In some ways, Chilean wine is almost too good value. The problem — if you can call it that — is the basic wines are so drinkable that many people don’t get round to exploring the more interesting, more expensive bottles.
Wine has been made here since the 1550s, when the Spanish introduced pais — used, at the time, as a communion wine. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the foundations of the modern Chilean wine industry were laid — this time due to the French, after Chile’s merchant class developed a taste for their wine and began importing vines from France.
Long and thin, sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific, Chile offers plenty of climatic variety. A coastal mountain range protects the vineyards of central valleys such as Colchagua and Maipo, making them more temperate. Meanwhile, cooler valleys nearer the central coast — including Casablanca, Limari and Leyda — are sought out for their freshness, as are those in the south.
Given that the vineyards can be up to 2,500 miles apart, there’s significant variety in the wines produced. All the well-known grape varieties thrive but emerge with a particularly Chilean character. Sauvignon blanc produced here has a grapefruity citrus flavour, rather than the gooseberry and passionfruit typical of its New Zealand counterparts. Chardonnay can be creamy, although you do find more full-bodied, oaky examples, too (look for the description ‘gran reserva’). Pinot noir flourishes in Chile: nowhere else produces such exotically juicy red berry fruit flavours for the price. Bordeaux varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc do particularly well in making smooth reds. Carménère, a minor player in Bordeaux, is Chile’s signature grape, while syrah is a rising star. There are also some refreshing rieslings and gewürztraminers, plus some delicious sémillons.
Some producers are dabbling with orange wine, especially in the up-and-coming region of the Itata Valley, where you’ll also find modern incarnations of pais and cinsault. Meanwhile, in the Maule Valley there’s some extraordinary old vine carignan producing rich, deeply flavoured reds. When it comes to wine, you can do almost anything in Chile.
As for value for money, that comes down to the fact Chile’s wine scene is dominated by vast, commercially minded companies such as Concha y Toro, whose brands — which include Casillero del Diablo and Cono Sur — account for 61% of all Chilean wine sales in the UK. Other big players include Errázuriz, Emiliana and Santa Rita. They may not feel like the most exciting options but they’re among the most reliable and reasonably priced, so it’s worth raising a glass to that.
Five bottles to try
1. Zapallares Reserva Riesling 2019
Fresh and zesty with a vivid streak of lime. Much drier than rieslings you’ll find from Germany or elsewhere in Europe, this would be great with ceviche and other raw seafood, or Mexican dishes such as tacos. £10.50.
2. Macerao Orange 2021
Orange wine (also known as ‘amber wine’), is in vogue, and this inexpensive example from the Itata Valley is redolent of quince, orange blossom and dried apricots. It works well with roasted vegetables such as cauliflower, aubergines and squash. £8.99.
3. Miguel Torres La Causa País 2017
Among the first European producers to set up in Chile, Miguel Torres proves pais grapes can produce wines with the finesse of pinot noir. Duck is a classic pairing, but guineafowl or chicken would also work. £10.50.
4. Tesco Finest Peumo Carmenere 2019
A reliable example of the carménère grape at a terrific price. A smooth, plummy wine, it tastes like merlot but with a herby, peppery edge. It goes very well with lamb curry, especially if it includes coriander. £8
5. Undurraga Cauquenes Estate Carignan 2019
Carignan can be rustic, but when it’s made — as here — from 60-year-old Maule Valley grapes, it takes on a dense, velvety character. A terrific match for venison, beef and ox cheek stews. £9.25.
Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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