Through a stroke of luck I was invited to visit Santiago in Chile for four days, and in this time I was able to drink some Chilean wines. I also visited Casablanca, a wine region outside Santiago, with my friends Guy and Pia, who live near Casablanca.
‘Chilean wine has a long history for a New World wine region, as it was the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors brought Vitis vinifera vines with them as they colonized the region. In the mid-19th century, French winevarieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère and Franc were introduced. In the early 1980s, a renaissance began with the introduction of stainless steel fermentationtanks and the use of oak barrels for aging. Wine exports grew very quickly as quality wine production increased. The number of wineries has grown from 12 in 1995 to over 70 in 2005.
A large number of French people immigrated to Chile during the late 20th century, bringing more vinicultural knowledge to the country. Chile is now the fifth largest exporter of wines in the world, and the seventh largestproducer. The climate has been described as midway between that of California and France. The most common grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère. So far Chile has remained free of the phylloxera louse, which means that the country’s grapevines do not need to be grafted with phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
Over twenty grape varieties are grown in Chile, mainly a mixture of Spanish and French varieties, but many wineries are increasing experimentation in higher numbers. For most of Chile’s history, Pais was the most widely planted grape only recently getting passed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Other red wine varieties include Merlot, Carménère, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet franc, Pinot noir, Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera, Malbec, and Carignan. White wine varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon vert, Sémillon, Riesling, Viognier, Torontel, Pedro Ximénez, Gewürztraminer and Muscat of Alexandria.
Chilean winemakers have been developing a distinct style for their Cabernet Sauvignon, producing an easy drinking wine with soft tannins and flavors of mint, black currant, olives and smoke. The country’s Chardonnays are less distinctive, following more the stereotypical New World style.While sparkling wines have been made since 1879, they have not yet established a significant place in Chile’s wine portfolio. In recent years, the Pais grape variety has been creatively employed on its own or in blends, to make modern wines that have received favorable reviews.’
Chile has benefited from an influx of foreign investment and winemaking talent that began in the late 20th century. Flying winemakers introduced new technology and styles that helped Chilean wineries produce more internationally recognized wine styles. One such improvement was the use of oak. Historically Chilean winemakers had aged their wines in barrels made from rauli beechwood which imparted to the wine a unique taste that many international tasters found unpleasant. Gradually the wineries began to convert to French and American oak or stainless steel tanks for aging.
Financial investment manifested in the form of European and American winemakers opening up their own wineries or collaborating with existing Chilean wineries to produce new brands. These include:
- Robert Mondavi, collaboration with Viña Errázurizto produce Sena
- Miguel A. Torres, Catalan winemaker opened Miguel Torres Chile in 1979
- Château Lafite Rothschild, collaboration with Los Vascos
- Bruno Prats, Owner of Château Cos d’Estournel, and Paul Pontallier, technical director of Chateau Margaux, opened Domaine Paul Bruno
- Château Mouton Rothschild, collaboration with Concha y Toro Winery to produce Almaviva’
Wine regions in Chile
From Wikipedia I learnt that the following are the wine-producing regions of Chile:
# Central Valley,
# Southern Chile
Casablanca wine region
‘Casablanca Valley is a wine-growing region of Chile, located 100 kilometers (60 miles) north-west of the country’s capital, Santiago. The east-west-oriented valley is roughly 30km (20 miles) long, stretching to the eastern border of the Valparaiso province. It is best known for its crisp white wines, most notably made from the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grape varieties which have gained it recognition as one of Chile’s quality wine regions. It has attracted considerable investment from wine companies based in other Chilean regions who were looking to boost their white wine portfolio, and from abroad. Pinot Noir, which is responsive to the cooler climates found in this coastal area, is also grown with some success.
The region is relatively new by Chilean standards. Casablanca Valley’s first vineyards were planted in the 1980s during the revitalization of the Chilean wine industry. Expansion of vineyards around the industrial town of Casablanca followed, and vines now dominate the valley’s landscape, even if a lack of water for irrigation (and restrictive local laws relating to this) have delayed vineyard planting.
Because it is only 30km (20 miles) from the Pacific Ocean at its furthest point, Casablanca Valley is strongly influenced by the cooling effects of the Humboldt Current, which flows up the west coast of Chile from the Antarctic. Cooling afternoon breezes blow from the ocean towards the mountains in the east, filling the vacuum created by warm air rising in the east. The reverse winds in the evening, however, are not sufficiently strong to provide a cool finish to Casablanca days.
Given the valley’s location at 33°S (much closer to the Equator than any European vineyard), viticulture here is possible largely because of the oceanic influence, which brings cool morning fog and greater cloud cover than is found elsewhere in the north of Chile. It is this cooler climate that makes Casablanca’s white wines stand out from their local rivals. With a longer ripening period, the white grapes have more time to develop greater flavor complexity, while maintaining sugars and acids in balance. This cool climate, while undoubtedly beneficial, is not without its dangers – crops have been seriously damaged in the past by severe frosts in spring.
