In a country with the largest average winery size in the world, where several mammoth companies pump out millions of cases annually that account for the majority of total bottle production, a vital small-winery movement has taken root in Chile over the past 20 years.
Dozens of boutique operations have concentrated on production sizes of about 10,000 cases per year or less since the latter half of the 1990s. They have only picked up steam since, infusing spirit, individuality and entrepreneurship into an industry whose blueprint has largely been conservative and driven by volume.
These small wineries have been instrumental in extending the boundaries of Chilean wine country, which had largely been centered in the middle of the country near the capital city of Santiago. Now, winemaking regions run from the northerly Atacama Desert all the way south to the Lake District.
In addition, it has largely been these Lilliputians that have helped expand Chile’s varietal focus. From familiar wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Sauvignon Blanc, the scene now includes Pinot Noir, Carignan, Malbec, Cinsault, País, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Tempranillo.
These are the boutique brands and the people behind them that have changed Chile’s wine culture over the past two decades.
The first wave of Chile’s boutique wineries began laying ground as the country embraced newfound democracy in the latter half of the 1990s. Wineries like Viña Casa Marín, Laura Hartwig, Viña Aquitania and Antiyal were among the first to set up shop. Their can-do attitudes set the stage for what was to come, and all remain in business.
“Today, wine drinkers and the press not only expect these types of ventures, they are supporting and promoting them,” says María Luz Marín, founder of Viña Casa Marín in the San Antonio Valley, Chile’s first true coastal winery.
Twenty years ago, however, “nobody understood a crazy person like me taking such a risk by investing in what was then considered an extreme area for planting grapes,” she says.
Álvaro Espinoza founded Antiyal in the Alto Maipo region with his wife, Marina Ashton, in 1996. He crushed his first fruit in 1998, while still making wine for Viña Carmen, owned by Santa Rita Estates.
Early on, it was difficult just to obtain corks, bottles and capsules, says Espinoza. That’s no longer an issue, now that boutique wineries have become an established part of the Chilean wine tableau.
“I think the boutique wine movement in Chile has helped to generate more culture and diversity in our wine industry,” says Espinoza, pointing out that it has predominantly been small producers who have led the resurgence in wines made from Cinsault, Carignan and other traditional varieties grown in dry-farmed conditions throughout the Maule and Itata regions.
Antiyal 2014 Kuyen (Maipo Valley); $33, 92 points. Concentrated aromas of herbal black plum and berries along with graphite are 100% Alto Maipo and ideal for this type of wine, which is a blend based on Syrah. Kuyen has been better than ever in recent vintages; this version is deeply layered and lush, with toasty flavors of black fruits and dark chocolate. Barrel-based toast and spice flavors carry the wine’s steady finish. Drink through 2025. Ripe Wine Imports.
Viña Aquitania 2015 Lazuli Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $35, 91 points. This Maipo Cabernet is spicy and dry on the nose as opposed to bursting with ripeness. A dry tightly wound palate defines the word firm, while slightly rustic Old World flavors of mixed spices, dried red fruits and oak finish with structure. This is the type of Cab that will benefit from further aging. Drink through 2026. Vine Connections. Cellar Selection.
Casa Marín 2011 Lo Abarca Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir (San Antonio); $40, 89 points. Despite having spent more than five years in bottle, this Pinot is maintaining a lightly spiced nose with freshness along with herbal plum and currant aromas. A fleshy, chewy palate is mature but still lively. Peppery plum and herbal flavors reflect a cool year, while woody oak notes and medicinal cherry and plum flavors wrap this up. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits.
The Second Wave
From 2000 to about 2005, wineries like Kingston Family Vineyards, Viña Polkura, Matetic Vineyards and others joined the boutique party intent on working with grape varieties not previously associated with Chile. They eschewed traditional wines based mostly on Cabernet Sauvignon, and staked their claim on Pinot Noir, Syrah and Mediterranean varieties like Grenache and Mourvèdre.
Sven Bruchfeld, who co-owns Viña Polkura in the Colchagua Valley with Gonzalo Muñoz, says things were difficult for a small operator. His first vintage in 2004 had a production size of 500 cases, a number that now stands at 8,000 cases.
“It has never not been tough for the small guy,” says Bruchfeld. “Chile still has the biggest average winery size in the world. We are among the top 10 in terms of volume, but the number of wineries [about 100 that are truly commercial] is small. That’s not going to change dramatically, even though the boutique movement is stronger than ever.”
“The boutique movement has allowed Chile to focus on quality and local terroirs,” says Benjamin Leiva, winemaker at Viña Lagar de Bezana, a Cachapoal Valley-based winery that bottled its first wine from the 2001 harvest and now puts out about 7,000 cases annually. “There is no longer a fear of producing something unique.”
Lagar de Bezana 2014 Edición Limitada Syrah (Cachapoal Valley); $39, 91 points. Ripe black-fruit aromas are nicely toasted and subtle. On the palate, this is chewy and concentrated but not too heavy. Darkchocolaty oaky blackberry flavors are just spicy and feral enough to let you know this is Syrah. As a whole, this is smooth and ready to drink. Vino Del Sol.
