Chile: A taste of things to come13th December, 2012 by Patrick Schmitt
Viña Errázuriz and the drinks business staged a tasting for top sommeliers, showing that Chile can make ageworthy wines well-suited to fine dining. It was also a chance to showcase a cool new appellation.
THE EVENT, held last month at London’s Westbury Hotel, attracted 50 sommeliers from a range of the capital’s leading restaurants. As for the wines, they spanned almost 20 years, with labels from 2012 as well as 1995, and included new releases from emerging regions.
Presenting the wines was Errázuriz chief winemaker, Francisco Baettig, who had flown in from Chile for the event.
Baettig has spent nine years at Errázuriz, and two years at Chile’s Casa Lapostolle before that. He has also worked vintages in France, having trained in Bordeaux, and is a self-confessed Francophile – a keen consumer of the wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône, no doubt encouraged by his wife, who is French.
Baettig began the tasting by stressing the changing nature of the Chilean wine scene today: “Chile is about diversity, new players and fine-tuning the wines,” he said, putting an emphasis on cool climate regions such as Malleco, the country’s southernmost appellation, and Aconcagua Costa, a new appellation where Errázuriz has plantings.
Baettig commented on the marked changes in geography from north to south within Chile, but said the most radical difference is from east to west – from the coastal regions, across the warm central valleys, and then up into the foothills of the Andes.
Considering Errázuriz itself, a family- owned operation founded in 1870 in the Aconcagua Valley, he mentioned the development of new coastal vineyards, now officially recognised as Aconcagua Costa. Just 12 kilometres from the ocean with its cool Humboldt Current, Baettig said: “The coastal area of Aconcagua marks a new approach to Chardonnay from Chile.” The presence of schist in the soil, he added, also affects the wines, bringing a “more linear character”.
Beginning with two white wines, a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Baettig also drew attention to changes in vineyard management and winemaking, in particular, the choice of clones and the use of oak. “We are using better plant material and better clones from France and UC Davis in the US.” As for cellar practices, he added: “There has been a big change in style in recent years from the heavy, oaky, creamy style.” Part of this comes from a shift to second and third fill French oak. The Chardonnay is 100 per cent barrel fermented according to Baettig, but only five per cent of that is new.
As for the Sauvignon Blanc, from the same appellation, it mixed citrus with some tropical fruit, he explained. “It is complex but not punch-in-the-nose Sauvignon Blanc.” He had also decided to avoid overtly herbaceous aromas.
As for the future: “We will see more diversity in Sauvignon Blanc in coming years, and we are playing with it, for example, using used oak to give more richness.”
Baettig said that both the whites had a 13.5 per cent ABV and weren’t acidified. “Cool areas, such as Aconcagua Costa have a very good natural acidity,” he explained.
Onto the reds, and Baettig started with the new Pinot Noir from the Aconcagua Costa vineyards. He candidly began by saying: “Pinot Noir is by far the most difficult variety, and I have made many mistakes. In the past I was trying to make ‘iconic’ Pinot Noir with oak and extraction… but now we use very little new oak and we are trying to promote the fruit.”
Like the Chardonnay, the plant material has been updated over the last 10 years for Pinot Noir using clones from France. Baettig also explained that because Chile has an “excess of sun”, even in the cool areas, he has stopped leaf plucking. As for irrigation, he has changed the regime from ‘little and often’ to ‘occasional but intense’, encouraging the vine roots to search for water deep in the soil during dry periods, rather than root near the surface. Assisting this new approach are rootstocks that are specially selected for their propensity to root vertically.
Together, the changes are designed to bring a greater and purer expression of the site where the Pinot Noir is planted.
Baettig introduced a Syrah from the same new cool climate area, before pointing out that Errázuriz was the first producer to introduce the grape to Chile, in 1993. As for Syrah’s brief history in the country, he identified two styles of wine – one ripe with “round tannins” but not spicy, and the other, from cooler areas near the coast, that is “lively, with a spicy character”. “I’m very fond of this wine,” he remarked, after tasting the 2010 Syrah, which fell into the latter description.
The event then moved away from Errázuriz’s new projects and onto its established and top tier of wines, which it calls “Icons”. Beginning with its Bordeaux blend, Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve, from the 1995 vintage, Baettig said he’d chosen the label to show Chile’s ability to produce wines with ageing potential. Baettig said the producer was putting more of its recent vintages into long-term storage to show at future events, while also working on ways to increase their longevity. These include picking earlier to ensure more acidity. He’s also been reducing the amount of new oak used during maturation.
