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Chilean Values and Varieties (February 6, 2009)

Despite the emergence of other New World wines, Chile remains the best place to shop for inexpensive wines of quality.

Chile is a long, skinny country delimited by the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Andes to the East. It's as long as Canada is wide, with arid deserts in the North and the Antarctic in the South, and has a wide range of climates as well as soils. The average width of the country is 100 kilometres, from ocean shore to the spine of the Andes, which creates an interesting weather phenomenon: the climate is more varied within a twenty-four-hour period going east to west than it is going north to south because of the wind patterns off the ocean and the mountain ranges. This effect creates a major difference between day and nighttime temperatures. From a wine-growing perspective, the warmth of the daylight hours builds up the sugar in the grapes, while cold nights elevate acidity levels. And these two components give wine its tension between sweet and sour flavours.

Chile's vineyards are concentrated in an 800-kilometre band in the centre of the country cut across with 12 valleys, some with their own sub-appellations. With about 120,000 hectares under vine, Chile's vineyard surface is roughly the same size as that of the Bordeaux region – but it only has some 200 commercial wineries, while Bordeaux has about 10,000 châteaux. This suggests that there is not the density of planting as you would find in Bordeaux and that Chile's wineries for the most part are big. So in order to survive they have to concentrate mainly on the export market as well as supplying the local shops and restaurants.

Chile, as any farmer there will tell you, is a paradise for grape-growing. You can plant a walking stick and it would sprout grapes. Okay, so it should be a young vine. The point is that Chile is the only country in the world that is free of phylloxera, protected as it is by its geographical boundaries. Phylloxera was the scourge that destroyed the vineyards of Europe in the 1860s until the end of the century, costing two and a half times the amount of money that was spent waging the Franco-Prussian war of that era. In order to eradicate the blight Europe had to dig up their vineyards and replant them with North American rootstock – which is immune to the phylloxera louse – and then graft on cuttings of their traditional grape varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etc. But Chile's plant material arrived before the onset of phylloxera in Europe and as a result Chilean vines can trace their ancestry back to the original vines imported from Bordeaux in the mid-nineteenth century by wealthy local land owners. These visionary entrepreneurs hired French winemakers to plant their vineyards and make their wine.


Five Chilean Wines To Savour

Vina Tarapaca Reserva Carmenère (LCBO #64436, $12.85)

Miguel Torres Santa Digna Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (Vintages #177451, $14.95)

Casa Silva Reserva Syrah (Vintages #14456, $14.95)

Errazuriz Estate Sauvignon Blanc (LCBO #263574, $11.90)

Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay (Vintages #396986, $14.95)

One anomaly is the presence of a grape called Carménère in Chile. This rare Bordeaux variety, wiped out during the phylloxera plague, flourished in Chilean soil, although the vintners thought it was Merlot and treated it as such in terms of harvesting and fermentation. They knew it was different from Merlot but for generations they believed it to be a Chilean clone of Merlot because it behaved very differently from its Bordeaux sibling (the colour of its shoots, the leaf formation, the fact that it ripened a month later than Merlot and that, surprise, surprise, the wine tasted different). In the autumn the leaves of Carmenère turn a flaming red, like our maples, which is how the grape was first named by the Bordelais: the French word for crimson is carmin.

In 1994 a French ampelographer, Jean-Michel Boursiquot, a professor at the University of Montpellier in Languedoc-Roussillon and the world's foremost authority on French grapevine varieties, flew to Chile and conducted a DNA study of the vine. Boursiquot found that much of what was thought to be Merlot, and labelled as such, was, in fact, the variety that had all but disappeared from France – Carménère. Making virtue of necessity, the Chilean vintners embraced the variety as their signature grape, either in its own right or blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, and now it is the star of the portfolio.

Chile continues to offer some of the best quality-for-price wines you will find on the market in both red and white. Seventy-five per cent of the vines in the ground there are red (in order of importance, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot). The white varieties are Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Viognier with some Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Muscat. On a recent visit to Chile I tasted many of the 2007 vintage red wines as well as whites of 2008 (as a southern hemisphere wine country, they harvest in March and April, as opposed to September–October here). The 2007 Chilean reds are some of the best wines I've tasted from that country. We have a real treat in store when these wines begin to appear on LCBO shelves.




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