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Chile north to south. Part III

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

A major series based on my 10-day tour of Chile in December 2009. This is Part III, visiting the wineries of the Central Valleys in Maipo, Cachapoal and Colchagua, and then travelling much further south to Bío Bío, currently Chile's most southerly wine producing valley.

See also:

Part I   Overview of Chilean wine introducing the valleys north to south, plus I travel north to the Elqui and Limari valleys.

Part II  Visiting the warm central region of Aconcagua and then on to the cooler coastal vineyards of Casablanca and Leyda.
   southern chile map

Maipo: suburban dreams

The burgeoning city of Santiago has plenty of diversions to offer the visitor. Those looking for the quickest access to wineries and vineyards will find the Maipo Valley has - handily - come to meet them. Thanks to the city's expansion, vineyards begin in the southern suburbs, with big names like Concha y Toro and Santa Rita within easy striking distance of the centre. But as is the case elsewhere, here in Chile's oldest vineyard area things are getting a tad more complicated. (Right: manicured gardens at Concha y Toro's tourist friendly winery).    concha y toro winery

Today we have not only Maipo to understand, but 'Alto Maipo' and 'Coastal Maipo' too. Echoing the story throughout Chile over recent years, Maipo's vineyards have been creeping east and further up into the foothills of the Andes, and west towards the Pacific, all in search of cooler climates and more diverse soils. Understandably, the Maipo producers are keen to stress the very real differences between each zone, and whilst not yet officially recognised, the coast, centre and mountain regions are widely accepted as virtual appellations.

Best known historically as a red wine valley, Cabernet Sauvignon certainly remains a strong suit, though those vineyards in the Alto Maipo, ranging in altitude from 400 to 800 meters, are adding new dimensions. The sun rises on the Argentinean side of the Andes, so mornings are extremely cool and the falling cold air of evening drops overall temperatures significantly. Coastal, or 'Pacific Maipo' is really an extension of the same valley system as San Antonio and Leyda, and these two newer sub-divisions are also producing much fresher whites, notably Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, than the region could offer previously. Soils vary hugely from east to west too, with the rocky, volcanic soils of the mountains, alluvial soils of the central zone and a maritime, sandy influence towards the coast.

Whilst investing in vineyards, land and the purchase of fruit from new valleys like Leyda and Limari, the old guard establishment of Maipo is not resting on its laurels, but is consciously looking to make Maipo a more diverse and higher quality valley than ever before.

Maipo producer profiles and tasting notes

Viña Concha y Toro

Giant of the Chilean wine industry, Concha y Toro remains family-owned and sets the pace with its brand-led portfolio.

20 wines tasted

Viña Santa Rita

Santa Rita's beautiful museum of Chilean culture is a must see, but its wines continue to show elegance and finesse.

12 wines tasted

Viña Ventisquero

From a standing start in 2002, Ventisquero is now in the UK's top five Chilean wine brands - and with an environmental conscience.

19 wines tasted

Colchagua: Chile's grands crus?

In many ways Colchagua is a product of the gradual re-definition of Chile's vineyard zones. Formerly an effectively anonymous sub-zone of the Rapel Valley, Colchagua has developed as its own DO and with a distinct identity in recent years, thanks largely to the concentration of top red wines emanating from its vineyards. Indeed, some sub-zones of Colchagua will now be familiar on labels, like Chimbarongo, Santa Cruz and, especially, Apalta.

Nowhere in Chile is the re-thinking of Chile's vineyard sites more obvious than in Colchagua. Following the course of the Tinguiririca River from the Andes towards the Pacific, the valley was almost exclusively planted on the flat, with the slopes and rocky hillsides of the mountains ignored. Even as recently as my first visit to Colchagua in 2002, I distinctly recall that the winemakers concentrated on their wineries and wines, but rarely the vineyards. Today in the top estates, it really is all change.

I scrambled my way up and down some very steep slopes with Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes as he showed me his recently-planted Syrah and Carignan vineyards, whilst at Luis Felipe Edwards the views from their highest vineyards, planted in 2005 at over 900 metres, are breathtaking (below, click the photo for a bigger version).

mountain vineyards

Apalta, a bowl-shaped hillside within the Santa Cruz area of Colchagua, has risen to prominence largely thanks to Lapostolle's top wine, Clos Apalta, a blend based on Carmenère and Merlot, and more recently Montes 'Folly', made from Syrah grown on the steepest part of their Finca de Apalta vineyard, on a 45º slope. Anyone proposing in the early 1990s that such vineyards would become the source of some of Chile's most iconic wines would have been regarded as crazy. Indeed, Montes' Folly is so named because the idea of Syrah being planted on Colchagua's steepest slopes was met with a mixture of disbelief and puzzlement.

