Fiona Sims explains why cool-climate Chileans are hot
Everyone seems to be talking about Chile
Too right. Chile's wine scene has developed at an astonishing pace over the past decade. It has already made a name for itself with Cabernet Sauvignon and red Bordeaux blends and has proved to be a source of reliably good value Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc. Some of the fuss is being directed at the new plantings much closer to the Pacific Ocean, rather than in the much warmer Central Valley where quantity, rather than quality, was the order of the day.
Not-so-cheap Chile any more, then?
The key growth area for Chile has been the £5-plus bracket, according to recent AC Nielsen figures. While total volume increased by 3%, sales above the £5 mark were up almost 10%. But anyway, the average retail price is £3.81 - higher than Spain, Italy, South Africa and Portugal. And as Chilean wine producers' confidence grows, they are increasingly willing to innovate and experiment. Developing regionality is high on their list - risking investment in new, marginal wine grape-growing areas such as San Antonio and Limarí.
Chile - cool climate?
Yup - we're talking thick fogs, the lot. Many wine buffs believe that the country will become equally famous for its cool-climate Syrah, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, from Casablanca, the most established of the coastal regions, and also from newer areas such as the aforementioned San Antonio and Limarí Valleys, plus other areas such as Bío-Bío in the south and the Elqui Valley in the north.
So the country is still working out which grapes grow best, and where?
Sure, new areas are being discovered all the time, but Chile has been making wine since the Spanish conquerors arrived in South America in the 16th century, from grape varieties brought first from the Mediterranean region.
Then, in 1850, when wealthy mine owners fancied something a bit classier, they started to import vines and technology from Bordeaux, planting noble varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. But it wasn't until the beginning of the 1990s that things really started hotting up.
Tell us a bit more about San Antonio
I tasted a Gewürztraminer made by María Luz Marín at her winery just 4km from the coast in the village of Lo Abarca in the heart of San Antonio. It was something else - generously scented with rose petals and peach blossom yet with a cool, flinty heart, showing an intensity rarely found in New World examples. To get there, hang a left in Casablanca and drive through the pine-clad hills and lush countryside fat with cattle and almond trees. Everyone thought she was mad to consider growing grapes, but she stuck with it, scooping a bunch of trophies.
Give us another hot tip
Marchihue (pronounced mar-chee-way), Colchagua's newest and hottest sub-region, has just what a vine wants- poor soils, rolling hills and cool sea breezes. Who's there? Big boys Montes, Veramonte and Concha y Toro, to name just three. Watch this space.
Chilean wine in a nutshell
l Great Britain is Chile's largest export market
l We import 9.5 million cases - two million of those go into the on-trade
l Chile has a share of nearly 8% of the UK on-trade and it's growing fast
l Chile's wines have about 7% of the UK wine market
Five chilean wines to try on your list
Five great cool-climate Chilean wines to try on your list
2005 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc Garuma Vineyard, Leyda Valley
(£6.35, Great Western Wine, 01225 322800)
"Ripe citrus fruit nose with a twist of lime and a rich, honeyed palate"
2005 Falernia Syrah, Elqui Valley
(£4.75, Great Western Wine)
"Juicy and fragrant, with intense spicy fruit and an elegant mouthfeel"
2006 Arboleda Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley
(£7.48, Wheeler Cellars, 01206 713560)
"Mouth-tingling limey fruit, but rounded and ripe on the finish"
2005 Tabalí Chardonnay, Limarí Valley
(£6.50, Boutinot, 0161 908 1300)
"Peach and apricot, one of the best Chardonnays in the valley - well-integrated oak, luscious peach and citrus flavours"
2006 Cono Sur Riesling Reserve, Bío Bío
(£4.63, WaverleyTBS, 01442 293006)
"Zesty, limey fruit that will turn any Riesling sceptics"