The sandy clay soils in the area, although free draining and otherwise suitable for viticulture, have been something of a bane for the grape growers of Casablanca Valley. It is thought that the use of chemical fertilizers in the past caused an outbreak of nematodes – microscopic worms that damage vines by feeding on the roots. They thrive in sandy soils just like those of Casablanca Valley, so growers have had to graft vines onto nematode-resistant rootstocks.
The difference between Casablanca’s climate and that of Chile’s more southerly regions led the prestigious Casa Lapostolle to choose the valley as the exclusive source of grapes for its Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay. The region is now growing a wide range of white grapes, notably aromatics such as Viognier, Gewurztraminer and Riesling, and is at the heart of Chile’s efforts to prove that it is able to excel at more than just red wines.’
The largest production of grapes in the Casablanca Valley is Chardonnay (35%), Sauvignon Blanc (29%), and Pinot Noir (22%), no other cultivar being larger than 2%.
Spending a day in Casablanca Valley
We drove a circular route from the home of my friends Pia and Guy, between hills, the landscape becoming greener as we drove closer to the Chilean Coast, and then we saw the first vineyards. In Casablanca Valley there are 15 vineyards open to the public for visits (without appointments), we were told. This was confirmed to be 14 wine estates by a map I received, listing these as Viña Casas Del Bosque, Kingston Family Vineyards, La Recova, Catrala, El Cuadro, Loma Larca, William Cole, Matetic, viñamar, Indomita, Quintay, House Casa Del Vino, Emiliana, and Veramonte.
I will summarize very briefly where we went, what we ate, and what we tasted, the wine estate visits being based on those being open on the Monday on which we did our winetasting tour.
1. William Cole Vineyards
It is owned by an American family, having been established in Tapihue in 1999. It is owned by Tapihue Wines. Its cellar has the capacity for 2,5 million litres in stainless steel tanks. It has a large wine shop, no restaurant, even though it has lots of space for what seems to be a basic winery requirement. We did not get to go on a wine tour, the guide being busy conducting one when we arrived.
From the winery website I learnt that William Cole Vineyards’ vines benefit from coastal breezes, a cool climate, being 40 km from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies. Soils are alluvial, perfect terroir for their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. They have 130 ha under vines. Grapes are also sourced from other vineyards.
In the wine shop it was hard to extract information about the winery and its wines, other than seeing the range of its wines. Its flagship wine was introduced as Tapihue 2015, a blend made from grapes from Maipo Costa. The label describes the wine as follows: ‘A unique wine selected from the best plots of our high altitude vineyard at 600 meters a.s.l. in the Maipo valley. Its delicate palate is a natural consequence of the Pacific coastal influence’. I did get a breakdown of the Blend: Petit Syrah 41%, Cabernet Sauvignon 34%, and Malbec 25%. The price of a bottle was 40000 Chilean pesos, or $56, or R840. The fermentation period was 12 days in stainless steel tanks, and then aged for 23 months. The Tasting notes shared that its colour is dark red, almost black. On the nose are layers of marmalade, fruit, spices, chocolate, and softer aromas of oak. The taste is soft, with velvety tannins. A long finish. And ideal to pair with game.
2. Viña Casas del Bosque
‘Position: No 30
Name of wine estate: Viña Casas del Bosque
Wine region: Casablanca Valley
Standout points: Award-winning restaurant Tanino; hands-on harvest experiences
Winemaker: Meinard Jan Bloem
Wine style: Cool-climate New World whites and reds
A warm welcome to Casablanca
Offering the warmest of welcomes to one of the coolest sections of the Casablanca Valley, Casas del Bosque is a postcard-pretty estate producing some of the most delicious wines in the region. Founded by Italian immigrant’s son Juan Cuneo Solari in 1993, Viña Casas del Bosque is located just 18km from the ocean, south of Valparaiso. Set among large old pines, olive trees and white adobe houses, this popular estate is replete with visitor attractions and activities.
Tune in or mellow out
During the warmer season, enjoy an idyllic picnic lunch amid the vines or tour the vineyards by mountain bike. Los Olivos dam is located in the middle of Casas del Bosque’s organic plantations. This is a place where you can disconnect from the world outside and tune into the nature around you. Mountain biking tours cater for both beginners and experienced cyclists – and culminate with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, whatever your skill level.
Naturally there is a good range of tastings and tours which last anywhere from 35 minutes to two hours.
Behind the scenes
During harvest (March-April), Casa del Bosque gives you the chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at how grapes are processed. The ultimate vineyard experience includes picking grapes, selecting them for processing and taking a wagon ride around the vineyard. Other hands-on experiences include becoming a winemaker for the day, where groups are invited to make their own special blends to be bottled, labelled and taken home as souvenirs.
