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In focus: Chile’s most profitable grape

While some producers in Chile are excited by the resurgence of native grapes, others insist that stalwarts like Cabernet Sauvignon should not be forgotten in the rush to herald the likes of País and Carignan, discovers Phoebe French.

Emily Faulconer of Viña Carmen

“When you show a Cabernet you almost have to apologise for it not being one of our ancient varieties,” says Aurelio Montes. The co-owner of Montes Wines, and the new Wines of Chile president, is frustrated that his country’s most planted grape, the one that “actually pays the bills”, is considered by some as “old fashioned” and, dare I say it, boring.

Montes has a point. Cabernet Sauvignon represents 30% of the grapes cultivated in Chile, with 41,155 hectares planted. The next highest is Sauvignon Blanc (11%) with 15,161ha planted. There are roughly quadruple the number of Cabernet vines planted than there are of Merlot (11,702ha), Carmenère (10,249ha) and País (10,056ha). In terms of area under vine, therefore, Cabernet remains king.

Felipe Muller of Tabali, which produces two Cabernets – a single varietal and a blend – using grapes from the coastal area of the Maipo Valley, believes it’s hard to compete without having the grape variety in your portfolio.

“It’s difficult when you don’t produce the number-one selling variety,” he says. “If you’re a specialist in Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, you get to a point where you can’t keep growing any further.”

Despite its power and dominance, however, Chilean Cabernet is not making headlines. “It’s a shame that the wine writers go straight to the ‘new’ ancestral varieties and forget what is already here,” laments Montes. “Wines that include Cabernet represent around 50% of all Chilean wine exports, but people consider it to be old fashioned. If you look at the figures, the amount of wine made from the ancestral varieties that gets exported around the world is less than 1%. The main bulk of the wine we sell is made from the major international varieties – that’s the core business.”

Genetic material

While Cabernet wasn’t one of the varieties first planted in Chile by Spanish missionaries in the mid-16th century, it is hardly a newcomer either. Cabernet is believed to have been among the grapes shipped over during the mid-19th century after Chile was granted independence from Spain. As such, Chile has genetic material from Europe that was lost when phylloxera struck the continent later in the same century. It is this viticultural heritage and genetic resource that scientists in Chile are looking to explore and revive to create something new from a classic and entrenched grape variety.

Montes explained that the department of investigation and development at Wines of Chile had begun a project to “clean” the old massal selection Cabernet vines that were first planted in the country in the 19th century.

“Many of these vines have fallen out of production because they’re so full of diseases”, says Montes. “We’re trying to clean them and recover the plants that were brought over in 1860. They’re massal selection, so we don’t know what clones they are. The idea is to clean them and see how they perform once planted.

“We’re working with two universities in Santiago and have a greenhouse with 1,000 plants inside. The next step is going to the field and planting them out in a bigger volume. Then we’ll see if we can resurrect any of the strains.”

Aurelio Montes of Montes Wine

Montes said that the project would take between two and five years to realise. “It’s about bringing back the history of the New World,” he said. “If the quality is there, there will definitely be demand for these vines based on the fact that we’ve recovered something that had pretty much disappeared.”

The project is still in its infancy, and the quality of the material is by no means assured. If it is a success, however, what would this mean for Chilean Cabernet and the industry as a whole? How would the industry market such wines and at what price would they be sold?

Emily Faulconer, chief winemaker at Viña Carmen, believes such projects are about creating something unique. Carmen, together with the wider Santa Rita group, is also working to isolate and clean a portion of their old vine material.

“As a winery we’re very classic in style; we can’t deny that this is where our experience lies,” she says. “However, we always talk about wanting to reinvent the classics. The grapes for our Carmen Gold label are sourced from massal selection vines that were planted in 1958. You can imagine that in 60 years the plants have adapted and have been naturally selected for the specific conditions of this site. For example, we have a lot of problems with soil compaction, soil salinity, and insects called margarodes. The vines that have survived are naturally resistant to these issues.”

Describing the project as long-term, Faulconer said that it involves visually selecting the healthy vines, analysing them in the lab then conducting trial plantings. “It’s a new approach,” she says. “It’s a 60-year-old vineyard and only 40% of the vines have survived. That’s why when people say ‘oh Cabernet Sauvignon, that’s boring’, I disagree.

“We have a big challenge to keep these vines going and alive, and it’s not just something you can do in one year. It’s a long-term project rescuing our heritage.”

Faulconer explains how attitudes in Chile have changed, from a focus on the winery and the winemaker, to realising that “viticulture really does matter”.

“In the 1980s and 1990s in Chile we thought that to be able to compete on the international market and to have world-class wines, it was a matter of winemaking, so we invested in better wineries and stainless steel equipment. In this viticultural learning process we made a few mistakes, and one of the major problems we had was the health of our plant material.”

Describing her latest project, she says: “This type of wine and this project – rescuing the massal vines – makes me feel a connection with the wine. The vines are naturally selected, it makes the resulting wine impossible to replicate.”

Creating new from old

Sofia Araya of Veramonte

Sofia Araya, winemaker at Casablanca’s Veramonte, echoes Faulconer and Montes, saying winemakers in Chile shouldn’t lose sight of what put them on the map in the first place. “We should still have a focus on varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I still have a lot to learn from the broad-planted varieties that we have in Chile, and we still have to do some of them justice,” she says.

