Ali Cooper’s love affair with Chile (though not necessarily Chilean wines) can be dated back to his fascination with TinTin books as a child but he first went there after graduating with a degree in Modern Languages. Go for a ‘few weeks’ was the plan and he had the aim of getting a job in a vineyard. However, Chilean wine producers looked somewhat askance at a Brit speaking good Spanish who wanted work as a day labourer. Eventually after knocking on sixty or so cellar doors he was offered a job as Export Manager. So he stayed. Three weeks became three years and he came back with a Chilean wife, even better Spanish and a complete fascination with the wine.
Fast forward a few years to the Summertown Wine Café, where many members first met Ali, and then again to his current status as an MW with huge enthusiasm for, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of, Chile and its wines.
Fifteen years ago, Tim Atkin MW described Chile as the ‘Volvo of the wine world’. Reliable, yes, but rather boring with competent, low-price wines from European grape varieties. Not now. The industry as a whole has tripled in size in the last twenty-five years. It’s still export-led but new terroirs have been identified whilst old and indigenous grapes have been rescued from obscurity. Many of these rediscovered vines are hundreds of years old. Chile has been making wine since 1500 and there are vines that date back to the seventeenth century.
The key to Chile is its geography. 4,500 kms from north to south but only 120 km wide. And in that 120 km there are several distinct zones: cool sea- or sea-mist cooled vineyards, a warmer central valley and then the high slopes of the Andes where irrigation is a necessity but the diurnal range and intense clarity of the light make for spectacular wines. Most of the best soil for grapes is volcanic giving the wines a defined minerality.
Ali’s aim was to give us a sample of what’s new and what’s good from today’s Chile – and he succeeded.
We started with a Sauvignon Blanc from the Valle del Maule. Called Laberinto (after the unique labyrinth planning based on the maze at Chartres cathedral). This wine split the Club. Those who went for it found the focused minerality, the slight smokiness (soil not oak-induced) and the touch of salinity fascinating; the naysayers found it just a tad too brisk in its acidity (2.98 pH) without enough compensating flavour in the mouth.
Wine no 2 was the Ventisquero, a Chardonnay from the Atacama desert. Rainfall is around 20mm per year (irrigation is essential), the soils highly saline (all metal rusts – fast) and the vines can only survive (with difficulty, it must be said) because the vineyard is enveloped every morning with a cool, damp sea fog. It’s like making wine on Mars, said Ali. This wine was a cloudy lemon in colour with a savoury aroma that retained some tropical notes. Certainly not immediately recognizable as Chardonnay at first sip, but a textural and flavour richness in the mouth won over the few doubters. This is made in concrete eggs with wild yeast and there’s no filtering, no fining (like many of the evening’s wines). Some of the world’s greatest restaurants stock this wine – and no wonder.
Next up was a Muscat from the Itata Valley, some 500 km south of Santiago. This area was the cradle of Chilean wine and is dominated by indigenous grapes such as Pais, Muscat and Cinsault. The soil here is decomposed granite and quartz and the plots are small, averaging under 2 ha. Until recently most wine from this area was ‘Parkerised’ for tetrapacking but now growers are experimenting with tinajas (amphorae). This wine had a beguiling Muscat nose with a touch of steel to it but whilst the wine had a rich texture the finish was increasingly dominated by the bacon fat effect of lactic acid bacilli. Alas, this wine was faulty.
Wine no 4 was a Carignan from a small plot in the Colchagua Valley. Carignan has not had the greatest of reputations. Jancis Robinson once claimed it was ‘high in everything except charm’ but – like Tim Atkin – she has now changed her mind. To make good Carignan, old vines are essential and new oak must be avoided at all costs. The vineyard here is ‘wild’. Literally. The vines grow wild among the trees, there’s minimal husbandry (horses do the pruning!) and no chemicals are used. The product is deep purple with a pink rim and a complex nose: plums, violets, flowers, pepper and herbs (even garrigue). Everyone admired the vitality in the wine and most members liked it, though some found it still rather chewy and wondered if a few more years would soften it a bit more.
A Cinsault came next. From the Itata Valley (dominated by ‘pines and vines’), this biodynamic wine is made by Don Cande, ageing but still the ‘rock star’ of Chilean wine. This was deep and dark in colour with just a narrow pink rim and that impression of weight was carried right through the nose with its minerality, liquorice and herbal notes (particularly rosemary) and into the mouth where alcoholic power and weighty texture predominated,
With wine no 6 we came at last to Pais, the original grape of Chile Brought from the Canary Isles over six hundred years ago, Pais was, for years, used mainly to make pisco rather than wine as we would know it. The same variety as Mission in California, it’s prolific and disease resistant but difficult to vinify effectively. To the eye, this was very light in colour; a pale garnet with a broad rim. Like many of the evening’s wines there was a touch of smoke on the nose but also cumin, roast plum (or dark, kirsch cherry). Very light in colour and with very light tannins. In the mouth, dry, medium acidity, light, silky tannins and 13.5% alcohol. This was emphatically a wine for the dinner table and as it opened up, more and more members accepted its £18-20 price.
Last wine but one was the ‘Rogue Vine’ Malbec from the Itata Valley. Malbec went form Chile to Argentina in the nineteenth century (so much for Malbec as the signature grape of Argentina). This wine is made from hundred-year-old vines and, like almost everything else we tried, there are no chemicals and no oak in the mix. In colour it’s very dark with just a narrow paler rim and the nose is dominated by dark black and red fruits: roast tomato and black plums with some savoury / herbal notes. In the mouth the flavours are darker again with dark chocolate and cherry the main notes in a structured frame of grippy tannins and high acidity. This is much more like the wines of Cahors than most modern Argentinian examples. A decade or so ago this fruit went for 5 cents a kilo. Now it’s 2$ a kilo.
The final wine of the evening was a blend of Syrah, Grenache and five others grown 2000 metres up in the Andean Valle de Elqui, well north of Santiago. The altitude gives thick skins and the light gives intense colour, while the diurnal temperature variation gives intense flavours. This was the darkest and deepest in colour of all the wines and the nose was initially distinctly closed though it opened up in the glass and dark fruit aromas began to emerge. Granite soil gives salinity and energy and the wine is foot-trodden to ensure that the thick skins don’t give too much tannin in the final wine. The future direction of these high vineyards is uncertain. Climate change means that the snow layer has decreased by 40% since 2014. It’s not that wine will not still be made in these high terroirs but the grape varieties and vinification may need to change.
Overall, this tasting showed not just Ali’s energy and enthusiasm but also the extraordinary variety of Chilean wines and terroirs. There’s clearly more to come from Chile – and these wines are worth watching.