|This is part I of this feature, quality moves in Chile towards the year 2010|
|Chile, on the other hand, has a much more broad-based wine industry. The signature grape, Carménère, has some cachet, but a wide range of white and red varieties and styles shares equal billing. However, Chile does have its own double-edged sword to play with, and that is consumer perception of the entire country's wine output. Mention Chilean wine to just about any wine drinker, from occasional weekend tippler to informed student of the grape, and their first reaction will almost certainly include phrases like "good value" or "good quality for the price".
Whilst these sentiments are positive, there is an implication that Chile is, by default, a cheap wine producer. Just as many consumers of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will be blissfully unaware of the country's Chardonnay, Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, most Chilean wine drinkers are unaware that £20, or even £10 bottlings exist. For most, 'cheap and cheerful' is the be-all and end-all of Chilean wine.
The challenge for Chile
The challenge for Chile is complex: it must consolidate its reputation as provider of large volumes of high quality wines at competitive prices, whilst at
the same time moving the industry, and consumer perceptions, onto a
|Australia has carved itself a reputation for fine wines over the past decade. It has successfully moved public perception on from the 'jug wine' days of the 1970s and early 80s, whilst managing to maintain huge volumes of sales for its lower-priced wines. But that has come at a price of course, and the industry is still somewhat schizophrenic: Australia enjoys an enviable reputation at both the low- and ultra-premium ends, but some perceive a gap in the middle. That might stop today's consumers of big selling brands from sticking with Australia if they move on to more expensive bottles. Chile must avoid this 'doughnut effect' and create a vertical market that covers all price points.||
investment for quality: Gillmore boutique winery, Tabotinaja
One sign of a growing interest in fine wines is the El Mundo del Vino chain of very smart wine shops in Santiago and other major cities. Browsing the shelves of a large, beautifully arranged store in Santiago's posh
El Golf district (left), the 'icon wines' of Chile were all present and correct, as were high-end wines from Europe, Australia and the USA. But when I spoke to the shop manager he confirmed that his big customers were visiting
Brazilians, Americans and Japanese, but regular local clients were still relatively thin on the ground.
On an individual basis, many Chilean producers are pursuing a quality path, and striving after world-class wines.
|As an outsider who has lived and worked in Chile for many years, Flaherty is aware of the challenges facing the industry: "The five year plan is mostly about the exchange
rate," he says, "but I see more of an obvious split between industrial bulk production and super-premiums - both with the same objective of increasing margins." That might be the Holy Grail for all wine regions, but Flaherty
sees part of the problem being uniquely Chilean: "There's a tendency in Chile to try to do everything. A typical family-owned company wants to produce the whole gamut of wines and styles, and wants to sell to all sectors.
That leads to certain inefficiencies."
Flaherty also thinks a more focused and concerted approach is needed on a national level: "When the Australians decide on a 30 year plan for the industry, or to focus on pushing a new grape variety, everyone gets on board. They either prosper together, or they fail together. Chileans are much more conservative: they are much more suspicious of change, and of each other."
There does seem to be a new understanding amongst Chile's producers that they must work together to raise standards and improve the world image of 'brand Chile'.
There is no better example of this than a project called Vinos de Chile 2010 centred on the Maule region. Maule is the huge, thumping heart of the Chilean industry, responsible for 50 per cent of all wine production. Maule has historically been Chile's boiler-room, with massive plantings of the lacklustre País grape being used to churn out cheap wines. Though much of the País has now gone, low-end wine for bulk export has remained the region's stock in trade.
|There are shining examples of aspirational, quality-conscious wineries across Maule of course, from the Chilean family-owned Valdivieso whose ever-improving range is
moving steadily up the ladder of both quality and price led by Kiwi winemaker Brett Jackson (right),
to the Kendall-Jackson-owned Calina, whose wines are ultra modern and very impressive, to slick new projects like Espiritu de Chile, a brand new label aimed specifically at the
UK and German markets in a joint venture
between Chile's Aresti, who will grow the grapes and make the wines, and Germany's Racke, who will market, sell and distribute them.
|But Vinos de Chile 2010 is a government sponsored initiative that is quietly but steadily encouraging and facilitating improvements in all aspects of the Maule industry (with spin-offs for all of Chile), from viticulture and
winemaking, to investment and marketing.
What this means in practical terms is a spectrum of projects and initiatives.
|The story of the ancient Bordeaux variety Carménère, and how it was rediscovered thriving in Chilean vineyards, is now well known. Carménère is still the name on many Chilean lips as a
potential 'golden ticket', and indeed the promotion of Carménère wines through the annual Concurso Carménère in Maule is an integral part of Vinos de Chile 2010's strategy. Clearly, the
position of Shiraz in Australia, Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand, not to mention Malbec in Argentina, is the role model. Many Chileans expressed a belief that their neighbour across the Andes was a sleeping giant, who might
just become the dominant force in South American wine if Chile does not get its collective act together.
As one of the judges for last year's Concurso Carménère, I tasted my way through 50-odd examples. Criticised for an element of herbaceousness that can verge on the aggressively green, the pyrazine character of some Carménère (ironically also found in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc where it sits more happily) is being managed by better understanding of the canopy, yields and irrigation, but was still evident in a few wines. At its best it adds an intriguing menthol, herby note; at its worst it is unpleasantly vegetal.
|The arrival in 1979 of Spanish superstar Miguel Torres sparked the modern Chilean wine industry: it is hard to imagine that Torres brought stainless steel fermentation tanks to the country for the very first time.
The quality Chilean industry is still finding its feet in many ways. Plantings have moved from flood-irrigated vines on the valley floor, trained on high pergolas, to lower trellises on sloping sites, with drip irrigation.
The Primavera vineyard of Valdivieso illustrates this perfectly, with fruit from the flood irrigated bottom section of the vineyard (right) being used in cheaper wines, and fruit from drip-irrigated high slopes, recently cleared of
mountain rubble, designated for upper-end wines. At Mont Gras, the mountain top Ninquén vineyard at over 1600 feet is a prime example of the upward movement.
And exploring of new regions goes on apace. Where once Casablanca had 'cool climate winemaking' all to itself, vineyards are creeping north and south, but also outward towards the Pacific to the west and Andes to the east in search of not only cool climatic conditions, but new and interesting soils and subsoils.
Vinos de Chile 2010 has few obvious 'achievables': firm targets for plantings, production, exports or sales that can be measured in 2010 as a sign of success or failure. In that way it is unlike, for example, the Australian industry's 'Strategy 2025' that attempts to set out a series of milestone targets. Instead there is a raft of important, but less statistically defined improvement projects under way.
And perhaps that is no bad thing. When one considers how some all guns blazing programmes have backfired so spectacularly on the Australian industry with over-production, squeezed margins and an unhealthy wine surplus, then setting softer targets that allow for more organic growth and development makes a lot of sense.
go to part II, estate profiles and tasting notes.