País, pinot noir, and vines in the driest place on the planet: the top trends in Chilean wine

Vineyard at Cochagua Valley in Chile
The curiosity and drive of South American winemakers is leading to a taste revolution Credit:  Jorge leon cabello

Changing your image is never easy. Chile became known for its ability to produce solid, safe, affordable wines from familiar grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. It’s still thought of in that way. But there’s much more to explore.

This long, narrow South American country is a tapestry of terroirs, serrated with valleys bearing water from the high Andes to the Pacific. Both altitude and latitude bring their influence to bear. And let’s not forget the winemakers, whose curiosity, imagination, drive and determination has really got Chile moving in the past few years. I even tried a sauvignon blanc fermented with sake yeast last week. Here are a few trends to look out for…

Atacama Desert

The Elqui Valley is a strange, arid place: astronomers come to gaze at its ferociously clear skies. Elqui was once home to Chile’s most northerly wine vineyards. Now the winemakers have adventured even further north, right into the heart of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet.

Viña Ventisquero makes very good sauvignon blanc here from vines they put in on a former olive plantation, 23km from the Pacific Ocean. “There are native cactus but they’re teeny, they don’t grow high because it’s so windy,” winemaker Felipe Tosso told me. “And the ground – it’s sooo salty.” Try Kalfu Sumpai Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (Chile, 12.5%, Cambridge Wine Merchants, £18.99; Frontier Fine Wines, £17.85) which tastes like white asparagus, white currants and Badoit.

Pinot noir

I have long had a soft spot for Chilean pinot noir. I’m not talking at burgundy-head level about ethereal wines that might make you cry. A few producers in Chile know how to make affordable pinot noir that’s lovely to drink with friends over a casual Sunday lunch. That said, I was extremely impressed by Little Q Pinot Noir 2018 (Malleco, Chile, 12.5%, Banstead Vintners, £16.49). This is made by burgundy producer William Fèvre’s Chilean outpost. You didn’t know they had one? It’s worth checking out – a pinot noir that has beautiful aromatics and that floats effortlessly.

Heritage

The uncovering, renewal and celebration of old traditions is a strong trend wherever you go. At first glance, when it comes to grapes, Chile does not appear to have been dealt a particularly helpful hand in these matters, but it’s beginning to make some interesting wines. The first two vinifera varieties to arrive in Chile were país and moscatel.

País came first. This red grape is originally from central Spain but it came here from the Canary Islands (where it’s still widely planted) and Mexico, brought by the conquistadors in 1521. Like bobal, cinsault and carménère, país is never going to be grand. Its wines have a rustic feel – lightish but with threads of texture, a tang of red cherries and cranberries and just a hint of herbs and meat.

Until a couple of decades ago, país was Chile’s most widely planted grape, but “always considered second quality,” as Tosso says, used to make oceans of wine for local consumption. Those with an eye on heritage are now making país wines with more care, and these more intense incarnations of the grape can be very tasty. I really like Viña Laurent Polemico País 2018 (Itata, Chile, 13%, Corney & Barrow, £11.95), which is made using wild yeast, by Frenchman Daniel Laurent, who comes from a winemaking family and ran Château l’Escart in Bordeaux for 12 years before coming to South America with his Chilean wife. One for sausage and mash, or salami and sourdough, or aubergine salad.

I struggle to find the same enthusiasm for moscatel, which arrived in Chile about 20 years after país. It’s thought that most of Chile’s moscatel, also known as muscat, is muscat d’Alexandria, a fragrant white grape that makes wine that smells of, well, fresh grapes and flowers. As a still dry wine I find moscatel a niche taste – it’s rather cologney – so haven’t taken to the new Chilean moscatels. But, I wonder. Sparkling moscato has already proved hugely successful elsewhere. I’ve never tasted one from Chile. “Echeverria has made one,” says Anita Jackson, who represents Wines of Chile in the UK. “But it’s not a trend yet.” I wonder.

Heading south

As well as pushing north, winemakers are heading south towards Antarctica where grapes like pinot noir and riesling that like cooler climates thrive. This is also good hunting ground for older país and moscatel vineyards. More southerly wine regions include Malleco (see the pinot noir), Itata, Bío-Bío and Osorno.

Old vine carignan from Maule

The fruit of the ancient, dry-farmed carignan vines found in the Maule Valley makes soft, deep, luscious red wines that taste of mulberries, black olives and thyme. They are promoted by Vigno – short for Vignadores de Carignan – an association of producers set up to preserve and champion the precious old vines and their wines.

Try these...

De Martino 347 Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley 2017, Chile

(13%, Waitrose, £9.99)

De Martino is one of Chile’s most impressive producers, making wines that live and breathe. This cabernet sauvignon is fermented with wild yeast and matured in French oak. It leans towards a European style, but with some softness.

Sutil Limited Release Cabernet Sauvignon Valle de Maipo 2014, Chile

(14%, Tanners, £16.95)

Yes, another cabernet, but a very good one, with fine tannins and a lovely texture, made by a family-owned producer keen to reflect the qualities of the terroirs. They’re environmentally minded, too, keeping the land between the vineyards and the Tinguiririca river as a wildlife corridor.

Cono Sur Reserva Especial Riesling 2018, Chile

(13.5%, Tesco, £9.75)

A remarkably serious dry riesling, quite thick and complex, with flavours of lime zest and lime cordial from the Bío-Bío valley in southern Chile, where the climate is ideal for wines with aromatic character.