That said, Araya says the focus on varieties such as País doesn’t bother her, because it enriches Chile’s wine culture. “The ancestral varieties are giving us a lot to talk about; they can only help us in putting our names out there as producers.”

Like Montes, however, she wants to regenerate the Cabernet category. “You can also build a story about new things for Cabernet Sauvignon,” she says. “Let’s reinvent it, why should it always be the same old Cab? I think we have to keep our minds open.”

She also wants producers of Chilean Cabernet to work towards achieving higher prices for their bottles. “We haven’t yet said all the things we can about varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon,” she says. “We have proven ourselves as serious wine producers but there’s a lot of room to do things differently. There’s a certain level of rejection, or perhaps the will, to pay above a certain price point. Consumers still do not trust the quality that we can deliver. Above US$40-US$50 (£33-£41), when you have to choose between Chilean, Californian and French, my feeling is people would go for the Californian or the French over the Chilean wine. I don’t know whether it’s an aspirational thing, if it’s more trendy to have a French Bordeaux. Chilean wine is not that expensive, there are really only a few wines that go all the way up to US$100, and if you put it in the context of wine production, there are wines that would cost three to four times, or more, than that. And people are willing to pay for them. “I believe that, if they pay US$300 for a bottle from outside of Chile, they’ll find a US$100 bottle of Chilean wine that is just as good.”

She sums up the reason for people not choosing Chilean: “Maybe we don’t have a strong image because we’ve built our image as a cheaper and good-value wine country – it’s hard for people to think that we’re serious and it’s hard for us to get away from this. Wines of Chile is doing a great job, but it’s a challenging issue because it requires us to shift the mindset of the consumer and try to get them to see the potential.”

Sister brands Seña and Viñedo Chadwick, owned by Errazuriz, are already commanding hefty price tags for their Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines. Vintages are released via La Place in Bordeaux, with the 2017 Seña unveiled on 5 September and Viñedo Chadwick on 10 September this year. In last year’s release, the 2016 Seña came in £1,070 per 12x75cl while Viñedo Chadwick was £2,680 per 12x75cl.

Release price

Loreto Queirolo, the marketing director of Viña Seña, explains: “We have 22 négociants around the world for Seña and five for Viñedo Chadwick. Eduardo Chadwick, president of Errázuriz, determines the release price and the négociants decide whether or not to take their allocation.”

Queirolo says she still believes the brands present good value for money. “For Chile, these wines are expensive but compare them with the best first growths or Super Tuscans, and they’re still very cheap,” she says. “We’re not thinking about having the same prices as Château Lafite. We could aim for those prices in the future, but it needs to be a step-by-step process where we develop our distribution more, keep demonstrating our ageability and continue positioning the brand,” she says.

Changing perceptions

With wines starting at US$50 a bottle, Viña Vik, based in the Millahue Valley in Colchagua province, is another winery already working on changing consumers’ perceptions of Chilean wine.

CEO Gastón Williams recalls how the winery has been increasing the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in its flagship Vik red blend to achieve a “leaner and longer wine with more freshness and acidity to help with ageing and personality. Chile is about Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère and we need wineries to believe in the quality of these grapes and put them up there.”

He says: “It’s not only us, people are doing new things with these varieties – you don’t always have to work with a completely new variety, we can use what we already have.”

Williams says Vik has devised a number of new projects, one of which involves re-using old oak barrels. They are scraped down, re-toasted and used to barrel-vinify wines. The fire for toasting the barrels is made using wood from the Vik estate that has fallen from the tree. Williams adds that it is also a way for the producer to boost its sustainable credentials by reusing its materials.

Don Melchor, whose vineyards back on to those of Almaviva and Viñedo Chadwick in Puente Alto, Maipo, has backed Cabernet from the start, using the grape in its blends from its first vintage in 1987. Dividing its Cabernet vines into seven main parcels according to soil type and depth, Don Melchor produces wines that use between 90 and 95% of the variety. This approach is shared by many producers, who in the past 10 years or so, have conducted extensive soil and site analysis, and have used the information garnered to influence new plantings.

Enrique Tirado, general manager and technical director of Don Melchor, believes this terroir-driven attitude is particularly relevant to Cabernet Sauvignon, allowing producers to create completely different, terroir-driven expressions of the same variety.

“It’s difficult to think of using other varieties here – we believe Cabernet has great potential in Chile. There’s no such thing as only one Cabernet expression,” he says. “At Don Melchor, we firmly believe our complexity comes from different parcels that we use to make the final blend. Cabernet can make great wine with lots of ageing potential. You taste the 1989 and 1990 today and they’re fantastic.”

While the work is being done, both in terms of soil profiling and vine genetics, the challenge for producers is to inject novelty into the Cabernet category. Projects such as those being carried out by Wines of Chile and Santa Rita may bring Cabernet back under the spotlight. And if researchers succeed in resurrecting long-lost European vine material, could Cabernet also be considered one of Chile’s ancestral varieties?

This feature was originally published in the September issue of the drinks business. 

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