Patience can be a virtue, especially when it comes to wine. And no, I’m not talking about cellaring.
For years, many of us have been waiting for Chile to produce truly grand fermented grape juice, to become a source of more than “nice enough” reds and whites at value prices.
Well, the wait is over.
A new wave of Chilean wines is just starting to roll into local stores and restaurants, representing what importer Elizabeth Butler calls “an underrepresented part of Chile: smaller production, hands-on, with a deeper exploration of varietals and regions.”
As I tasted delicious and distinctive sauvignon gris from Casa Silva and a Pedro Ximenez (most associated with Spain sherries) from Mayu and a stunning carmenère from Garcia + Schwaderer, I remembered what Butler, the “Chile ambassador” for Vine Connections, had said a few minutes earlier:
“When we pour these ones for people in the trade, experienced wine drinkers, the reaction we get most often is ‘I had no idea.’ ”
That certainly was my take. I have sampled several other cool Chilean wines of late, including cabernet from Ventisquero and Aquitania, chardonnay from Minnesota-owned Famiglia Meschini and carmenère from Viña Marty.
Carmenère is, in fact, the signature red grape from the world’s skinniest nation (3,998 miles of Pacific coastline — 39 degrees of latitude — and rarely more than 100 miles wide). Oddly, for a century or so, these wines were mislabeled: In 1994, scientists determined that most of what was being called merlot was, in fact, carmenère.
In hindsight, the bold, earthy flavors of those wines should have been a giveaway, even if they did share an array-of-spices character with merlot. Regardless, carmenère should be poised to do for Chile what malbec has done for neighboring Argentina, although on a smaller scale since production is still limited (and was set back by a massive 2010 earthquake).
These varieties were brought over from Bordeaux, along with cabernet sauvignon and its two parents (cab franc and sauvignon blanc) and merlot, plus some pinot noir from elsewhere in France, during the 1800s.
Looking back centuries
But grapes have a decidedly longer history in Chile. Spanish missionaries and conquistadors brought over boatloads of grapevines called criolla chica, which came to be known as pais in Chile and mission in North America. Throughout the 20th century, pais was used primarily to make the popular brandy pisco, and as such was Chile’s most-planted red grape until being supplanted by cabernet sauvignon around the turn of this century.
Indeed, the era of making world-class wines is only about a quarter-century old in Chile, dating to the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. A wave of vintners from other countries and the embracing of better equipment, techniques and vineyard practices followed, even if much of the resulting juice went into larger-production wines. (Last year, Chile surpassed Australia as the fourth-largest wine exporter in the world.)
Those wines, by the way, are getting better and better. Bisquertt, Casa Lapostolle, Santa Ema, Concha Y Toro’s “Casillero del Diablo” line and Ventisquero “Yali” produce seriously tasty sauv blanc. Bisquertt and Ventisquero’s “Root: 1” Carmènere and Vermonte’s “Ritual” Pinot Noir are well worth seeking out.
But what’s likely to excite wine enthusiasts more are new-to-the-market brands such as Garage Wine Co., steered by a garrulous Canadian named Derek Mossman. He came to Chile solely to ski 15 years ago, met and married a local woman and just stuck around. He’s making expressive reds not only from cab and carmenère but also Rhône grapes such as carignan and mourvedre.
Chile, meet Minnesota
During a Twin Cities visit this summer, Mossman said he and others like him are banking on the kind of consumers who “are looking for something personal, and who appreciate a good David-and-Goliath story.”
His wines are in a price range — $20 to $35 — where, he said, Chile can “rock people’s worlds.”
Mossman’s wines, especially the cab franc and carignan field blends, fit the bill. But those delving into Chile for the first time can find similarly adventurous wines in the $15 range from Mayu. Its grapes emanate from the Elqui Valley, at the southern edge of the planet’s driest nonpolar desert, the Atacama. A dandy carmenére-syrah blend and one of the best sauvignon blancs I’ve tasted all year highlight the Mayu portfolio.
The winery is not far, Butler said, from an area “where no rain has been recorded in hundreds of years. There’s a live evolution [of grape-growing] going on there. The map is changing as I speak.”
The map of destinations for these wines now includes Minnesota.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.