If the 1990s were when the world discovered Chilean wine, and the 2000s marked when established Chilean wineries started with site-specific wines of quality in addition to value-priced bottles, could now be the moment for small-batch artisan wines?
During the 17 years I have covered Chilean wine for Wine Enthusiast, never have more boutique wines made their debuts than right now. From Carignan to Malbec, and from Riesling to País, soloists and moonlighting mainstream winemakers are turning out an increasing number of mold-breaking wines. These wines offer consumers, especially those visiting the country, viable alternatives to standards like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
I mean to take nothing away from the big boys. It was Concha y Toro, San Pedro, De Martino and other megaproducers that sparked the small-batch movement by exploring new terroirs and unique grape varieties. But for the first time in Chile’s 150 or so years of commercial wine production, the number of fine wines being made in quantities of a few thousand bottles is on the rise.
A prime example is taking place at Odfjell Vineyards, a Maipo Valley winery founded in the 1990s by forward-thinking Norwegians.
Seven years ago, it was Odfjell’s Bordeaux-born winemaker, Arnaud Hereu, who introduced me to ancient Carignan plantings in the Cauquenes section of the Maule Valley. Today, Hereu is “coaching” a number of small-scale winemakers how to make serious wines in the shadows of behemoths that bottle millions of cases per year.
“There are a few Chilean wineries doing custom crush, but not the way we do it,” says Hereu. “We help our clients get the best prices on dry goods. We help them sell their wines. And while most custom crushing yields bulk wines, our clients are all small.”
The custom-crush program at Odfjell also helps winemakers secure fruit, while Hereu counsels participants on when to pick.
“Most have their own winemaking techniques, but we talk a lot, exchange ideas and share a lot of information,” he says. “With blending, some ask for my advice. Others don’t.”
I tasted wines from BOWines, Bluwines, Pulso, Maurizio Garibaldi and OC Wines, all made at Odfjell. These wines are captivating. They’re uniformly fresh in style, with low amounts of new oak and relatively high natural acidity, and hail from far-off places like Loncomilla in Maule, Lolol in Colchagua and Lemu in the Maipo Valley.
I particularly liked Garibaldi’s 2014 blend of Malbec, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from Lemu, which displays briary yet vivid aromas. Also special was BOWines’ 2014 Maule Valley Carignan, called Fillo. This wine shows the brightness and red-fruit aromas and flavors for which old-vines Maule Carignan is becoming known.
Tiny in volume and just getting off the ground as commercial labels, these wines will be hard or impossible to find in the U.S., for the time being. But don’t be surprised if they’re picked up by a specialty importer like Brazos Wine Imports or Vine Connections (based in Brooklyn, New York and Sausalito, California, respectively) in the next year or two. Both already bring in quality boutique Chilean wines like Laberinto, Montesecano, Clos des Fous and García & Schwaderer, among others.
The fact that Chile’s large blue-chip wineries enjoy global brand recognition and possess huge vineyard holdings all but ensures they’ll stay atop the country’s wine hierarchy for a long time. But now more than ever, the little guy in Chile is making waves. Here’s wishing him (and her) the best.