December 2009

Chile Is Up to the Challenge

By: Lana Bortolot
Photos by the author

When they burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, Chilean wines quickly became known for value-priced quality. Relaxed trade policies, foreign investment and updated technology helped the country earned an impressive number-three slot in U.S. exports behind France and Italy. Then came the Australian wave, repositioning consumer tastes, shuffling the entire market and knocking Chile down a rung.

Edgar Carter, winemaker for Chadwick’s Arboleda label and also viticulturist of Seña, wines that helped raise the profile for Chile.

Concurrently, overproduction by bulk wineries gave Chilean wines an industrial reputation, and they were often lumped into the same “cheap and cheerful” category as their Down Under competitors. And, over the mountains and on the sidelines, Argentina was making global inroads with Malbec. Though still a teenager, Chile seemed caught in a mid-life crisis.

“The cheap wine reputation is the challenge—it’s the old view of Chile,” says Lori Tieszen, Executive Director of Wines of Chile USA. “The last five to 10 years are the real wine business for Chile. [Producers] are really coming up to world-class standards and figuring out what they’ve got."

And though icon wines such as Seña help raise the profile for Chile, the future, says Tieszen, is in everyday wines at the $12–20 retail point that deliver consistent quality and unique style that gives a nod to Chile’s legacy, yet keeps it at the fore of winemaking.

Producers may still reference their Bordeaux heritage, but now the concentration is on leveraging what is uniquely Chilean: geography and climate that produce wine very naturally, phylloxera-free vine stock and the willingness of wine producers to push metaphoric and geographic boundaries—from producing old-vine wines to breaking new ground in cool climates and high altitudes.

And while the grapes are still international (more than 25 varieties are grown here), the new wine styles reflect the country’s diversity of climates and terroirs and its ability to see and seize opportunities such as the current trend for organic and biodynamic wines.

In large part, the new Chile reflects a philosophical turn from factory to farm. Winemakers, who are agronomists first, have returned to the land to work the vines and study the complex soils. Understanding the fruit and the minerality is the first thing most winemakers will talk about; marketing is the last.

But that may change. Bolstered by the growing interest in Carmenère—Gomberg Fredrikson reports a 76 percent spike in sales January to July ‘09—and its potential to be the next Malbec, Chilean producers see a window of opportunity to remake their wine history and reclaim their identity.

“It is a challenge that Chile has. We would all like Chile to be more developed in identity,” says Felipe Cruz, Commercial Director at Seña Winery. “We want to tell the world that we could stand up to the great wines of France and Italy, but as a country, we are shy about marketing ourselves.”
Cool-climate from coastal Aconcagua and high-altitude wines from the mountains are coming from this northern region where San Esteban has pioneered hillside-vineyard planting.

But the success of their South American counterpart has Chileans thinking about what they, too, could tap into as a national identity to help reinforce their wine culture.  “Argentina has tango, sex and great food,” says Ignacio Recabarren, winemaker at Concha y Toro. “Chile is more subtle. We depend on simple, natural things, which the world does not yet understand."

But they soon might, if winemakers can bring the world to their mountains. Wine tourism, still a fledgling industry here, is gaining traction, and next year’s budgets, says Tieszen, will earmark funds for wine tourism marketing. With wineries littered throughout the 14 valleys, there’s no formal wine route for tourists; instead, some are capitalizing upon their dramatic mountain landscapes to build destination wineries such as that planned by Via Wines, featuring outdoor recreation, spas, authentic dining and accommodations that are both rustic and elegant. The idea: snag a captive audience and ply them with Chilean charms. And that won’t include a minibar or HDTV.

“We want to be more authentic and less Disneyland,” says Eduardo Wexman, Marketing Manager at Via Wines, in the Maule Valley, which, aptly described as “the Sleeping Giant,” speaks to Chile at large. “We look to how others do it, but we want to adapt to the way it is in Chile.”


Bravo for Green

Chilean winemaker Antonio Bravo leads the green initiative in South America. He is winemaker for Viñedos Emiliana.
Antonio Bravo is one of South America’s leading exponents of organic and biodynamic wines. He is the lead winemaker for Viñedos Emiliana, pioneering sustainable practices for the winery’s 3,000-plus acres of vineyards in the premier grape-growing regions of Chile.

THE TASTING PANEL met up with Bravo to savor the winery’s icon reds, Coyam and “G” (“G” became the first wine in South America to be certified biodynamic, and Coyam soon followed). Emiliana’s Coyam is an estate wine comprised of 34% Syrah, 31% Merlot and 17% Carmenère, with additional blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Mourvèdre. “G” is a single-vineyard red with a blend of 30% Carmenère, 30% Syrah, 24% Cab Sauv and 16% Merlot. Both hail from the Rapel Valley.

Each wine is dense with deep, black fruit. Coyam is lushly textured with cassis creaminess, while “G” is a big boy, with savory truffle and spice that lingers.  —Meridith May 

Sommelier Summit Raises Awareness . . . and the Bar for Chilean Wines

In the spirit of bringing Mohammad to the mountain—in this case, the Andes—Wines of Chile brought a group of eight wine professionals to experience firsthand the geography and topography of Chilean wines. The fourth Sommelier Summit, a twice-yearly educational tour, puts wine influencers and wine producers across the tasting table from each other.

Horacio Vicente Mena follows his father’s footsteps at San Esteban Winery in the Aconcagua Valley. The winery is a pioneer in hillside-vineyard planting.
Rodrigo Romero of Veranda Winery is one of the young winemakers exploring cool-climate wines in Bio-Bio, the southernmost wine-making region in Chile.

The goal, says Lori Tieszen, Executive Director of Wines of Chile USA, is to educate sommeliers and media about the diversity of Chile’s wines, while helping producers understand the changing tastes of the American consumer market. Summit attendees are chosen for geographic diversity and typically include multi-unit operators and a wine-industry journalist. As East Coast Editor, I represented THE TASTING PANEL on the October trip, which included seven seminars with wine producers, tours of 10 wineries in five valleys and tastings of some 200 wines.

“The trips to Chile are the strongest weapon in our arsenal. It’s a 100-percent focus and a 24/7 immersion,” says Tieszen. “The main objective is education, but it’s also about building relationships."

Producers from member wineries made presentations on a variety of topics from organic and cool-climate wines to Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends. For the first time, the program included a seminar dedicated to old-vine wines. Tieszen said the seminars help the organization evolve Chile’s positioning through the unique perspectives of the producers. She cited the old-vine seminar as an example. “It’s the first time anyone’s talked about it in a public forum. I see it as another aspect of what is interesting, topical and [what] gives us a point of difference, and has potentially commercial aspects."

The seminar concluded with the summit participants’ presentations to producers, with topics ranging from seafood and steakhouse trends to sommelier and public wine education, customer outreach and marketing messages from the Old World.  —L.B.


Lana Bortolot, East Coast Editor, THE TASTING PANEL, New York City
Kevin Forsaith, Wine Director, Draeger’s Markets, San Francisco Bay Area
Scott Harper, MS, General Manager, Bristol Bar and Grille, Louisville, KY and Indiana
David O’Day, Director of Wine, Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, New York City
Maxine Phillips, Vice President, International Business Development, Phillips Seafood, Baltimore
Geoff Ryan, Global Wine Co-Buyer, Whole Foods, Los Angeles
Vajra Stratigos, Director of Beverage Services, The Fifth Group, Atlanta
James Tidwell, MS, Beverage Manager and Sommelier, Four Seasons Resort and Club, Dallas


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