The Chilean wine industry: an overview, and visiting the Casablanca wine region in Santiago, Chile!

In August last year I spent four days in Santiago in Chili, visiting two sets of friends. I tasted some of the good Chilean wines, and even went on a wine tour in the Casablanca Valley outside Santiago. To prepare myself for the wine tour, I read up about the Chilean wine industry.

Chilling in Chile, Santiago: an excerpt from ‘SwitchBitch: my journey in travelling Solo, step by step’!

From Wikipedia I extracted the following introduction to the Chilean wine industry:

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 fermentation tanks 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.[citation needed]

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 largest producer.[1] 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.[2]

Chilean wine exports to Argentina were hampered by the lack of effective land transport and a series of war scares. This situation changed after the Pactos de Mayo were signed in 1902 and the inauguration of the Transandine Railway in 1909, making war unlikely and trade across the Andes easy. Governments agreed to sign a free trade agreement. Argentine winegrowers association, Centro Vitivinícola Nacional, dominated by European immigrants, protested vigorously against the free trade agreement since Chilean wines were considered a threat to the local industry. The complaints of Argentine wine growers in conjunction with that of cattle farmers in Chile ended up tearing down the plans for a free trade agreement.[6]

Political instability in the 20th century, coupled with bureaucratic regulations and high taxes tempered the growth of the Chilean wine industry. Prior to the 1980s, the vast majority of Chilean wine was considered low quality and mostly consumed domestically. As awareness of Chile’s favorable growing conditions for viticulture increased so did foreign investment in Chilean wineries. This period saw many technical advances in winemaking as Chile earned a reputation for reasonably priced premium quality wines. Chile began to export extensively, becoming the third leading exporter, after France and Italy, into the United States by the turn of the 21st century. It has since dropped to fourth in the US, being surpassed by Australia, but focus has switched to developing exports in the world’s other major wine markets like the United Kingdom and Japan.[2]

Chile is a long, narrow country that is geographically and climatically dominated by the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Chile’s vineyards are found along an 800-mile stretch of land from Atacama Region to the Bio-Bio Region in the south. The climate is varied with the northern regions being very hot and dry compared to the cooler, wetter regions in the south. In the Valle Central around Santiago, the climate is dry with an average of 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain and little risk of springtime frost. The proximity to the Dry Andes help create a wide diurnal temperature variation between day and nighttime temperatures. This cool drop in temperature is vital in maintaining the grapes’ acidity levels.[7]

Most of Chile’s premium wine regions are dependent on irrigation to sustain vineyards, getting the necessary water from melting snow caps in the Andes. In the developing wine regions along the Coastal Ranges and in the far south, there is not a lack in needed rainfall but vineyard owners have to deal with other factors such as the Humboldt Current from the Pacific which can bathe a vineyard with a blanket of cool air. For the rest of Chile’s wine regions, the Coastal Ranges serve a buffer from the current and also acts as a rain shadow. The vineyards in these regions are planted on the valleyplains of the Andes foothills along a major river such as the Maipo, Rapel and Maule Rivers.[7]

The vineyards of Chile fall between the latitudes of 32 and 38° swhich, in the Northern Hemisphere would be the equivalent of southern Spain and North Africa. However the climate in Chile’s wine regions is much more temperate than those regions, comparing more closely to California and Bordeaux. Overall, it is classified as a Mediterranean climate with average summer temperatures of 59–64 °F (15–18 °C) and potential highs of 86 °F (30 °C).[4]

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.[2] 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.[7]

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.[3]

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:

From Wikipedia I learnt that the following are the wine-producing regions of Chile: 

#  Atacama 

#  Coquimbo

#  Aconcagua 

#   Central Valley, 

#   Southern Chile

 

From Wine-searcher.com I learnt more about the Casablanca wine valley:

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, where 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

This wine estate is the only one in Casablanca which made the inaugural 2019 50 Best Vineyards List, making the 30th rank. From the Award website, the wine estate was introduced as follows:

Position: No 30
Name of wine estate: Viña Casas del Bosque
Country: Chile
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
Website: https://www.casasdelbosque.cl/

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

3. Matetic

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. 

With lunch I drank a glass of Corralillo Sauvignon Blanc 2016. 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.

It was an interesting day spent in the Casablanca Valley, experiencing a range of Chilean wines and wineries from this region. 

The overview of the Chilean wine industry, and more details about the wine tour of the Casablanca Valley is in my new book ‘SwitchBitch: My Journey of travelling Solo, step by step’, the third Book in my Transformation Trilogy, which was published at the end of December. Books are available from me, as well as on Amazon Kindle: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf?language=en_US

 

Ruta Del Vino Casablanca. Tel +56 32 2743755. www.rutadelvinodecasablanca.cl Twitter: @vallecasablanca Instagram: @vallecasablanca Facebook: Valle de Casablanca Chile 

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein

 

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