Today, the valley's reputation still rest mostly on established Bordeaux red varieties, though plantings of Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache are increasing.

Colchagua producer profiles and tasting notes

Luis Felipe Edwards

An ambitious family-owned company whose extraordinary high altitude vineyards are partly to protect their legacy for coming generations.

13 wines tasted

Lapostolle

From their stunning new winery, French-owned Lapostolle farms biodynamically and has some of the oldest vines in Apalta.

14 wines tasted

Viña Montes

Montes' Feng Shui winery is striking, but it is the ultra-dense, high slopes planting that gets Aurelio Montes most excited.

11 wines tasted

Viña Santa Helena

Alta Helena is a fascinating new range of premium Cabernet Sauvignon wines, presented as a tour of Chile's main wine valleys.

15 wines tasted

Viña Casa Silva

From their stunning new winery, French-owned Lapostolle farms biodynamically and has some of the oldest vines in Apalta.

17 wines tasted

Anakena

Anakena is based in Cachapoal, the 'other' half of the Rapel Valley, but sources fruit from Colchagua and further afield.

15 wines tasted

Torres comes to Santiago

On this trip I did not visit the Curicó Valley, but whilst in Santiago one of its most important companies and the earliest foreign winery to invest in Chile, Torres, brought a selection of wines to their city centre wine bar for me to taste through the Torres Chile line-up.

Torres Chile - 10 wines tasted

    

Bío Bío: southern charms

The flight from Santiago south to Concepción, a distance of 435 kilometres, takes only 40 minutes or so. But once out of the bustling, modern city, heading a couple of hours further south by road, and a new face of Chile is revealed.

In stark contrast to the eye-squinting sunlight and treeless deserts of Elqui where my journey began, this is the beginning of Chile's lake district, a rolling, soft landscape of pine forests, lakes and gentle hills, its myriad shades of green reflecting a much higher rainfall and cooler conditions. Though there are new vineyards even further south, for now this is the southern limit of commercial wine production. Click photo for larger version.    bio bio

Many Central Valley wineries are planting vines or buying fruit from Bío Bío, but for now the area is dominated by one very large estate owned by the Córpora Group. Planting in Bío Bío is still a relatively risky business, but for Pinot Noir and white wine varieties - especially those aromatic varieties that benefit from the cool, but prolonged growing season this far south - the Valley holds huge promise.

Table grapes, and Pais and Muscat for cheap, bulk wine has been grown here historically, but investment in quality wine is a phenomenon of only the last six or seven years. The Andes play little part in this region, where planting on the undulating hillsides is generally at 200 metres or lower. Bío Bío means "big water" in the local language, and it is the broad Bío Bío River that brings irrigating water and helps protect against Spring frosts - one of the key factors in the new Bío Bío. The soils of the region are generally quite rich in organic matter, alluvial river sediment and sand.

The Bío Bío Valley continues to attract substantial new wine investment, and plaudits for the qualities of its wines. Without doubt this cool valley is also one of Chile's hottest properties.

Bío Bío producer profiles and tasting notes

Córpora - VC Family Estates

For now, Córpora is the major player in Bío Bío. From its 440 hectares of vineyard it produces wines for a number of wine brands within a portfolio it calls 'VC Family estates'. There's a new emphasis on Pinot Noir, with a Burgundian team at the helm.

18 wines tasted

Journey's end

And so, my journey from north to south concluded. 1100 kilometres, from desert to pastoral lake land and from unremitting, scorching heat to cool and misty conditions. If ever proof was needed of Chile's diversity, then this was it. But diversity is no good without grape growers and winemakers willing to understand and make the most of it. That is the most remarkable change over the seven or eight years since I first visited this country. This is a motivated and ambitious wine industry, filled with passionate believers, keen to grasp the future.


Go to Part I - Introducing Chile's Valleys, and visiting Elqui and Limari in the north
Go to Part II - Travelling south through Aconcagua, Casablanca and Leyda
Go to Part III. The Central Valleys, and my journey south concludes in Bío Bío