By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 31 October 2020
Chile’s grape plantings may look very different in decades to come, if drought and increasing heat continue to pose challenges, with varieties which grow well in tough dry conditions favoured.
At a recent webinar Chilean winemaker Aurelio Montes commented that the best grapes for coping in these conditions are definitely not Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or even Syrah - the varieties which are currently so popular and widely planted.
“Grapes which can cope best with low irrigation and dry farming are red varietals Carignan, Carmenere and Tempranillo”, says Montes.
For white grapes in Chile’s future, we might well see a return to the old favourite Semillon. This used to be planted widely in Chile, but fell out of fashion eclipsed by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, two grapes which do not cope well in hot dry conditions.
“It is difficult to find old vine Semillon in Chile today, but it could be the white grape of the future”, believes Tim Atkin MW, who named Bouchon’s Granito Semillon from Maule as top white wine of the year in his 2020 Chilean report.
Another white grape known for its resilience in arid hot conditions is Spain’s Verdejo. El Principal winery in Chile's Maipo valley planted 4 hectares on alluvial soils at 900m altitude, similar conditions to its homeland in Rueda region of Spain. Winemaker Gonzalo Guzman is making a great success of it, so will hopefully encourage others to plant it in Chile. In addition, white varieties Grenache Blanc and Chenin Blanc could be possible contenders in a warmer Chilean future.
“I have never seen so little snow on the Andes as when I visited in December last year”, commented Atkin, who travelled from Atacama desert down to Chile’s most southerly commercial planting on the island of Chiloe, south of Concepcion.
Interestingly, it may be organic and biodynamic growers who benefit. According to Chile’s leading pioneer Alvaro Espinoza of Emiliana, who first became interested in biodynamics in mid-1990s when working at Bonterra in California and was the first to bring it to South America, organic and biodynamic vineyards can cope better in increasingly dry conditions.
As vintages get drier and warmer, some growers are moving to dry farming using no irrigation. “Everyone is colonising Chile’s coast looking for freshness, vibrancy and minerality”, says Viviana Navarrete of Vina Leyda in Leyda valley. Some winemakers like Jon Usabiaga of Aresti headed east to higher altitude in Andes foothills for enhanced aromas and intensity, whilst others like Marcelo Retamal of De Martino headed south to reinvigorate Maule, Curico and Itata regions with their treasure trove of gnarled free-standing old Carignan, Cinsault and Semillon bushvines.
“We think of Chile as so reliable year after year, but vintages are quite distinct in Chile”, says Atkin. “The last cool vintages were 2016 and 2018; more recently 2019 had a hot summer with bad drought and 2020 was dry with one of the earliest recorded harvests”.
In Chile winemakers are now clearly moving north, south, east and west to try to find cooler microclimates to produce wines with greater freshness – and the wines have more focus on site and terroir expression. These elements are highlighted in Atkin’s new 2020 Chile Wine Review (£20 www.timatkin.com) which includes a phenomenal 700 Chilean wines which scored 90 points or more – and an insight into the most dynamic winemakers, wineries and regions. See below for a small sample of Atkin’s top Chilean wines:
Maule : BOUCHON GRANITO SEMILLON 2018 (13.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£32.50 Oxford Wine; Wigglytin Wine; Good Wine Shop; Connollys Wine; Condor Wine
Maule is better known for reds, but this 100% Semillon from 2018 vintage is superb. Block 1 of Batuco’s vineyard has a dry coastal climate, based 30km from the ocean. Lemon and pearskin, beautifully integrated toasty undertones from 12 months French oak; rich honeyed notes, textural, complex with endless length. The best Semillon I have tasted in South America.
Maipo : EL PRINCIPAL KINE VERDEJO 2019 (14%)
From Chile’s tiny new plantings of Spanish Verdejo planted 25km from Pacific on flat alluvial soils. Very exciting French oak aged wine with stone fruit flavours, fennel notes, rich spicy undertones and wonderful creamy texture made by Gonzalo Guzman.
Maule : DE MARTINO OLD VINE SERIES VIGNO 2018 (13.5%) ***STAR BUY***
Dynamic winemaker Marcelo Retamal crafted this excellent field blend of 85% Carignan with 15% Malbec and Cinsault from granite soils in De Martino’s Vigno project, a new movement to map Maule region. Very pure berried fruit aromas, earthy deep spicy undertones, minerally and firm ripe tannins with maturation in large oak foudres. Very good.
Aconcagua : MONTES OUTER LIMITS ZAPALLAR SYRAH 2019 (14%)
£20 Fine Wine Musselburgh; Exel Wines; Henderson Wines; Angus Wines
Aurelio Montes originally went to Zapallar in western Aconcagua looking to grow Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but he found a slightly warmer site which works perfectly for Syrah. Peppery vibrant, ripe fruits, lovely rich texture giving Syrah’s full expression of spiciness vinified in old used oak barrels and concrete eggs. Only 500 cases made.
Curico : LA RONCIERE LICANTEN MALBEC 2018 (14%) ***GREAT VALUE***
£13.95 Corney & Barrow Scotland
Brilliant example from Vina La Ronciere’s winemaker, Juan Munoz, from cooler coastal Idahue estate in new DO Licanten. Shows how good Chilean Malbec can be grown on granite, here blended with 8% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc aged in French oak; a more savoury Malbec than found across the Andes. Deep dark, sweet spicy and bramble fruit aromas, savoury tobacco and liquorice undertones, slightly peppery with an elegant finish. Fantastic value for money.
Join Rose’s virtual wine tasting with winemaker Wendy Paille of Le Soula in Roussillon SW France on Sat 7 Nov: www.rosemurraybrown.com