Understanding Chile's Wine Regions
Faced by an array of Chilean wines in their neighborhood wine shop, most consumers base their buying decisions on price and grape variety. But a little learning will go a long way to steer you toward the best wines on the shelf. Knowing which of Chile’s wine regions are best for certain varieties or styles will help you pick winners, time after time.
And when it comes to Chilean terroir, nobody knows more about where specific grapes grow best than Pedro Parra, Chile’s pre-eminent expert in soil composition and the impact that climate has on the wines his country produces.
Nicknamed the “Terroir Hunter,” Parra, who holds a Ph.D. in agronomy and wine-specific terroir from the Institut National Agronomique de Paris-Grignon, has conducted more than 20,000 soil studies, the majority in his native Chile. Parra holds that Chile is blessed with diverse terroirs that strongly influence the characters of its top wines.
Yet, these terroirs are not entirely unique to Chile, according to Parra. He suggests that some of Chile’s best terroirs are similar to those in some of the world’s most lauded wine regions.
“Take Chilean granite, and granite from Hermitage in France…the rocks are about the same age, same color and have the same fractures,” says Parra. “But the [Syrahs] from Chile and the northern Rhône are very different. The climate is not the same, this is true, and there are other differences. But without an understanding of Hermitage granite, you might not understand how similar it is to Apalta in Colchagua.”
Likewise, “Without knowing the soils and climate along California’s Sonoma Coast, you wouldn’t know that it’s almost exactly like the Leyda Valley in Chile,” says Parra.
Following are overviews of four of Chile’s most prominent wine regions, including a look at each region’s terroir and a dozen recommended wines that capture the country at its finest.
The Colchagua Valley lies about 100 miles south of Santiago and runs west from the Andes foothills to the Pacific Ocean. According to Parra, Colchagua’s terroir is influenced by a warm, breezy, dry climate.
With vineyards planted from approximately 650 feet to 3,110 feet above sea level, there are hot spots on the valley floor and cool pockets higher up the hillsides.
“Soils are a mosaic of granite, volcanic, clay and schist,” says Parra.
Colchagua is often compared to California’s Napa Valley. Warm-weather red varieties thrive here, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah, with some Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot thrown into the mix.
Building a Reputation
Closer to the Pacific, some wineries are growing Syrah in a cool, windy area called Marchigue (pronounced mar-CHEE-way). Meanwhile, just miles inland from the sea in a subzone called Paredones, a trio of wineries (Casa Silva, Santa Helena and Koyle) is forging ahead with Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are similar in style to those made in the Leyda and San Antonio valleys to the north, although the Paredones wines are even stronger in acidity.
Colchagua’s Apalta subzone, located on the north side of the Colchagua Valley near the village of Cunaco, has already carved out a global reputation.
This horseshoe-shaped area, with southern, southwestern and southeastern exposures, is a monster in terms of size, with more than 1,700 acres of vineyards shared by numerous wineries, including Lapostolle, Montes, Ventisquero, Neyen and Santa Rita.
Rock and Roll
The terroir at Apalta, according to Parra, is defined by granite bedrock, hillside plantings and southerly exposures that ensure optimal ripeness. The best wines are a product of Apalta’s granitic soils and the slightly cooler temperatures derived from exposition and altitude, creating the quintessential marriage of stony minerality, raw power and structured balance.
If the terroir is rocky and slightly cool in the Apalta hills, it’s another world on the valley floor.
Chile’s finest Malbecs—Viu 1 and a vineyard-designated bottling—hail from Viu Manent’s San Carlos property. Unlike Apalta, the San Carlos vineyard sits in flatlands atop deep, porous clay soils with excellent drainage.
José Miguel Viu, managing director for his family’s winery, says San Carlos, planted some 80 years ago, sings of Colchagua’s diversity.
“Like any great wine region throughout the world, there’s a human factor in Colchagua,” says Viu. “We have an inspired group here that has given our valley a dynamism and sense of community that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Chile. On the other hand, the valley offers natural conditions and diverse soils and climates that allow us to make wines from many varieties, and in many styles.”
Top Colchagua Wines
Domaines Barons de Rothschild 2010 Le Dix de Los Vascos (Colchagua Valley); $65, 93 points. Pasternak Wine Imports. Editors’ Choice.
Lapostolle 2010 Clos Apalta (Colchagua Valley); $93, 93 points. Terlato Wines International.
Montes 2011 Folly Syrah (Colchagua Valley); $90, 92 points. TGIC Importers.
The Maipo Valley is Chile’s most historic region, with grape plantings dating back to the time of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. But it was during the 19th century, when Bordeaux grape varieties (primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) were first imported to Chile from France, that the modern Maipo Valley began to take shape.
Today, Maipo is home to Chile’s greatest Cabernet-based wines, bottlings like Santa Rita’s Casa Real, Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, Errazuriz’s Viñedo Chadwick and Almaviva.
Geographically, Maipo is divided into three parts: the Alto Maipo (or Maipo Andes); a less-descript area called Entre Cordilleras, or “between the mountains,” in this case, the Andes and the Coastal Range; and Coastal Maipo, which is in essence Leyda, where the Maipo River enters the Pacific Ocean. Among the three, the Alto Maipo is king when it comes to producing world-class wines, Cabernet Sauvignon in particular.
