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The New Chile and Chile’s Challenges in Mainland China: Part 2

Edward Ragg

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Our first stop was at Santa Carolina’s historic cellars whose origins date back to 1875, now comfortably within Santiago’s sprawling city limits. Santa Carolina has a justifiably established reputation for award-winning wines from its highly dependable Reserva Familia range to its iconic Herencia (predominantly Carmenère from the Peumo Valley). In China the Reserva Familia wines are around 280RMB, which represents strong value for money given the quality, with Herencia topping 1,500RMB.

 

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Less well-known and a clear indicator of the ‘New Chile’, however, is Santa Carolina’s ‘Specialties’ range, designed to encourage experimentation with less well-known varieties sourced from particular regions. A Mourvèdre from Cachapoal and Carignan from Cauquenes were just two of the delicious wines that exemplified how Chile is pushing its viticultural and winemaking limits. Hopefully, as the Chinese market develops, these wines may appear on mainland shores in future.

 

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Driving down to Curíco, we stopped at Valdivieso winery. A barrel tasting of Pinot Noir samples from Leyda and Cauqenes as well as cooler-climate Syrahs from Leyda and Limarí contrasted with a denser example from Aconcagua, showing the real progress these two grapes have made. Some refreshing sparkling wines were matched with other impressive blends: such as Valdivieso’s Eclat, a Carignan-Mourvèdre assemblage as well as the unusual Caballo Loco No 15, a non-vintage wine that represents 50% of the previous vintage blended with the current year. This enticing non-vintage melange of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère and Syrah is a reminder of Chile’s great capacity for blends, here a complete mix by variety, region and vintage.

 

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(Santa Cruz winery, Colchagua Valley)

 

Driving north to the picture-perfect, undulating hills of tourist-friendly Colchagua, we stopped at Santa Cruz winery – whose excellent Tupu blend and top Santa Cruz label have not yet reached China’s shores – also visiting the compelling properties of Emiliana, Clos Lapostolle and Montes.

 

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(Emiliana’s Apalta vineyards: alpacas quite at home)

 

Emiliana prides itself on organic, largely biodynamically-farmed vineyards. Such care and attention to detail is also undeniably reflected in its wines. Especially fascinating were Emiliana’s SDO Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne blend and the lovely 2011 Coyam – whose name means ‘oak forest’ in Mapuche – a seductive mixture of Syrah, Carmenère, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre and Malbec.

 

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(Left: Lapostolle’s Carignan from Maule and Syrah from Pirque)

 

Clos Lapostolle needs little introduction, owned by the House of Marnier with consultancy from Michel Rolland. The Cuvee Alexandre range and Clos Apalta are all established wines of note: the Cuvee Alexandre Syrah being a personal favourite and Clos Apalta invariably fine. But Lapostolle’s more experimental bottlings also proved enticing: a Maule Carignan (qualifying for Vigno status) and Syrahs from coastal Casablanca and the Pirque foothills of the Andes were delicious.

 

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(Montes winery restaurant and barrel room, with hovering angel)

 

Such experimentation also defines Montes, now celebrating its 25th year since Aurelio Montes had the vision to plant Carmenère on Apalta’s hillsides. Given the water issue in Chile, Montes now increasingly dry farms. Beyond the Montes Alpha range and world-class Montes Alpha M and Purple Angel, the ‘Outer Limits’ line, as it names suggests, marks the more experimental parts of the portfolio. A Sauvignon Blanc from the Zapallar Vineyard and a Carignan-Grenache-Mourvèdre from Apalta were especially impressive. Montes’s understanding of Cabernet Sauvignon in particular has been enhanced by its also producing a wine in Napa, as in the lovely 2007 Napa Angel Cabernet Sauvignon Aurelio’s Selection (though the Napa Angel and Montes’s Cabernets are essentially vinified in the same way).

