New Releases from Chile

As in recent years it was Chile’s sauvignon blancs that impressed me most in my annual tastings, especially at the lower price points, which is great news for consumers who might be looking for alternatives to increasingly pricey New Zealand versions. The colder vineyards to the north and south of the traditional Maipo and Maule Valley growing regions benefit from cooling ocean breezes and extended growing seasons, the latter allowing for increased aromatic and flavor development, not to mention concentration. And the wines increasingly deliver on these advantageous conditions.

I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness of more chardonnays than usual this year too: fewer wines showed extreme oak flavors and cloying sweetness than in the past. More producers are taming the green character that often plagues Chile’s merlots and carmeneres, and there are some excellent pinot noirs coming onto the market that merit serious attention too.

Another pleasant surprise this year was the increased number of varietally accurate, spicy syrahs that I was able to taste. Up until now, too many Chilean versions of this northern Rhône variety were simply fruity and red, without the smoky, spicy and floral character that distinguishes this grape. As more producers gain confidence working with syrah I expect to see more and more noteworthy releases, as this grape is well-loved by Chile’s winemakers, even if it has become increasingly hard to sell in recent years.

Vintages 2008 and 2009 were, overall, warmer than average seasons, with little rainfall, and the white wines tend to show good power and depth. The word from a number of winemakers is that ’09 should be very successful for red wines, but it’s still too early to take a serious look at them now. As for the 2008 reds, the vintage got off to a slow start thanks to cold weather and the flowering occurred two weeks later than normal. It was a very dry year too. The grapes were smaller than usual and yields were down by as much as 25% from normal, which resulted in good but usually not extreme concentration and, in some cases, solid tannins in wines from Bordeaux varieties.

Where next? It is antithetical for big business to want to play nice with, much less support, their competition, but a wine-producing region requires a critical mass of topnotch producers both large and small if it’s to be taken seriously in the international marketplace. Chile’s wine industry is utterly dominated by enormous, extremely well-capitalized owners, often of the corporate sort, and the number of small, artisanal producers can virtually be counted on the fingers of two hands. Chile is and will continue to be viewed as an industrial producer of generic wines unless more small-scale, serious producers can emerge and get onto the radar of discerning and demanding sommeliers, retailers and consumers—the same folks who are the most important market for limited-production wines from Europe and the United States.

So far the upper end of the wine market has mostly shunned Chile because the wines are perceived to be generic, manipulated and lacking in personality. Chilean wines have always been appreciated for the value they offer but, as Australia’s recent travails will attest, it is potentially disastrous for a wine industry to rely too heavily on low-cost commodity wines and thus reinforce Chile’s image as solely a source of cheap wine.

Many of Chile’s wineries rely heavily on consulting enologists, who in theory can help to craft wines that will appeal to a large market, but this is a double-edged sword. While a talented consulting winemaker can help underperforming producers bring up their game, often quickly, there’s also a danger of relying too heavily on the winemaking bag of tricks, which can result in wines of a dull, plodding sameness. Depending too heavily on enzymes, super-yeasts that can eat up loads of sugar, powdered tannins, and artificially induced oak flavoring (an especially popular technique in Chile) to impart a fake oak taste are no recipe for long-term success with serious buyers. At a certain point the consumer’s eyes can glaze over, which is a disaster for the long-term health of the winemaking community.

Chile’s wine industry must ask itself where it wants to be in the next decade, or generation. While positive steps have been taken in terms of overall wine quality and the matching of varieties to appropriate regions and vineyards, too many wines display an almost hypnotic uniformity. Well-made, yes, but also too often lacking individuality or personality. Chile holds great promise and the industry is crawling with talented, educated and, increasingly, worldly and experienced winemakers, but there is still too much emphasis on “better living (or in this case, winemaking) through technology” and not enough diversity of style.