7 reasons why Chile makes such good wine
August 31, 2016
1) Long and lean
A long, narrow country sandwiched between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Chile is 4,300 km (2700 miles) long but at most 240 km (150 miles) wide. That’s further than the distance from Edinburgh to the Sahara Desert and means that the country has lots of different types of climate, from the world’s driest desert in the north through to Antarctica in the south.
In the middle is a wide belt of land with a Mediterranean climate, perfect for growing grapes, as well as other Mediterranean crops, like olives, citrus fruit, and almonds.
2) Warm and sunny
The grapevines bask in this generous Mediterranean weather. During the long summers, plenty of exposure to sunshine enables the grapes to ripen and develop the sugars which will later become alcohol when the grape juice is made into wine.
In hotter areas, this makes for ripe, fruity and quite potent wines, especially reds. If you’ve seen wines labelled as coming from Rapel, Colchagua, Central Valley, Maipo or Curicó, then they are likely to fall into this category.
Meanwhile, we are seeing some very exciting Chilean wines from areas which are a little cooler, either because they are planted at a higher altitude or are cooled by the sea breezes and coastal fogs coming in from the Pacific Ocean. In these areas, because the grapes ripen more slowly, they retain greater acidity and freshness. These wines tend to be more herbal or spicy and have higher acidity. Look out for wines – particularly whites – from Casablanca, San Antonio, Leyda or Aconcagua or reds from Alto Maipo or Apalta, to name just a few areas.
3) Not too wet
In the winter, rainclouds sweep in from the Pacific Ocean and, when they reach the Andes mountain chain, their moisture falls as snow. This is an area of ice and glaciers and, in the spring, the ice and snow begin to thaw, feeding hundreds of streams and rivers which flow west towards the Pacific Ocean, taking pure, clean, nutrient-rich water to irrigate the plants growing in the valleys.
The water arrives just at the right time for the vines, just when they are starting to grow after their winter dormancy.
However, vines don’t like too much water and they don’t do well with waterlogged roots, so it’s important that the soil drains well.
In most of Chile’s wine producing regions, there is little or no rain in the spring and summer. In many ways, this is good news, as too much water while the fruit is developing and ripening leads to big, over-watery grapes and less interesting wines. Meanwhile rain close to harvest time can cause grapes to split and rot and overly damp conditions during the growing season can cause noble rot (botrytis) and mildew. Many Chilean wineries use controlled drip irrigation to give the vines just the right amount of water to produce concentrated, flavoursome grapes.
4) Fit and healthy
Chile’s isolation in the far south of the world, surrounded by the natural barriers of the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes mountains to the east, the Atacama Desert to the north and the ice fields and Antarctica to the south, has kept the country largely free of the pests and diseases that have plagued the wine industry in many other parts of the world. Indeed, Chile is one of the few countries in the world where many vines are still planted on their own roots, rather than on phylloxera aphid-resistant rootstocks. From the consumer’s point of view, that means fewer chemicals are needed to prevent or treat problems.
5) Down to earth
This is a highly seismic area, part of the Pacific ring of fire, home to one of the longest chains of volcanoes in the world, some of which are still active. Centuries of volcanic and seismic activity have created a mountainous country with a wide variety of soil types, many of them ideal for different types of vines.
6) Nice and varied
Chile’s wine areas are classified by valley, which run east to west (Andes to Pacific) and also by proximity to the mountains or ocean. The range of soil types and climate from one valley to another, in fact even in each valley, varies tremendously and this means that the wines themselves can vary tremendously from one vineyard to the next.
7) Young and adventurous
Chile’s wine industry has undergone a renaissance in recent decades and is blossoming. Each year, more hectares of land are planted with vines. Chilean and international terroir hunters keep widening their search for new areas to plant, where the soil and climate combine to offer conditions for producing grapes which will ultimately produce a wine of unique flavours and aromas. In this search, vines are being planted further north, further south and at higher altitudes than ever before.
Meanwhile, new generations of winemakers are experimenting with different types of grapes, blends and winemaking techniques to produce the biggest range of wines ever seen in Chile.
So what are you looking for? A classic lemon-crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca or one with a mineral and almost salty aroma from Leyda? A big, jammy, comforting Syrah from the Central Valley or an elegantly smooth, peppery Syrah from Apalta? An oily-nosed Riesling or a delicately fragrant Viognier? A Mediterranean-style blend? Or perhaps an ice-cold Brut to add a little sparkle to your day? Whatever your taste in wine, Chile has something for you.