While most of Chile’s wines come from the Central Valley, they have a reputation of being the least exciting the country has to offer. That is changing, however, with winemakers injecting passion into their products, writes Amanda Barnes in The Drinks Business. PDF: Chile’s Central Valley
It is easy to become distracted by what is happening on the fringes of Chile’s wine scene. As a country that is constantly pioneering new regions at its extremes there is always something, or somewhere, new to try. Although the fringes are exciting to write about, they don’t represent the overwhelming reality. More than 90% of Chile’s wine production comes from its ‘Central Valley’, a ubiquitous superzone that covers the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó and Maule regions, and usually translates to the most economic, and least exciting, wines. The Central Valley is, however, undergoing a revolution. It is a gradual revolution that won’t rock the boat, but vintage by vintage there’s a sure and steady change of tide as traditional Chile is being reinvented by winemakers seeking fresher, purer expressions of the grape varieties and region.
Chile’s Central Valley stretches over 300 miles, making it nigh on impossible to generalise about anything. However, one thing that can be said is that when Pablo Morande pioneered the coastal region of Casablanca in the 1980s, many wine producers followed suit, looking for cooler climates by the coast. The same desire for cool climates pushed producers up the foothills of the Andes, seeking the lower temperatures of high altitude. Although the majority of wine production still came from the Central Valley, it was no longer considered ‘cool’. In recent years, though, wine producers have looked at ways of changing their viticulture to capture the freshness that even the warmer middle ranges of Chile can offer.
“In Maquis I wanted to make wines that were balanced and fresh from the vineyard, and so we started making tests with an earlier harvest,” says Juan Alejandro Jofre, the former winemaker for Viña Maquis in Colchagua, who helped steer the wines to a fresher style, instigating a greater change in the Central Valley style. “We controlled irrigation to provoke some hydric stress just before véraison to get an earlier maturation. To do this you have to interpret the climate of each vintage and make good decisions about when to irrigate, carefully measuring the levels of nitrogen in the soil.”
This discipline is one that Maquis still pursues today and Jofre has continued to use in his own line of wines – Vinos Fríos del Año – which translates as ‘cold wines of the year’ yet always comes from warmer regions such as Curicó, by managing the viticulture. The naturally lower alcohol and higher acidity mean there is no need for correction in the winery, and the resulting wines are bright and juicy with a punchy acidity.
Larger producers too have been seeking fresher expressions from the vineyard, and we have seen the mass production of Chile shift a gear in recent years, as Marcelo Papa, winemaker at Concha y Toro – Chile’s largest wine producer – explains: “Ten years ago we were more focused on getting fully ripe and mature fruit, and we were ageing wines with more oak, the alcohol was higher, we were looking for more opulence. But today we are coming back, we are bringing everything into better balance – good maturation but not overripe, a balanced acidity and freshness. I think this has changed the style of wines in a very positive way.”
Along with a change in viticulture, there’s a slow change happening in the wineries too. While the early 2000s saw a boom in winemaking technology and additives in Chile, the pendulum is now swinging the other way and producers are moving away from heavy-handed oak and ripe concentration…