A Ripe Age for Chilean Wine

By Greene, Joshua | Americas (English Edition), September-October 1990 | Go to article overview

A Ripe Age for Chilean Wine


Greene, Joshua, Americas (English Edition)


FOR CENTURIES, POETS and painters have watched and recorded the sea from the hills overlooking the Chilean port of valparaiso. Today this romantic city is bursting with the pressures of growth. Containers of copper goods, fresh fruit, timber and wine, made from some of the world's finest grapes, are stacked high awaiting shipment to all corners of the globe.

The Chilean wine industry developed in the 1860's under the influence of the local aristocracy Basque/French landed families of Chile, whose fortunes were built on mining coal and metals, wintered in Paris and brought Bordelais winemakers back with them on their return. Parks were designed by French landscape architects, creating tranquil estates surrounded by vineyards of cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, the staples of red and white Bordeaux wines.

But by the end of the century, most vineyards in Bordeaux, and the rest of Europe has been devastated by a plant louse known as phylloxera. It had been imported to France on North American vines, and quickly ravaged the roots of Europe vineyards. To combat the louse, vineyards around the world were planted on resistant, native North American rootstock, with vines grafted on top. Chile, remote and protected from phylloxera infestation by the narrow confines of the Andes to the East, the Pacific Ocean to the West and by a vast desert in the North, is the only wine region today where the original vine clones of nineteenth century Bordeaux still prosper on vitis vinifera roostock, without the need for granting.

That piece of trivia amounts to tremendous cost savings in propagating vines and planting new vineyards. In North America, the savings would be abour $2 on each $3 nursery grafted plant, or about $5000 a hectare. And because the vines are from the old Bordeaux clones, they produce grapes with a slightly different flavor than what is found elsewhere in the world. Ungrafted vines, a consistently benign climate, proximity to cooling ocean breezes, relatively inexpensive land, and vigorous agriculture all have combined to focus international attention on Chilean wine.

Foreign investment in the Chilean wine buinsess is now driving the pace of change to an unprecedented level. On a recent trip to taste and explore the potential of Chile's wine industry, the work of four leaders stood out. The wines of these producers have undergone revolutionary change in each vintage tasted since 1987, and each of them promises even greater development during the next five years.

The pace of this change shows a willingness to create wines from Chilean soil for the world market, rather than holding fast to a traditional or national taste. Although Chile has a large middle class which could afford premium wines, consumer tastes here have not yet caught up with the revolution in viticulture. More and more wine sold locally is marketed in tetra-packs, little aluminum and plastic boxes--glass bottles here represent one quarter of the cost of most wine on supermarket shelves. The highest quality wine is mostly produced for export, since there is limited demand for it in Chile.

The first leg of this exploration of Chile's wine leaders began along the Aconcagua River. Flying into Santiago, the great peak to the northeast is Aconcagua, which sends its ice melt through a gigantic gorge to the Pacific Ocean. The river valley of the same name is an agricultural center, ringed by the coastal range to the west and the Andes to the east. Panquehue is a tiny settlement in the valley. The name of this village incorporates the Mapuche Indian word for place, "hue", which appears at the end of town names throughout Chile with the regularity of-ville or -ton in North America.

Errazuriz Panquehue is an old estate of the town. The family name, Errazuriz, is Basque; the young proprietor, Eduardo Chadwick Claro, adds a British element to the Basque/Spanish/Mapuche melange. Now Chadwick is working with Agustin Huneeus, of California's Franciscan Estate Selections, and his German backers, the Eckes family, all of whom greeted us on our arrival: an international conference in the Aconcagua Valley.

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