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Don’t Call Chile Boring!
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Don’t Call Chile Boring!

For many, Chile has become the byword for safe, boring plonk, Robert Boutflower argues the case for a new look at this South American stalwart.

I was having a conversation recently with a customer who wanted a nice, full-bodied red wine for around £20. I said, “What about something from Chile?” “Oh no,” he replied, “something more exciting than that…” Sadly this is the starting point for many of us, a reluctance to consider Chilean wines as anything more than safe. Safe flavours, not much complexity.

Well, we need to look again. In my corner, for his ‘vinous volte-face’, is Tim Atkin MW, erstwhile wine journalist for The Guardian who once described Chile as, “the Volvo of the wine industry”, and now admits that it has taken him a long time to live it down. He is now the loudest champion of modern Chilean wines, his annual report uncovering:

“innovation and daring winemaking, diversity and quality as good as anywhere in the world.”


Let’s explode a couple of myths. The first is that French word, ‘terroir’ which means the wine has a sense of place and uniqueness, and the general feeling that Chilean wines have been missing this. While the mass producers are delighted by bland, uniform, risk-free flavouring for the supermarket drinker, many smaller growers are now seeking out corners where the vineyard sites bring an individuality to the wine. Chile has plenty of sites in different valleys which can all generate unique terroir. You’ll get some idea of this by inspecting the labels for ‘valleys’, which may encompass a large area such as Colchagua, but within each there lie a myriad of corners to explore. This is the direction modern Chile is headed.

The other point that gets forgotten is the variability of vintages in South America. Tim Atkin points out that 2016, for example, was eight times wetter in the Maipo Alta than 2020. This factor has to affect the style and flavour of any fine wine and offers you the chance to try different vintages against each other... exactly like Europe.

Exciting new ventures then to look out for in these twenty first century wineries, much of it to do with innovation, exploration, exuberance and flair, while keeping the trademark value and drinkability. Let’s start with the region closest to Santiago, that of Maipo. One of the first valleys to be planted with red varieties, it has become a major source of great, cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with free-draining, gravelly soils, not that dissimilar to the Médoc in Bordeaux. First up is the staple Chilean Merlot, where it’s worth putting the Santa Ema Select Terroir Merlot up against any good value AOC Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur for comparison. Friendly, warm and round, you’ll find it copes well with the competition as does the Tanners Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon which comes out of the Colchagua Valley, the next valley to the south. Our own label is fantastic everyday drinking with smooth, round flavours of blackcurrants held together by soft, ripe tannins. And while you think of comparisons, a word on Carmenère, an old Bordeaux variety that Chile has taken to its heart. Originally mistaken for Merlot, there’s a leafy freshness that you’ll find in those made in cooler locations, like the Cucao Reserva Especial Carmenère.

Exciting Whites

Chilean whites also have that ‘safe’ epithet fixed to their backs, and while many can be described as easy-drinking, straight from the fridge numbers, we’ve worked hard with Viña Sutil to find our Tanners Chilean Chardonnay, from the warm, gentle slopes of the lower Colchagua where the cooling Pacific breezes mitigate the hot Chilean sunshine. There’s a lovely, lush, tropical side to this white which makes it incredibly moreish. If however, you are seeking a brisker, crisper style with a slash of lemon zest, then back in Maipo you can enjoy the Select Terroir Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Ema. Another Sauvignon, packing a bit more punch and herby intensity, comes from the masterful François Lurton further south, in the cool Lolol Valley. François hails from Bordeaux, loves working with Sauvignon and believes that he has the best terroir in South America. A bold statement but he’s certainly near the top as his Humo Blanco Sauvignon Blanc from Hacienda Araucano testifies. Meanwhile, from just over the mountain, Viña Luis Felipe Edwards are producing very good Viognier, that wonderful spicy white grape that can be very tricky. Los Coches Viognier is grown on the southern (cooler) side of the Paralones vineyard.

Fine Wine

For a step up the quality ladder, you need to try the latest arrivals from Santa Ema, their high-scoring, high-flying Amplus wines. The Chardonnay hails from the Leyda Valley, a dry, cool vineyard area south of Valparaiso, a mere 20 km from the ocean, that produces class and concentration in its wines. You’ll get peach, tangerine and a hint of salt in the flavour, and 25% new oak gives more weight and texture to the whole. This is a seriously good, generous, modern Chilean white that will age a bit. Its Merlot sibling is quite the ticket too, coming from the Alto Maipo vineyards nearer to the Andes and at a higher altitude than others. It is a wine with poise and panache, punching above its price-point.

Finally, we must consider the terrific Cousiño Macul Finis Terrae. Offered to us as a parcel, there’s still a little available. It’s beautifully crafted, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, fleshed out with Merlot and a dash of Syrah. The balance is superb and, as it ages, there’s some classic clarety complexity coming through, yet with a bit more stuffing from the Syrah and a delicious nose on it too. Who said Chile was boring? Jump in the Ineos Grenadier and we’ll see you halfway up the mountain...



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