You may reward yourself with lunch or dinner at the international award-winning Restaurant Tanino. Chef Álvaro Larraguibel serves an imaginative menu of recipes made from locally sourced ingredients and paired with Casas del Bosque’s premium wines. When the weather is fair, the Bo terrace is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of Casa del Bosque’s traditional-method sparkling wine and reflect on how very agreeable the world can sometimes be.‘
Their Gran Estate Selection 2014 scored 95 points by Tim Atkin MW, which is prominently displayed. Enzo Canessa is their wine educator, is very funny, speaks good English, and generously allowed us to taste the Gran Estate Selection. Varieties planted are Sauvignon Blanc (almost 50%), Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I looked at their menu, and saw a dessert that sounded amazing, walnuts and chocolate, so I ordered it for us to share. But they were walnut moulds used to make the chocolate. The waiter Michael was interesting, asking where I was from, and I was shocked when he told me that his favorite band is Die Antwoord, asking me if I can speak Afrikaans. Unbelievable! He is originally from Venezuela.
Pia and Guy wanted me to try a Wine Sour, popular in Chile, this one made with Sauvignon Blanc, lemon juice, and sugar, the latter making it very sweet.
Service was a fail when it came to paying. Separate payment was required for the dessert and some wine gadgets that I bought. No invoice could be created, as the invoice person was on lunch. The payment-taking person was on lunch as well. These payment problems pushed all my buttons as we were on a tight time plan.
As Pia, Guy, and I are all three from a marketing background, we were impressed with the display of the Viña Casas Del Bosque wines in their wine shop, with big posters of their wines per cultivar grouping, and presenting a wine with pine cones and branches of pine trees, something I had not seen in our country. Certainly far more attractive a presentation than we had seen at William Cole Vineyards.
We had lunch at the Emporio restaurant first, linked to the Winery but at a different location. I needed some wine information for this story, and was referred to the Sommelier Pablo Chavez, the rudest most arrogant sommelier I have ever come across, my second bad experience with sommeliers in Chile in two days. The marketing chap could speak English but could not tell us their largest cultivars!. It turned out to be Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Syrah, the latter being the variety they are best known for.
Their top scoring wine is their Matetic Syrah 2013, which took some time for the Sommelier to find, so that I could photograph the bottle. He did provide Tasting Notes: grapes sourced from the El Rosario Valley. Granite soils dominate. Biodynamic farming, with natural composting growing cover crops in between the vineyard rows, and soil management, Deep roots. Natural irrigation and dry-farming ‘most of the time’. A blend of two Syrah clones. Grapes were cold soaked for ten days. Fermentation was done with natural yeasts. Half the grapes were destemmed, and the remaining fruit whole bunch fermented, to add more structure and complexity. Manual punch down and pumping over fermentation. The Wine was racked in French oak barrels for 22 months before being decanted and bottled without filtration, the bottled wine aged for 36 months. Dark purple colour, nose shows black pepper, wet earth, meaty, spices, chocolate, and violet hints. Palate is balanced, with fresh acidity and ‘soft yet powerful tannins’. A long lingering finish. 14% alcohol. Ideal pairing with red meat, especially lamb and barbecues.
Lunch was good, but was negatively overshadowed for me by the Sommelier, who was trying to charm Pia to prove how fabulous he is. I ate the Vegan Menu, to keep it lighter, which consisted of a Garden salad, a mushroom and marrow fettuccini, and berry sorbet. I drank a glass of Corralillo Sauvignon Blanc 2016 with my meal. It was a blend of three Sauvignon Blanc clones. Each clone was planted in different blocks of their San Antonio Vineyards. Organically and biodynamically farmed. Fermentation for 30 days in stainless steel tanks. Colour pale bright yellow with green hues. Herbal and citrus with tropical aromas on the nose, fresh acidity.
We drove to their winery section, some distance away, and a charming young man with excellent English showed us around their cellar, so neatly designed. The grapes are grown biodynamically, and we saw their sheep amongst the vines, eating the grass. Most of their production is exported. They have concrete eggs from France. Barrels are only used for the red wines and Chardonnay. I told the guide about our poor experience with the Sommelier, and he was annoyed hearing this, saying that it is not the first feedback received about him. As the winery was expecting a power cut at 17h30, we had to end our tour to accommodate this deadline, having been warned about it upfront.
It was an interesting day spent in the Casablanca Valley, experiencing a range of Chilean wines and wineries from this region.
Ruta Del Vino Casablanca. Tel +56 32 2743755. www.rutadelvinodecasablanca.cl Twitter: @vallecasablanca Instagram: @vallecasablanca Facebook: Valle de Casablanca Chile