Chile has a reputation for being safe and reliable – but creative, riskier wines like these should make us rethink the way we see the country
Chile has been described as a winemaker’s paradise: its near-perfect Mediterranean climate and regular supply of meltwater from the Andes make it an easy place to make good wine. But to make great wine, vines need to struggle, and Viña Ventisquero are at the forefront of a growing number of wineries pushing boundaries to make them do just that.
Vineyards are going higher, cooler and more difficult to work – all in the name of character and excellence. This stimulating range of six very different wines, presented by not one, but two winemakers, gave a thrilling glimpse of a radical new future.
‘It’s about moving the limits of where the wine regions in Chile are planted,’ explained Alejandro Galaz. ‘Making wines that can show another point of view on how Chile is.’
Old Vines in the South
Ventisquero Reserva País/Moscatel 2017, Maule Valley
Our first wine was a harking back to Chile’s original wine growing heritage before the arrival of French varieties in the 1850s. A blend of País and Moscatel, two varieties that have been in the country more or less since the conquistadores.
Cultivated by small growers in the Maule (País) and Itata (Moscatel) Valleys, wines like this used to be bought for very low prices and seen as inferior to the French-varietals grown further north. But a renewed emphasis on Chile’s winemaking history and preserving old vineyards has seen them being treated differently.
‘We wanted to help the families by giving them a fair price for their grapes,’ says winemaker Alejandro Galaz. ‘We’re trying to rescue the Chilean heritage of our vineyards that were planted hundreds of years ago.’
The wine is an unusual red/white blend of 85% País and 15% Moscatel, the latter in there to try and smooth off some of the harder tannic edges that can come with País.
Alejandro recommends serving it cooler ‘at the temperature where you’d drink a Pinot Noir.’
Cool Climate Syrah
Kalfu Sumpai Syrah 2017, Leyda Valley
At just 7km from the chilly Pacific – washed by the Humboldt Current which comes directly from Antarctica – the Leyda Valley is one of the coolest spots in Chile.
Unsurprisingly, it’s best-known for Pinot Noir and white varieties. But Ventisquero were the first winery to put in a large amount of Syrah.
‘The variety definitely has more potential in Chile,’ says Alejandro. ‘We can have different styles depending on how close we grow it to the coast.’
This wine is in a lighter, more aromatic style and the winemaking team have dialled back the oak as a result – just 100% untoasted foudres, designed to show off the nature of the fruit in the area.
Alejandro described it as having ‘a balsamic, herbs, lavender character’, pointing out that its naturally bright acidity gives better food-matching possibilities than the more full-bodied versions.
Collective member Harry Whitehouse found some ‘lovely floral violet notes and found it ‘saline and herbaceous, too.’
Obliqua Carmenere 2018, Apalta, Colchagua
Carmenere has had a chequered history in Chile. A mix of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Gros, it’s a variety with a natural herbaceousness. It also ripens very late. But for many years, Chile’s growers thought it was Merlot and picked it way too early – resulting in vegetal flavours.
Now we are starting to see two different schools of production, depending on where it’s grown: rich, silky versions from warmer areas, and lighter, mintier expressions from cooler sites.
This wine is very much in the latter camp. It’s planted in the highest part of Apalta – about 500m above sea level, and, shaded by mountains, the vineyard receives three to four hours less sunshine per day.
‘It’s a completely different weather,’ says chief winemaker, Felipe Tosso. ‘Also the soils are very, very different: stonier, granitic.’
As a result, bunches (and yields) are a lot smaller, giving a wine with concentration but plenty of natural acidity. Oak use is minimal – just second use barrels and some foudres.
‘It’s a different view of Carmenere,’ says Felipe. ‘It took us some time to learn how to make this wine. It’s a more Cabernet Franc-driven way, because it’s part of that family and the soils make it that way.’
‘Carmenere’s minty note is on high display here,’ said Collective member Isobel Salamon. ‘I’d want to bring that out and pair it with a leg of lamb and mint mash.’
Classical Maipo Cabernet blend
Enclave 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley
Enclave means ‘a sense of place’ and this is a great expression of arguably Chile’s best site for Cabernet Sauvignon. Pirque, in the upper Maipo Valley is high – up to 1000m into the foothills of the Andes pre-cordillera.
That altitude has an influence. The night time temperature drops to just 5ᵒC even in summer. Stylistically, Felipe says that while Puente Alto [also in Maipo Alto] has a recognisable minty note, Pirque is defined more by cassis. ‘It’s more fruit driven and the tannic structure is tighter and chalky because of the stones.’
This is a great example of a classic Chilean style from one of its best areas – and improved further with prolonged bottle ageing. With 18-24 months in oak, and four years in cellar, it’s a wine with some maturity even on release.
‘We love to do crazy stuff, but we love our classical styles too,’ says Felipe. ‘There’s room for everybody. One day we’re wearing a tie, the next day we’re a hippy in sandals.’
Wines From The Driest Place on Earth
Tara Red Wine #1 [Pinot Noir] 2018, DO Atacama
The Tara vineyards are 800km north of Santiago in the driest place on earth – the Atacama desert. So you might expect this to be a really hot site. But in fact it’s the opposite. Firstly, it’s only 20km from the coast, but (perhaps most importantly) there is no protective coastal range of mountains here, like there is further south, so the Pacific influence is very strong.
Not only is it generally cooler all the time – a maximum of about 24ᵒC during the day – but twice a day the area is blanketed for an hour in an incredibly thick fog – the Camanchaca.
Initially, the team at Ventisquero thought this would be place for hot-climate Mediterranean varieties, but swiftly had a rethink to shift to Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
These wines are very much intended to express a place rather than a variety – so they don’t put the grape on the label – this Pinot Noir is Tara Red #1 – and it’s aged in concrete eggs and untoasted foudres for zero oak influence.
‘We really want to show you the flavour of the place,’ says Alejandro.
Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis praised it for being ‘great value for money’.
Tara White Wine #1 [Chardonnay] 2018, DO Atacama
It’s unusual to finish a tasting with a white, but the Tara White was worth the wait. Put simply, it’s one of the most interesting and thought-provoking whites anywhere in the new world, and gave Alejandro a chance to highlight the very unusual terroir of the vineyard.
‘The Tara vineyard has two characteristics that are unique in Chile,’ he says. ‘Limestone, which helps to give a mineral character to the wine, but also salt.’
Yes. Salt. Vines shouldn’t be able to survive here, but somehow they do. Alejandro admits that they didn’t know it was there when they first planted, and that they’ve had to adapt processes to mitigate its influence.
On the plus side, this incredibly harsh terrain gives super-low yields, real concentration and a truly unique character.
‘You have a mineral condition on the nose and a structure, but on the aftertaste you really feel the salinity,’ says Alejandro.
Made with native yeast and no overt wood influence (just steel ‘barrels’ and five year old oak), like the Red #1 it’s a wine designed to reflect its place rather than its variety.
‘In a blind tasting I wouldn’t say it shows a lot of the character of Chardonnay,’ says Alejandro. ‘It’s [the taste of] the desert. The white stones and structure on the palate and then a salinity on the finish.’
Collective members’ food match ideas ranged from ricotta and fresh figs (Isobel Salamon) to chowder, guinea fowl or a salt-baked sea-bass from Lunar’s Patrick Bostock. ‘It’s very versatile,’ he said approvingly.