Chile's Cool Climate Wine Regions
More than two decades of trial and error have taught Chilean wineries a valuable lesson: In order to produce fresh, balanced Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, the coast offers the most. —Michael Schachner
In most wine-producing regions, elevation is the main factor that influences temperature and, along with it, the ripening of the grapes, acidity levels and perceived body in the wines.
In Chile, however, temperatures are largely determined by proximity to the Pacific Ocean, whose cold waters generate fog, cloud cover and cooling breezes.
Such conditions lead to vivacity in the grapes grown in coastal zones like Casablanca, San Antonio/Leyda and Limarí in the north, and Marchigue in coastal
Colchagua, which lies further to the south.
According to Grant Phelps, the New Zealand-born winemaker at Casas del Bosque, north to south means little in central Chile. It’s east or west that matters.
Head east from the Pacific toward the country’s fertile Central Valley and the Andes, and temperatures climb, creating ideal growing conditions for warm-climate grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère.
Head west from Santiago toward the Pacific, and temperatures drop nearly two degrees Fahrenheit for every six miles that you travel.
Terroir Takes Over
Using this knowledge to create fresh, balanced wines from four varieties—Pinot Noir and Syrah among red grapes; Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc among whites—has been one of Chile’s signature movements over the past 20 years.
Inaugurating Chile’s cool-climate thrust, experimental vineyards were first planted in Casablanca in the early 1980s by Pablo Morandé. However, it wasn’t until about
15 years ago that a critical mass of wineries began making inroads with cool-climate wine-making.
“Casablanca is now Chile’s best-known cool-climate region, but commercial grapes have been grown here only for 25 years,” says Phelps. “For the longest time, there was no water due to there being no river, so there was no agriculture at all. Digging deep wells that give very pure water is what changed this valley.”
“We have an expression here, la mitad de la nada, which means the middle of nothing,” says Arturo Larraín, general manager for Matetic Vineyards. A cool-climate pioneer nestled amid the eucalyptus forests of San Antonio, Matetic began planting its Rosario vineyard in 1999; the other subzones of San Antonio are Lo Abarca, Malvilla and the more widely recognized Leyda.
“When we got here, the Matetic family knew nothing about wine—grapes or personnel—and we had very little water,” says Larraín. “This was literally the middle of nowhere. But we committed ourselves to this microregion based on the advice of Alan York [the late California-based consultant on biodynamic viticulture] and a belief that we could do something special here.”
Today, with a consistent water supply, Matetic grows Pinot Noir and Syrah in Rosario. The winery also draws excellent Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in the coolest reaches of western Casablanca.
As recently as the mid-1990s, most Chilean producers were planting any and all grape varieties in any and all places, not taking terroir much into account.
As for Pinot Noir, barely any existed in Chile during the 1990s, but today, dozens of wineries are producing well-made Pinots, almost exclusively from grapes grown in Casablanca or Leyda.
If Pinot Noir has started showing its potential when grown in cool areas, Syrah from cooler regions has arrived.
Compared to the full-bodied, beefy Syrahs from Maipo and other Central Valley locales, cool-climate Syrahs from Matetic, as well as those from wineries like Kingston Family, Viña Quintay, Viña Casablanca and Casas del Bosque, are examples of the wholesale improvements Chile has made with the variety.
Meanwhile, Marchigue (pronounced mar-Chee-way), located fairly close to the Pacific in the western reaches of the Colchagua Valley, is becoming another hotbed for Syrah. Producers like Montes and Polkura are fully dedicated to Marchigue Syrah, and their wines from recent vintages have excelled.
Chilean Chardonnay hasn’t shown the same level of quality as Pinot Noir or Syrah, however. But if one location does have a knack for the variety, it’s Casablanca.
Several wineries, including Emiliana, Veramonte and Errazuriz, are crafting good Casablanca Chardonnays that often retail under $20. Wines from these and other producers are generally oak-aged but not oaky, with tropical and citrus flavors blending with oceanic notes.
And don’t forget Sauvignon Blanc, which has emerged as Chile’s signature white wine. From its uninspired days not long ago as a Central Valley volume leader, at press time 24 Sauvignon Blancs from the 2013 vintage rated 88 points or higher, while 14 wines earned scores of 89 and above. Almost all hail from cool-climate regions.
“I believe that the level of Sauvignon Blanc we are creating in Casablanca is very attractive, especially in the coolest zones, those that are within 20 kilometers [about 12.5 miles] of the ocean,” says Marcelo Papa, winemaker for Concha y Toro.
Papa could easily be referencing chilly Leyda. Here, thick morning fog and clouds are commonplace, breezes often turn into cold winds, and the grapes are heavily ocean-influenced, sometimes with saltiness and always offering both briny green notes and high acidity.
While Leyda’s proximity to the coast—some vineyards are as close as five miles—can work for Sauvignon Blanc, the region is proving itself to be too cool for Chardonnay to ripen fully.
Trial and error—it’s what Chile has been all about with respect to cool-climate wines. As a result, the country has created something new and improved to hang its hat on.
Polkura 2010 Block g+i Syrah (Marchigue); $40, 90 points. Craveiro Importers. Editors’ Choice. (pictured)
Viña Casablanca 2011 Neblus Syrah (Casablanca Valley); $70, 91 points. Carolina Wine Brands USA. Editors’ Choice.
Montes 2011 Alpha Syrah (Colchagua Valley); $25, 89 points. TGIC Importers.
Miguel Torres 2012 Cordillera Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $23, 90 points. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Cellar Selection. (pictured)
Casas del Bosque 2012 Estate Bottled Gran Reserva Chardonnay (Casablanca Valley); $17, 88 points. Southern Starz, Inc.
Matetic 2012 EQ Chardonnay (San Antonio); $26, 88 points. Quintessential Wines.
Undurraga 2012 T.H. Terroir Hunter Pinot Noir (Leyda Valley); $26, 91 points. Testa Wines Of The World. Editors’ Choice. (pictured)
Errazuriz 2012 Aconcagua Costa Single Vineyard Pinot Noir (Aconcagua Valley); $20, 88 points. Vintus LLC.
Viña Tarapacá 2012 Gran Reserva Pinot Noir (Leyda Valley); $17, 87 points. Tre Vigne Importers.
Concha y Toro 2013 Terrunyo Costa Los Boldos Vineyard Block 5 Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley); $30, 91 points. Excelsior Wines. Editors’ Choice. (pictured)
Luis Felipe Edwards 2013 Marea Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda Valley); $25, 90 points. Domaine Select Wine Estates. Editors’ Choice.
Leyda 2013 Garuma Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda Valley); $18, 90 points. Winebow.