Where Cab Is King
“Alto Maipo presents a fresh and dry Andean climate, bringing natural high acidity to the wines,” says Parra. “The best soils are composed of alluvial gravel coming down from the Andes range.”
“Maipo is the region that has permitted us to produce Cabernet Sauvignon of high quality and global prestige,” adds Enrique Tirado, the winemaker for Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon, one of Chile’s signature wines. “Don Melchor is a reflection of the vineyard in Puente Alto, whose location close to the Andes has created unique soils and the perfect climate for the vines.”
Top Maipo Wines
Viña el Principal 2010 Andetelmo (Maipo Valley); $54, 93 points. Regal Wine Imports Inc.
Kuyen 2011 Red (Maipo Valley); $40, 92 points. Editors’ Choice.
Echeverria 2010 Founder’s Selection Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $40, 90 points. Ararat Import/Export Co.
The southernmost of Chile’s name-brand wine regions and located more than three hours by car from Santiago, the Maule Valley (pronounced MAO-lay) is the country’s largest in terms of acreage.
Because it’s vast and relatively warm by Chilean standards, with moderate to minimal Andean or ocean influences, there are huge amounts of entry-level Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and even Sauvignon Blanc produced here.
But make no mistake, Maule is where the terroir hunters have been setting their sights over the past decade. They’re inspired by Chile’s greatest collection of bush-vine plantings of País (the Mission grape), Carignan, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault and Malbec, very few of which are irrigated and many of which are more than 100 years old. It’s a taste of Old World viticulture in the New World.
Quality Over Quantity
Yet, for every late-harvest Torontel coming from the likes of Erasmo, and for every high-end, old-vine Carignan from the Cauquenes subzone, there are far more value-level and bulk wines coming out of Maule.
“Nearly 95% of wine production in Chile is oriented towards quantity,” says Andrés Sánchez, the winemaker at Gillmore Winery & Vineyards in the Loncomilla Valley section of Maule, whose Carignans and Cabernet Sauvignons are often excellent. “And there has long been pressure to make wine in the valleys closest to Santiago. But Maule is different. We have the extreme-terroir, dry-farmed País and Carignan that allow us to make wines of character, wines that convey our heritage and history.”
Top Maule Wines
Casa Donoso 2009 D (Maule Valley); $70, 92 points. Private Reserve.
Erasmo 2009 Late Harvest Torontel (Maule Valley); $40, 375 ml, 92 points. Palm Bay International. Editors’ Choice.
San Pedro 2010 Tierras Moradas Carmenère (Maule Valley); $50, 91 points. Shaw-Ross International Importers.
Casablanca Valley and Other Coastal Areas
Heading west toward the Pacific Ocean from Santiago, vineyards in the Casablanca Valley are often shrouded in fog, salty air and buffeted by cool breezes. Here, white grapes, mostly Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and cool-climate red grapes, particularly Pinot Noir and the versatile Syrah, are the headliners.
While Maipo, Colchagua and Maule have centuries of winemaking history, the Casablanca Valley saw its first grapes planted in the 1980s, when Pablo Morandé, a k a “El Pionero” (the pioneer), decided to drill deep into the ground for water and then successfully planted Chile’s first cool-climate vineyards.
A quarter-century later, Casablanca is thriving, as are nearby regions like San Antonio and the Leyda Valley, which are even closer to the coast than Casablanca, and hence even cooler.
“These cool-climate regions have become the reference point in Chile for Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah,” says Julio Bastias, winemaker at Matetic. “These varieties are showing tremendous potential, fresh-fruit expression and elegance. The wines are ‘coastal’ in every way.”
Down By The Sea
Grant Phelps, Casas del Bosque’s New Zealand-born winemaker, insists that Casablanca, especially the western edge of the region, provides world-class terroir.
“The biggest single influence here is our proximity to the ocean,” says Phelps. “At only 10 miles inland from the cold Humboldt Current, we get fog almost every morning, which cuts down on our sunlight hours, thus leading to a prolonged ripening period.
“The second thing is that the intact Coastal Range blocks warm air from coming in from the Maipo Valley,” he says. “Our maximum temperatures are in the low 80s˚F, and at night it can get down to about 40˚F, which results in grapes that maintain natural acidity up until the time of harvest.”
The soil composition in Casablanca is granitic, up to 100 million years old, with a topping of red volcanic clay. Because the granite is so old, and thus porous, vines can push their roots down through fissures, absorbing minerality that transfers directly to the wines, says Phelps.
As for Leyda, it’s the ying to Casablanca’s yang, says Parra.
“Casablanca presents a foggy, cool climate with several kinds of granite soils, the best always with iron oxidation and quartz,” Parra says. “Leyda features a windy coastal climate that’s very cold. The soil system is a mix of random granite soils, limestone and these beautiful mineralized gravels from the Maipo River. It’s a mirror image of Sonoma’s coastline, but here in Chile.”
Top Casablanca Wines
Undurraga 2012 Sibaris Reserva Especial Pinot Noir (Leyda Valley); $17, 90 points. Testa Wines Of The World.
Matetic 2013 Corralillo Sauvignon Blanc (San Antonio); $15, 89 points. Quintessential Wines.