[e’wine of the week]
By Bruce Cochran
With dry summers, winter rains and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the climate for much of Chile is very similar to California’s Central Coast wine country, which is about as far north of the equator as Chile is south.
Most Chilean vineyards lie between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, which moderates the climate much like it does in California. Wine styles typically fall somewhere between California and France, neither extremely full-bodied nor extremely elegant.
With food and wine, Chile is a very global place. There is a variety of international influences, with contributions from California, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. This may seem unlikely, as Chile is one of the world’s most isolated wine countries, with the world’s largest ocean on one side, the highest mountains outside the Himalayas on the other, Antarctic glaciers in the south and the world’s driest desert (the Atacama) at its north.
For this reason, the vine malady called phylloxera has never been as big a problem in Chile as it has in most other parts of the wine world. Most vines there are descendants of the original French cuttings and are ungrafted, meaning they are planted directly into the ground. Most of the world’s vines are grafted onto American rootstock that are resistant to phylloxera. Because of this the Chileans sometimes say that their wines have a truer taste of the originals.
The most popular grape varieties there are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. One of their best is Sauvignon Blanc, in a crisp “Pacific Rim” style somewhat reminiscent of a toned-down New Zealand version. There is also renewed interest in a red grape called Carmenere. Like Cabernet and Merlot, Carmenere is a red wine variety from the Bordeaux region of France. No longer grown much in France, the Chileans are very big on it.
Most of Chile’s wine regions are river valleys that begin in the Andes and end at the ocean, from Santiago south about 125 miles. On a map they resemble a ladder. In roughly a north to south order they include: Aconcagua (north of Santiago, on the slopes of Mount Aconcagua), Casablanca (on the plains spreading west from Santiago toward the ocean), Maipo and Pirque, Rapel, Colchagua, Curico, Lontue, Maule, Bio Bio. It tends to be cooler as you move south.
Chile makes lots of wine ranging from $5 to more than $100 per bottle, much of it exported around the world. Conde de Velazquez Cabernet Sauvignon, named for a notorious conquistador, is made in the northern Aconcaqua region. You can buy this cab locally for about $10.
Bruce Cochran has traveled to every major wine region on four continents. A 30-year veteran of the wine trade, he taught continuing education wine classes for 26 years at colleges throughout Arkansas.