Kingston Family 2016 Alazan Pinot Noir (Casablanca Valley); $38, 90 points. Plum and raspberry aromas are on the spot and inviting, with a touch of smoky darkness. A firm, slightly clamping palate is lively and extended, while this tastes of savory, saucy plum and berry fruits. A note of ocean salt pokes through on a solid finish. Kingston Family Vineyards.
Polkura 2014 GSM+T (Marchigue); $30, 89 points. This dark plush blend of Syrah and Grenache with smaller amounts of Mourvèdre and Tempranillo gets rolling with soft stewed berry aromas and flavors of prune and chocolate. A sweet pastry flavor dominates a short finish. Enjoy this for its ripe chewy lushness. Classic Wines, Inc.
The New Guard
Then there are the newbies, the boutique wineries that have started up within the last eight to 10 years and are committed to breaking the mold of what Chilean wine is thought to be. In many cases, these labels shine a light on the country’s oldest, most historic vineyards, most of which are located in the Maule Valley or further south. These vineyards are planted with varieties like Carignan, País (the Mission grape), Malbec and Cinsault.
Many of the newer wineries have also employed optics to carve out their place. They’ve introduced funky hand-drawn labels or use graphic lettering to make their wines stand out.
Leading members of this group include Garage Wine Co. and Clos des Fous, both led by gregarious owners unafraid to voice their opinions on the impact of boutique wineries in Chile and the country’s position on the global scale.
Pedro Parra is Chile’s leading expert on terroir and part of the four-member ownership team of Clos des Fous, a playful name that loosely translates to “a vineyard or site of fools.” He says that since the winery’s first release in 2010, he’s become keenly aware that there are two ways to measure success: sales and quality.
“If it’s the money you want, you can make a living being small,” he says. “Distribution is still a challenge, although it’s much easier these days, thanks to people like us.
“Chile remains 99% industrial in terms of wine production, and that’s a terrible balance. But if you look at what’s going on in Chile, it seems as though a few of us small guys are making more noise than the big wineries.”
The Movement of Independent Vintners (MOVI), an association of small wineries, has been one organization helping make that noise. Founded in 2009 with about 12 members, it’s since tripled in size.
“The watershed moment for boutique wineries in Chile was MOVI,” says Derek Mossman Knapp, who started Garage Wine Co. with his wife, Pilar Miranda, and Dr. Alvaro Peña in 2001. “This group built a road wide enough for others to drive on. It was MOVI that convinced [importers, distributors and wine buyers] that small could be good. Prior to Álvaro Espinoza at Antiyal, and a few others, boutique meant 50,000 cases backed by a fortune made in construction or soft drinks.”
Clos des Fous 2014 Grillos Cantores Cabernet Sauvignon (Cachapoal Valley); $20, 92 points. Aromas of cool earth, fall leaves and mossy plum and red-berry fruits lead to a palate with grip and flush tannins. Flavors of mocha and chocolate are mild and don’t overcrowd the wine’s primary berry character. This is excellent Cabernet for the price; drink through 2022. Vine Connections. Editors’ Choice.
Rogue Vine 2014 Super Itata (Itata Valley); $30, 91 points. If you want to try noninterventional wine from Itata, Rogue Vine is a good place to start. This blend of Malbec, Carignan and Syrah opens with leathery blueberry aromas graced by mocha. A smacking palate is tannic and firm but not mean. Intense cassis, tobacco and spice flavors finish flush and saturated. Brazos Wine Imports.
Garage Wine Co. 2015 The Soothsayers Ferment Cinsault (Chile); $20, 90 points. Cinsault is emerging as a serious player in Chile after decades of neglect, with wines like Soothsayers Ferment helping the category. A fresh fruity nose is backed by a grabby palate that deals saucy plum and wild berry flavors. A drawing rubbery finish tastes savory and roasted. Elixir Wine Group.
Additional Boutique Producers of Exceptional Chilean Wines
While the Chilean boutique-wine movement has been driven mostly by small stand-alone producers, a side effect has been Chile’s largest wineries, including Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, Viña San Pedro and Santa Carolina, exploring and producing site-specific artisan wines of their own. Additional larger-size wineries that are also bottling specialty small-production wines include Ventisquero, Montes, Lapostolle, Errázuriz, De Martino and Valdivieso, among others.
Below are boutique producers whose wines, while maybe not easy to find in the United States, are helping to change the landscape of Chilean wine. Visit Wine Enthusiast ratings for full tasting notes and more information about the many Chilean boutique wines tasted for this article.
Erasmo, Gillmore Wines, Laberinto
Laura Hartwig, Villard Fine Wines
Second Wave Wineries
Clos Ouvert, Flaherty Wines
Matetic Vineyards, Montsecano
New Guard Wineries
Alchemy , Attilio & Mochi
P.S. García, Pedro Parra y Familia
Viñedos de Alcohuaz