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The New Chile and Chile’s Challenges in Mainland China: Part 1

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Edward Ragg

For many a wine lover, Chile conjures that long, thin country hemmed in by the cooling Pacific Ocean to the west and the towering Andes mountains to the east, responsible for some of the best-value wines available anywhere. The northerly Atacama desert represents Chile’s driest extreme – some vineyards in Elqui and Limarí have even been abandoned for lack of water – whilst Itata, Bío-Bío and Malleco form a humid, southerly border where only aromatic whites, Chardonnay and a splash of Pinot Noir are produced.

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(Source: Wines of Chile)

But Chile’s vinous diversity has increasingly more to do with exploration west to east (see above map): from the coastal possibilities of San Antonio through the distinct zones of Maipo: that is, from coastal to central to Andean foothill sites. As Chile develops its own D.O. Appellation system, Chilean labels already mark such changes: as in Costa Maipo, Central Maipo and Alto Maipo. Since 2012, in fact, these Costa, Entre Cordilleras and Andes designations have graced bottles, suggesting diversity and specificity in equal measure.

Diversity is also represented in plantings. Undeniably, Chile is defined by its easy-to-sell, international (largely French) grape varieties, producing wines across all price ranges. But the comparatively lesser-known Carignan – in Maule from rejuvenated old vines – along with Mourvèdre, Malbec (not just Argentina’s pride and joy), Tempranillo and others are adding to the mix, often in the harder-to-sell but increasingly exciting mid-to-high priced categories.

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There is also now greater boldness to Chilean winemaking. Take Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Often intermixed with the inferior Sauvignonasse (Sauvignon Vert) when Chile exploded onto export markets in the mid-1990s, now this aromatic white represents a challenge to New Zealand’s multiple expressions of the grape: not just from Casablanca but also San Antonio and even the southerly Malleco. With a touch of lees or a little skin-contact, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is now much more sophisticated than twenty years ago. The overly herbaceous ‘green’ character of the country’s supposedly flagship red variety Carmenère has also essentially disappeared from better-made examples.

But what challenges does Chile face in communicating such diversity to a developing market like that of mainland China? On the face of it, the answer is simple. First, establish a reputation as a wine-producing country. To some extent, this has already been achieved in China. Indeed, Chilean wineries have sensed the danger in being seen in China, on the one hand, as ‘cheap and cheerful’ – with basic Chilean wines priced as low as 35RMB available in the mainland market – and, on the other, as extravagantly super-premium with iconic wines like Almaviva, Don Melchor, Don Maximiano, Herencia and Purple Angel appealing to some high-end consumers. Though it doesn’t hurt to have iconic wines flanked by reliable entry-level offerings, the danger, of course, is that some very good, affordable wines with rather more to offer than the ‘cheap and cheerful’ could be overlooked in China; or, rather, fail to build markets for themselves at all.

However, there are enough adventurous wine lovers in mainland China now coming online (in all senses) who are looking for the kind of exciting mid-to-high-priced wines which Chile has in abundance; and these are precisely the consumers Chilean wineries need to disabuse of the idea that Chile is merely a New World extension of France, notwithstanding Chile’s vinous heritage in which France does indeed loom large.

These were just some of the questions debated on my first visit to Chile last year…

Click here to read more of my regional tour of Chile by winery.