Chile is one of the oldest of the New World wine regions, having planted its first vitis vinifera vines in the mid 1500s. As such, it’s one of the most interesting wine regions, given the centuries of experience and old vines – some dating back a century! I traveled to Chile last year – with the express goal of visiting as many wineries as I could – and I was fascinated with the quality that is coming out of so many Chilean wineries today.
After attending a tasting hosted by Wines of Chile, I came away with three things that I bet you don’t know about Chilean wines – and only one of which I knew before this tasting!
THE VIGNO COLLECTIVE Chilean wines have always represented a phenomenal value, with good to very good wine for $20 and less (often much, much less). But a cool thing is happening with a group of 16 wineries in the Maule Valley. They are working together to establish a new quality designation called VIGNO (vino being the Spanish word for wine and the letter “G” for the “g” in Carignan). When I tasted the P.S. Garcia VIGNO and the Alcance VIGNO, I was impressed with their Old-World characteristics.
Until VIGNO, Chile’s wine-growing regions were defined more by geography than strict standards about growing grapes and producing wine – not unlike much of North American wine country. The minimum requirement for place of origin, vintage and variety on a wine label are all set at 75 percent, although many wineries use the 85 percent standard for wines that are exported to the EU.
But think about all the European regions that have super strict requirements for how grapes are grown, when they are harvested, how the wines are produced and aged. This is what VIGNO is trying to do.
The criteria for a wine to carry the VIGNO name are: all grapes must come from the Maule Valley (pronounced Mow-lay) and the wine must be at least 65% Carignan grapes from 30-year-old bush-or head-trained vines that are dry-farmed. The wines must be aged for at least 24 months. Let’s break that down, shall we?
The Maule Valley is Chile’s oldest wine region, tracing its roots back 400 years. The VIGNO project honors the region, its people and its culture by producing exceptional wines from the old vines in the area. They also promote tourism to the area, celebrating the local attractions and experiences. Cool!
65% Carignan Carignan is a red grape that shows off a lot of red fruit (cherry, raspberry, cranberry) and a slight umami character – almost a savoriness — plus spices, ranging from nutmeg to star anise. If you like lighter Zinfandels or heavier Pinot Noirs, you will like Carignan. While VIGNO wines must be made from at least 65 percent Carignan, they can also contain up to 35 percent other grapes from old-vines in Maule Valley .
Old Vines: The vines for VIGNO wines have to be at least 30 years old and either head-trained or bush-trained. Without getting into a whole lot of botany detail about pruning, I’ll just say these types of vines are freaky, as the vines literally look like bushes, instead of the neatly trellised , uniform rows you see in Napa and other places.
Dry Farmed: The means no irrigation is allowed, which forces the vines to work for their water, down deep into the ground. This vine stress leads to more intensely flavored fruit.
I was so happy when Wines of Chile reached out to see if I needed any extra info, because I was so interested in the VIGNO wines and they kindly sent a bottle of Garcia + Schwaderer 2014 VIGNO Carignan. It was perfect pairing with a grilled strip steak. It was inky-dark and exploding with red fruit and an earthiness – that umami thing. It had massive tannins, but also a freshness that was very appealing. I would decant this for a couple hours before serving, and serve at a slight chill (like, 60-65 degrees) to savor the full character of this wine.
The other VIGNO wine I loved was from Alcance (see photo above). Their Bravura Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was gorgeous.
GET TO KNOW PAÍS The next surprise at the Wines of Chile tasting was País (pronounced pah-eese) also known as the “mission grape” because it was planted centuries ago by the Spaniards when they arrived in Chile as missionaries. It’s a red grape that has traditionally been used in cheap, rustic wines and not exported much, but wakey-wakey! People are doing some awesome things with País today!
If you see J. Bouchon País Viejo, sweep the shelf clean! This $15 beauty from Maule is a great everyday red, and would go with everything from meats to pizza to burgers or just cheese and charcuterie.
And if you happen to be in the industry, Viña Las Veletas (veletas means weather vane) is seeking a distributor in the U.S. and their wines are really well-made. Their Las Veletas País 2016 – at $16.99 SRP – is 85 percent País, 15 percent Carignan and 100 percent delicious. Someone, please pick them up and bring these wines to us in America!
THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE CARMENÈRE The third thing that you might not know is kind of funny. When Chile’s wine industry started revving up in the mid-1800s, tons of vines were brought over from Bordeaux including all the “usual suspects:” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Carmenère, etc.
People were growing grapes, making wine, selling wine, drinking wine, la-di-dah, and everything’s going great. Until people started wondering: “Why is this ‘Merlot’ so spicy?” It was chalked up to the “Chilean style,” or a Chilean clone, until 1994, when Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot of the Montpelier School of Oenology in France got seriously curious, and found …. duh, duh DUH … that it wasn’t Merlot at all! It was .. Carmenère! Carmenère is an ancient Bordeaux varietal that was actually thought to be extinct. All this time, it was happily growing in Chile, just having an identity crisis. And that is how Carmenère evolved to become Chile’s signature grape.
Carmenère is known for its rich purple color, and aromas and flavors or red fruits like cherries and berries and spices with softer tannins than Cabernet. It’s a delightful choice to pair with grilled meats and sausages, and is extra fun with fajitas, empanadas and other Central and South American fare.
Let me know if you know if you have any Chilean favorites of your own. Salud!