value is In. As the Great Recession continues, inexpensive remains fashionable. (It probably will for quite some time.) One place US. wine drinkers are turning to again and again for reasonably priced wines is Chile. According to beverage-industry observer Market Watch (July/August 2009), “Wines [from Chile] grew at double-digit rates in the United States last year, while total wine imports decreased 2.1 percent ... Strong growth appears to be continuing this year.”

There are many reasons for the strength and appeal of Chile’s wines. For one thing, conditions for grape growing in many regions are just about perfect. Chile is often called a winemakers paradise. Central Chile is blessed with a Mediterranean climate — with no summer rain and warm sunny days — that allows slow, continual ripening of the grapes. The climate is often likened to a cross between that of Bordeaux and the Napa Valley. Other areas are cooler and wetter, which suits cool-climate-loving grapes. Chile’s long oceanfront tempers the heat and supplies cool winds, while its many mountains (more than 80% of the country is covered with them!) create a wide variation in temperature from day to night, resulting in wines with great acidity and intense flavors.

Chile ’s isolation from the rest of the world provides further advantages. Thanks to the natural barriers of the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Andes mountains on the east, the Atacama Desert to the north (the driest land in the world) and arctic glaciers to the south, the phylloxera louse — and the dreaded phylloxera blight that swept over Europe and the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century — never harmed Chile. While by no means pest-free, Chile’s vineyards are not populated by numerous pests and diseases that plague other wine-producing countries. Sustainability, organics and biodynamics come more easily to Chile than most other lands, and more and more wineries are adhering to these practices.

Chile is also a paradise for consumers seeking good value. It made its reputation with–and is still known for — inexpensive wines. An excellent quality-to-price ratio (QPR) has been attracting consumers to them. Chile has more recently received acclaim for its icon wines — Bordeaux-style blends — which aren’t inexpensive but still generally offer good value. Its vineyards don’t require many chemical treatments and sprays, which contributes to the lower cost of making wine there. So do the relatively reasonable costs of land and labor. Furthermore, Chilean wineries haven’t usually incurred the additional cost of grafting onto healthy rootstock as most phylloxera-infected vineyards have. And ungrafted vineyards stay healthy longer than grafted ones.

In spite of all these advantages, Chile remained something of a backwater until the 1990s. While the wine industry began improving in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the '90s, thanks to better political and economic conditions, that it really flourished. “Everything changed for Chile when democracy returned in the early 1990s,” says Aurelio Montes, chairman and head winemaker of Montes winery, one of Chile’s best. “Before then, some countries wouldn't even taste our samples because consumers were not prepared to drink our wines. Then suddenly the world was eager for them.”

Chile quickly went from non-player status to being referred to as the Bordeaux of South America. What brought about such a dramatic revolution in quality? Many factors: millions of dollars in investments — including modern equipment — and research, partnerships with many prestigious foreign winemaking families, better viticultural practices (including improved methods of pruning and irrigation), refrigeration during fermentation and maturation, greater comprehension of terroirs and microclimates, improved vineyard-site and clonal selection, barriques (small oak barrels) from France and the US, new development in cooler wine regions that are more demanding to cultivate than the Central Valley (which includes the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó and Maule valleys, see Regions below) but that produce topnotch wines (the best wines are made from vines that struggle!), and control of yields.

Although exports to the U.S. exploded suddenly, wine has been produced in Chile for centuries. The first professionally farmed vineyard was established in the mid-1500s by Jesuit missionaries from Spain. While the wine industry was started by the Spanish, it’s the French — especially the Bordelais — who have had an enormous influence on it. Wealthy Chilean entrepreneurs in the mid-19th century surrounded their mansions with vineyards and hired French winemakers who had been idled due to the phylloxera epidemic in France to tend them.

Another French connection is the grapes: most of Chile’s most important grapes were imported from France at this time. Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for more than a third of all vines planted and almost half of all red vines, is the star. It’s an extremely popular varietal worldwide, and its Chile’s forte. Merlot clocks in as second most widely planted, Carmenère as third. Syrah and Pinot Noir are the up-and-coming red varietals. Although red wines are the main attraction — 75% of all plantings are red and Chile is now one of the world's best red-wine-producing countries — Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay play a major role.

Most of these varietals are quite familiar to US wine drinkers, who are very comfortable with them, which is a boon to sales. Carmenère, which makes full-bodied, fruit-forward wines, is the exception. A noble Bordeaux red-wine grape, Carmenère today is almost unique to Chile. For decades, however, it was thought to be extinct. Although it’s related to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, it was mistaken for a late-ripening clone of Merlot until 1994, when genetic testing discovered its true identity. Today 98% of Carmenère is grown in Chile. The climate suits it well, since it benefits from more sun and a longer growing season than Bordeaux afforded it.

Chile ’s inexpensive wines are fresh, fruity, easy-drinking and meant for immediate consumption. It’s no wonder that Chile is now third in volume among all wine imports to the US. Since only two decades have passed since Chilean wines started to make great strides, the world has yet to see what this country can produce. Stay tuned.

Page Two; Regions>>

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