 

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Odfjell was, however, the winery least familiar to me, a gem of the Chilean wine scene. Located in Maipo and of Norwegian origin – shipowner Dan Odfjell fell in love with the Maipo some 25 years ago – Odfjell, like Emiliana, prides itself on sustainable viticulture and was among the first to persevere with growing Carignan in Maule. The vineyards are immaculately looked after and such care and attention are evident in the wines. Odfjell’s ‘Family Saga’ and ‘Winemaker’s Travesy’ blends, both Malbec-dominated, are stunning wines, regionally sourced from older-vine sites in Lontué, Cauquenes and Maipo; whilst its Orzada Carignan and Orzada Malbec are among Chile’s best kept ‘secrets’, now available to Chinese consumers. Also significant in the range is Aliara, a gorgeous blend of Carignan, Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon with great ageing potential, about half of the production of which already reaches China’s shores.

 

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(Errazuriz: winery from old to new, Aconcagua Valley)

 

The conclusion of this Chilean adventure saw visits to Errazuriz, Santa Rita (and sister property Carmen) as well as William Fevre Chile. Set in a stunning section of the Aconcagua Valley, surrounded by avocado and peppercorn trees, Errazuriz is justifiably famous for its good-value Max Reserva wines and the iconic Kai (Carmenère-based), La Cumbre (one of Chile’s top Syrahs) and Don Maximiano (the flagship Cabernet-blend). The Chadwick family’s Eduardo Chadwick is also responsible for Viñedo Chadwick, which, like Herencia, rates as one of Chile’s greatest wines.

 

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But experimentation was also a feature here with the impishly named, Rhone-influenced ‘White Blend’ and ‘Red Blend’ (wines yet perhaps to find their own identities, at least by name). The sheer quality of the entire range, but also especially Errazuriz’s icons is clear. Viñedo Chadwick, Don Maximiano and Seña have all trumped select Bordeaux First Growths in Berlin and Hong Kong blind-tastings, indicating how with so-called ‘Bordeaux blends’, Chile’s best wines compete with the very best of Napa, the Super-Tuscans, the best of Margaret River and indeed all of those New World wines of superlative quality that have outpaced Bordeaux’s top reds before. Not that Chile is all about ‘Bordeaux blends’ by any means.

 

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(Carmen’s vineyards: where Carmenère was first correctly identified in Chile in 1994)

 

Santa Rita and Carmen, like Concha y Toro, already have a strong presence in mainland China. What captured my imagination on visiting Carmen and the adjoining Santa Rita was not only visiting the site where Carmenère was first identified in Chile some twenty years ago, but tasting the delicious Petite Syrahs produced by both properties: Carmen’s Gran Reserva Petite Syrah and Santa Rita’s newly-released Bougainville Petite Sirah (grown in the Alto Jahuel section of Maipo).

 

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(Right: Santa Rita’s Casa Real)

 

The Bougainville Petite Sirah – named after the bougainvillea that grows out the back of the Santa Rita’s Casa Real property (which gives its name to Santa Rita’s top red) – is an extraordinary wine, bursting with bright blueberry and black cherry fruit and with a density and layered complexity suggesting it will age very well in bottle.

 

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(Right: William Fevre Chile’s higher altitude vineyards, Alto Maipo)

 

Last but not least, my Chilean trip came to its close with a visit to William Fevre Chile. Along with some intriguing white blends from Malleco, this winery’s Burgundian origins are reflected in its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. But William Fevre Chile is also defined by its high altitude Maipo vineyards (see above) sometimes at 900m above sea-level, producing ‘mountain wines’: including the Espino Cabernet Sauvignon, Gran Cuvee Carmenere and one of Chile’s best Cabernet Francs. Add to this the complexity of its two high-altitude Maipo ChardonnaysEspino Gran Cuvee and Chacai – and one can easily appreciate how Chile’s pioneering and most adventurous winemakers are testing all limits.

Thus, in a young wine market like mainland China and given the free-trade agreement Chile shares with the PRC, the future looks bright for Chile, provided the real diversity of ‘the New Chile’ reaches Chinese palates, hearts and minds. At present, the country looks well-placed to improve its position in mainland China, but communication within the market will be critical because for many Chinese wine lovers and trade, Chile seems quite a remarkably long way away (not quite as easy to visit than the likes of the West Coast of the US/Canada, Europe, Australia, or even New Zealand). What will be critical for Chile’s wine industry, therefore, is connecting with Chinese consumers on their own soil and through the social media platforms that are buzzing with wine-lover communities and increasingly showing a very real engagement with wines from all over the world.

A condensed version of this article appeared in Spirito diVino Asia Issue 16.