“But we have very old vintages in very good shape,” he said of those made by his predecessors. The 1995 – with fresh acidity, dense tannins from Cabernet Sauvignon and a moderate 13.5 per cent ABV – was unlike the big, extracted and high-alcohol Bordeaux blends that appear to characterise the New World. Baettig admitted that there had been “a push for ripeness” driven by a “fear” of herbaceous characters in recent times. Today, however, the approach at Errázuriz was to “fine-tune” the Icons, to bring alcohol levels down a little and retain more acidity. And with the next wine, the 2008 Don Maximiano, Baettig said it marked the first time he had added Carménère to the blend, “for its spice and very polished round tannins.”
This naturally led on to the next two wines, both made from almost 100 per cent Carménère and called Kai, meaning “plant” in Chile’s native language. “We are working a lot on Carménère because we think it is distinctive, it is our unique and signature variety,” explained Baettig. “Cabernet still rules, but Carménère is very attractive for blends and varietal wines. If you pick it ripe and put it in the right place you should obtain intense colour and supple round tannins. You shouldn’t have a green bean or herbaceous character but spice, pepper, and clove.” He then pointed out that the Kai wines also contained a touch of Petit Verdot and Syrah, because “the common thread is spiciness.”
Errázuriz’s Viñedo Chadwick was the final wine tasted – a pure Cabernet Sauvignon and the most expensive wine of the day. It was created by the company owner Eduardo Chadwick in honour of his father, using a former polo field owned by the family. “Eduardo convinced his father to plant the polo field in 1992, because he knew it was one of the best terroirs for Cabernet Sauvignon.” Based on the northern bank of the Maipo River on an alluvial terrace, the soil is made up of large round stones and clay, which ensure good drainage but also sufficient humidity. The climate is relatively cool and too cold for Carménère, according to Baettig.
Beginning with the 2000 vintage, he explained that this was a cooler year.
“We used to say that the best vintages in Chile were the odd numbers, as these correspond to warmer years, but that was because we were obsessed with ripeness, and today the years that are very good are usually the cooler years. And in Chile, because there is a lot of sun, when it’s cool, the grapes still ripen.”
Speaking of the Maipo site, Baettig suggested: “Maybe this is where you get the most elegant Cabernet in Chile.”
Looking next at the 2009 vintage, although it was a warm year, the grapes were picked earlier to retain acidity. Meanwhile in 2010, Baettig said he had reduced the amount of new oak used to age the wine, dropping from 100 per cent for the first time. “If you have the intensity and no green fruit, then you need less oak.”
Baettig took questions from the floor, as part of a panel with Xavier Rousset MS from London’s Texture and 28-50 restaurants, and the managing director of Wines of Chile UK, Michael Cox.
Rousset was asked for his view on the potential for Chile fine wines in the London restaurant sector, and he praised Errázuriz for storing Icon wines for late release. “Library wines are very interesting for us to showcase what Chile is capable of with maturity,” he observed.
As for the styles of wines being made by the producer today, Rousset added: “The use of less oak and making wines with more acidity is more fine-dining friendly… there is a transition and I think Chile could appear more on fine dining lists.”
Nevertheless, he added: “It is difficult to compete against the big names of Europe,” suggesting that the country still needs to alter its image to sell well at the top end.
On that note, Cox said: “There is enormous progress and we are patient people; it will take some time, but in the high-end on-trade I’m interested in the gatekeepers who will hopefully look upon Chile in a different light, and encourage their customers to try different wines, so the customer will say at the end of the meal, ‘I had no idea Chile could do that’.”
But Cox also stressed: “The super, super premium wines are a fantastic way of showing what can be done at the very top end, [but] the real opportunity is to excite at the retail price band of £8 to £20 – which is a real sweet spot for Chile.”
Baettig agreed, reminding that the wines from Aconcagua Costa, which fall into this price band, are a sign that Chile is making more food-friendly wines, and producing a greater range of styles – not just the entry level, or Icons.
Similarly, Cox said that there had been an explosion in the number of smaller wineries as well as innovations from the country’s largest producers. “Our largest company, Concha y Toro, has a real eye on quality and is very innovative,” he began. “And garagistes are cropping up like mushrooms.”
“In the nine years I’ve been working with Chile I’ve seen a change in attitude, I’m seeing people more prepared to take risks – Chile of the past will be completely banished,” concluded Cox.
The conversation moved on to debate the various strengths and weakness of increased diversity, the possibilities for Chile in terms of food matching, and the general upward movement in quality, in part driven by a strong peso, the earthquake in 2010, and two recent smaller vintages.
The tasting and discussion had highlighted two key themes. Firstly, Chile is capable of making world-class wines which improve with age. Secondly, it is moving towards a more European wine style with lower alcohols, higher acidities and less oak. And it is both these aspects, it is hoped, that excited London’s sommelier community.