Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chile – Decreasing Yields to Increase Quality

Wine has been part of Chile’s history for nearly 500 years, arriving with the Spanish conquistadors who brought vines to provide communion wine. The grape that arrived in Chile was referred to as Pais, and was likely a descendant of the Spanish "common black grape" brought to Mexico in 1520 by Hernan Cortez. Pais remained Chile's primary wine grape through the influx of other varietals beginning in the 1850s, and was unsurpassed until the emergence of the Bordeaux wine varietals in the late 1970s.

Chile is a long, narrow country that is dominated by the Andes on one side and the Pacific Ocean to the other. Chile's vineyards are located along an 800-mile stretch of land from the Atacama Desert in the north to the Bio-Bio region in the south. The climate is varied with the northern regions being very hot and dry compared to the cooler, wetter regions in the south. In the Valle Central around Santiago, the climate is dry with an annual average of 15 inches of rain.

Despite a long history of influence from Spain, Chile owes a majority of its wine influences to France. Chile’s table wine industry really began in the mid-1800s, when wealthy industrialists and land barons imported French varietals (mostly from Bordeaux) to establish vineyards as a status symbol. Don Silvestre Errazuriz was the first, importing red and white Bordeaux varietals, and going so far as to import French vineyard managers and winemakers to ensure that his vineyards were properly planted and that his wines were made in the Bordeaux style. Some of Chile’s best-known names date from this era, including Errazuriz, Cousino Macul, and Concha y Toro.

At about this same time, the phylloxera root louse was devastating the vineyards of Bordeaux and Spain. This actually worked to the benefit of the burgeoning Chilean wine industry, as many French and Spanish winemakers left the devastated vineyards and travelled to Chile, imparting the benefits of their experience and teaching the Chileans European techniques.

Being relatively isolated by the Andes, the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama to the north, and Antarctica to the south, phylloxera has never become a problem. Because of this, the vines in the Chilean vineyards are on their own rootstock. While Chilean winemakers point to this as a benefit to the flavor profile of the wine, it certainly is a boon to the bottom line of the winery, not having to worry about the expense of grafting onto louse-resistant rootstock.

The majority of Chile’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blend wines originate from two regions – the Aconagua and the Valle Central. These two areas are broken down further into individual growing regions/valleys - the Aconagua Valley and the Casablanca Valley within Aconagua, and the Maipo, Rapel, Curico, and Maule Valleys within the Valle Central.

The majority of the Cabernet in the Aconagua region is from the Aconagua valley itself, as the Casablanca Valley is one of the coolest viticultural regions in Chile and is more suited to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The viticultural areas of the Aconagua focus on the ancient river bed deposits, where alluvial soils composed of everything from large gravel and boulders down to fine silts and clays were deposited by the slowing of the rivers.

The Valle Central contains some of the most recognizable wine regions in Chile, perhaps due to the proximity of the area to the city of Santiago, Chile’s capital. The Maipo and Rapel Valleys contain most of the regions Cabernet, with over 80% percent of the vineyard plantings in the Maipo devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon. As noted earlier, the area receives very little rainfall on an annual basis, due in part to the rain shadow effect of the Andes and Coastal Ranges. These mountain ranges also serve to trap warm air in the valleys. At night, cool air comes into the area from the Andes and dramatically reduces the temperature, allowing the grapes to fully ripen during the day while maintaining high levels of acidity. The soils here range from a mixture of loam, limestone, and sand to tuffeau, a marine sedimentary stone similar to that found in France’s Loire Valley

In Chile, the quality of the wines was historically limited by the excessively high yields that were de rigueur. The vineyard owners would also irrigate by flooding the vineyards, allowing some water to infiltrate the soils and then draining off the rest through canals and ditches cut through the vineyards, which also led to higher yields as well as diluted flavors. Additionally, Chilean wines were traditionally aged in beechwood barrels, which gave the wines a “unique” taste.

The influx of foreign investment and the advent of travelling consultants, from the ubiquitous Michel Rolland, to Paul Hobbs, the late Robert Mondavi, and Chateaux owners from Bordeaux, had a marked effect on recent improvements in the quality of Chilean Cabernets.

Not only was there the influx of money and knowledge, but many internationally-known wineries and winemakers established a presence in Chile. Robert Mondavi established a collaboration with Vina Errazuriz to produce Sena, Chateau Lafite Rothschild created the Los Vascos project, and Chateau Mouton Rothschild collaborated with the Concha y Toro Winery to produce Almaviva, to name but a few. The consultants encouraged limiting yields, switching to drip irrigation, and aging in French or American oak barrels. The consultants also brought new technology, and encouraged the development of a more international style of winemaking. Chilean winemakers have developed a distinct style for their Cabernet Sauvignon, producing an easy drinking wine with soft tannins and flavors of mint, black currant, olives, and smoky oak.

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