First it was Cab, now Chile has mastered Chardonnay

While Chile has built a fine wine reputation around Cabernet Sauvignon, now its Chardonnay that’s getting the attention, and from one part of the country in particular – according to Concha y Toro technical director, Marcelo Papa.

Concha y Toro technical director, Marcelo Papa

During a zoom interview with Papa last week, who sits at the top of the winemaking tree for Chile’s biggest wine business, I asked him to pick out the most exciting development taking place in the South American nation right now.

Answering without hesitation, he said it was top-end Chardonnay, explaining that its rapid, recent rise to fine wine status was not due to winemaking techniques, but the discovery and mastery of the ideal sites for the grape, especially in the northern coastal region of Limarí, above all an area within it called Quebrada Seca.

Found around 22km from the Pacific Ocean, on the northern bank of the Limarí River, Quebrada Seca is notable not just for its relative cool – a result of fresh sea air and sun-diminishing morning fog – but its soil, which, very unusually for Chile, has a high limestone content.

Indeed, a mix of clay and limestone in this specific part of Chile provides the perfect base for Chardonnay, prompting Papa to compare Quebrada Seca to the world’s most celebrated source of Chardonnay: Montrachet in Bourgogne.

“It is the combination of clay plus limestone [in Quebrada Seca] that really helps the structure of the wine, with the limestone giving the backbone, and the clay giving the body, and if you look at the soils of Montrachet, they have this mix, with between 25-30% clay,” he said.

Continuing, he said, “It is very hard to find a place that produces wines with great precision, great typicality, and great balance: in Burgundy, it took more than 1,000 years years to arrive at Montrachet, which is just a tiny circle of land in all of France.”

Pointing out that the way to make fine Chardonnay is well understood, he added that, “We were already using the top techniques from Burgundy, but we needed to find the place – and it is not easy to find somewhere with the right mix of clay and limestone, and the right climate, but we have found it in Quebrada Seca.”

So what is the result? Today, although grapes from Limarí Valley are used for the Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, the best vines from Quebrada Seca, which were planted in 2009, are now being used for the group’s flagship white wine: called Amelia.

Amelia was in fact launched by Concha y Toro back in 1993 as Chile’s first top-end Chardonnay, but using fruit from Casablanca, which at the time was the pioneering cool, coastal vine-growing climate.

However, from 2017, Amelia shifted its sourcing from Casablanca to Limarí, and this flagship white wine is currently being produced entirely using Chardonnay from Quebrada Seca.

“When we started with Quebrada Seca Chardonnay we did a lot of playing, there was plenty of trial and error, but in the last 3-4 years, we have found fantastic precision, so when we started using the Chardonnay from Quebrada Seca for Amelia, we began with a high level of quality,” he recalled.

Papa is not alone in championing the Chardonnay from this specific part of Chile, with Tabali in particular a stand-out producer focused on the Limarí Valley, above all Quebrada Seca for Chardonnay, shown through its top wine, called Talinay, after the vineyard it comes from.

With Tabali’s top sites containing less clay in the soil, the wines do tend to be sharper, Talinay is a more linear style of Chardonnay, while Papa’s Amelia Chardonnay, taken from vineyards with a higher clay content, is still bright, but has a bit more texture.

And, with the Amelia Chardonnay, a combination of a generous, gently oily mid-palate followed by a precise, grapefruit-fresh finish, and complemented by the roasted nutty characters from fermentation and maturation in French oak barriques, 18% of which are new, made this white wine from the 2018 vintage my top-scoring Chilean Chardonnay of last year (following extensive tastings of all the country’s top wines as part of a seven-day tour in November with the Institute of Masters of Wine).

It was also the white wine I chose to show at a masterclass in London at the end of last year to showcase to the UK trade the quality potential of Chardonnay from Chile – even though the vineyard used for Amelia Chardonnay is today only just over 10 years old.

But Amelia is not alone. As generously mentioned by Papa, Chile has other great Chardonnays, including the relative newcomer to the country’s fine white scene: Las Pizarras – a label from Viña Errázuriz using grapes from a cool site with slate soils near the coast in Aconcagua.

The example, a fine, taught style of Chardonnay, has been declared Chile’s best white wine by The Wine Advocate, achieving 98 points for its 2017 vintage when tasted in late 2018, and, as a result, has proved the most successful fine wine launch ever from the company – which is already famous for top-end labels such as Viñedo Chadwick and Seña Cabernets – according to Errázuriz head winemaker, Francisco Baettig.

Meanwhile, Chile’s priciest white wine is a Chardonnay not from a coastal site, but one high up in the Andes, taken from vineyards situated at more than 1,000m above sea level in Rapel’s Cachapoal region.

Called Duquesa, it hails from the Aristos wine brand, which brings together three respected figures: Louis-Michel Liger-Belair from Burgundy’s Domaine du Comte Liger Belair, Francois Massoc, from Chile’s Calyptra, and Pedro Parra, South America’s leading terroir consultant.

The cost? It retails for around £75 a bottle.

Finally, to return to the subject of the Limarí Valley and its prized sub-region of Quebrada Seca, it’s not just Chardonnay that’s excelling here, but the red grape of Burgundy too: Pinot Noir. 

Although Papa believes that increased vine age will be key to achieving the ultimate expression of Pinot from this part of Chile, in the same year he made the Amelia Chardonnay using 100% Limarí Quebrada Seca fruit, he unveiled a sister wine, Amelia Pinot Noir 2017, also from this same part of Chile.

And, while there’s much competition among Chile’s Pinot producers for crafting fine wines from this pernickety grape, with many top expressions coming from Casablanca and Leyda valleys, for Papa, Limarí is the winner.

“Limarí is the high point for Pinot for the moment,” he said, before qualifying his statement by adding, ‘If you want Pinot with less colour, less fruit, and more precision and tension, then Limarí is the place.”

However, with Concha y Toro’s Quebrada Seca Pinot Noir planted at the same time as its Chardonnay, which was 2009, he said that while the Chardonnay could deliver very fine results with relatively young vines, when it comes to Pinot Noir, he expects to wait another five years for the ultimate expression of this grape and site combination.

It should also be noted that Limarí as a region, being in the far north of the country, and on the edge of the Atacama – which is the driest non-polar desert in the world – is severely limited in size by wine estates’ access to water.

While producers have enough water to irrigate existing vineyards using snowmelt from the Andes, there is not enough to supply larger plantings in the region.

As Rafael Urrejola, who is head winemaker for Undurraga, told me after a visit to the region back in drought-struck 2015, “I think Limarí is the best place for Chardonnay in Chile, but the problem is water.”

Nevertheless, when one names the great Chardonnay-producing sites from around the world, be it the slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, or celebrated vineyards of California’s Carneros, based on the quality of Chile’s Amelia and other labels, Limarí should now be added to the list.

  • My top pick of Chile’s Chardonnays: Amelia, Quebrada Seca Vineyard Limited Release Chardonnay, Limarí Valley, 2018
    Retail price: Around £55
  • Chile’s highest-scoring Chardonnay (Wine Advocate, 98 points): Errázuriz Las Pizarras Chardonnay 2017
    Retail price: Around £60
  • Chile’s priciest Chardonnay: Aristos, Duquesa d’A, Grand Chardonnay
    Retail price: Around £75

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