Chile wine trends: 3. Taking on the top-end

There’s no continent more closely associated with the ‘wine icon’ than South America, and no country more adapt at creating them than Chile.

almaviva–grandchai

The barrel cellar for Chilean wine ‘icon’ Almaviva, which launched with the 1996 vintage

With its historic focus on Cabernet dominant Bordeaux blends, aristocratic land-owning families, and well-travelled winemakers, as well as marketing know-how, Chile has been able to create a following among critics and consumers for high-priced, small-production wines.

A particular believer in the benefits of a strong icon wine foundation is Eduardo Chadwick, president of Viña Errázuriz. His company is a producer of top-end labels such as the Don Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon blend, a 100% Syrah called La Cumbre and an almost pure Carmenère branded Kai. While Chadwick himself also started Seña as a joint venture begun with Robert Mondavi in 1995, and then Viñedo Chadwick – a pure Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo first released in 1999.

Not only has Chadwick invested heavily in making high-level wines, but he has pitched them blind against Europe’s best, winning recognition for Chile among the world’s most influential critics. Indeed, Chadwick says that he has held as many as 22 tastings worldwide over the past 10 years, “reaching more than 1,400 wine opinion leaders”.

But Chadwick wasn’t the first to create a “super Chilean”. That title goes to Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, which became Chile’s inaugural top level Bordeaux blend when it was launched in 1989 with the 1987 vintage. Santa Rita’s Casa Real, along with Errázuriz’s Don Maximiano would follow, with launches just a few years later using Cabernet from the 1989 vintage (and the former has just been listed by a London restaurant for £850).

Then, Almaviva emerged in 1997 as a joint venture Chilean wine “icon” involving Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Concha y Toro.

Santa–Rita_CasaReal–1989

Santa Rita’s Casa Real from the inaugural 1989 vintage has recently been listed by a London restaurant for £850 a bottle

And today more high-profile and expensive labels are emerging.

For example, Aresti managing director Matías Ovalle says the producer has been working on isolating old vine Cabernet Sauvignon in Curicó, which was planted in 1951, the same year the winery was founded, and “we will produce a top wine from Aresti with this”.

Similarly, Montgras will next year unveil a new top-end wine under its Intrigua label, which is focused on Cabernet-based wines from Maipo. According to Christian Correa, Intrigua’s winemaker, the producer is working with 40- to 70-year-old vines on Maipo’s “second alluvial terrace” that will be “a high step up in price and quality”.

Furthermore, Emiliana will be bottling in February next year a new “icon wine” using a blend of Maipo-sourced Cabernet, Carmenère and Syrah from 2013. According to Emiliana winemaker Noelia Orts, “it will be the highest wine ever made from Emiliana”, which currently has Gê as its range-topping label.

Meanwhile, at Colchagua’s Casa Lapostolle, winemaker Andrea León said that the producer, which is famous for its top-end Clos Apalta Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot blend, is preparing “a new icon wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2014 vintage.” The wine is currently being aged in specialist barrels from Tonnellerie Sylvain made by the cooper using oak from 300-year-old trees.

Nearby Viña Montes last year launched its first release of Taita, the producer’s new flagship wine. Using 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest made up of Syrah and Carmenère, just 3,000 bottles of the inaugural 2007 vintage were made to celebrate the 25 year anniversary since Montes was founded.

Highlighting the importance of having a strong presence in the super-Chilean Cabernet blend arena, the VSPT Wine Group is now producing all its icon labels, such as Altaïr and Cabo de Hornos, in one dedicated winery (not unlike Errázuriz, which has built a special winery just for its “icons”).

But, while the primary focus of top-end wines has historically been Bordeaux grapes, more producers at trying to create wine “icons” using Pinot Noir.

On the other hand, Chile does appear to be lacking any genuine white wine icons. Casa Marin is widely recognised for its upmarket Sauvignons (and Calyptra’s oaked Sauvignon is a ringer for high-class Graves), while Viña Aquitania’s Sol de Sol Chardonnay is considered probably the country’s most sought after top-end Burgundy equivalent, and Aristos’ Duquesa Chardonnay the most expensive, but there is undoubtedly a dearth of top end whites, or a single “icon” example or producer.

Santa Rita winemaker Andrés Ilabaca offers an explanation: “There was no Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc in the early 90s in Chile, the main varieties were Muscat or PX, so it is difficult to create an icon if you have no long term experience of the variety.”

Nevertheless, Chadwick is looking to correct this Chilean deficiency late next year with the launch of a Chardonnay from Chile’s Aconcagua Costa region, which he says will rival grand cru Burgundy. Chadwick admits that he had intended to produce an “icon white” from Chile when he co-founded Seña back in 1995, but tells db that it was not until his planting of a new cool climate area in the coastal part of the Aconcagua Valley in 2006, officially recognised in September 2012 as Aconcagua Costa, that he found an area producing grand cru quality Chardonnay – as well as Pinot Noir.

So, when this arrives, Chile will be able to pitch its icons against not just Bordeaux, but Burgundy too.

Previous Chilean wine trend topics can be seen below.

4. Pinot focus

5. Reducing ABVs

6. Embracing the Med

7. Rediscovering País

8. Sauvignon moves up

9: Malbec revival

10. Quirkiness takes root

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