Abundant sunshine, exceptional soils, plenty of irrigation water, diverse terroirs, and a long growing season are all reasons why Chile has become known as a “winemaker’s paradise”. Throw in great quality wines that retail at reasonable prices, and ambitious marketing plans (to become the Number 1 producer of sustainable and diverse premium wines from the new world by 2020, for example), and it’s hard for many other wine producing countries to compete. Since the 1990s Chile has been in the process of reinventing itself from being known as a producer of inexpensive ‘coca-cola’ wines, to the producer of premium and super-premium wines showing unique diversity. In order to help drinkers of Chilean wine have a better sense of the origin of the product they are drinking, Chile has introduced a new classification system that we will begin to see on wine labels in the near future.
Viticulture in Chile
First, a little background on the viticultural landscape of Chile. It’s a long, narrow country with the Pacific Ocean to the west
and the Andes Mountain Range in the east. The icy Humboldt Current coming up from Antarctica is a major cooling factor in the ocean. The Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Chile is actually very cold, making the vineyards in the western section of Chile cool-climate vineyards, with more cloud cover and fog. The chilly ocean air is partially blocked by the Coastal Ranges, but some does penetrate inland through the many river valleys carved into the rock. As one moves further inland, the temperature and amount of sunshine increases. At night, cool air flows down from the snow-covered Andes mountains, creating wide diurnal temperature ranges, perfect for helping to retain acidity in the grapes while they ripen.
In most wine-growing countries, we tend to think of climate change by latitude, or north-south, which is also how the original appellation system (Denomination of Origin) in Chile was set up in 1995 (see map). But, in Chile, we must also think of an east-west dynamic. Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the coast is very different from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the centre of the country. An appellation such as Maipo Valley, for example, can have a huge diversity of vineyards, from high-altitude vineyards near the Andes, to coastal vineyards near the ocean, each producing very different wines. In general, wines from the coast, where the climate is cooler, will tend to be leaner and crisper, while wines from the warmer, sunnier regions further inland are most likely be fuller and richer.
In mid-2011, Chile officially recognized the differing wine styles from west to east by introducing a new classification of wine areas and denominations of origin for Chilean wines. Starting this year, wine producers can use three new terms to indicate where their wines come from - Costa (coast), Entre Cordilleras (between the mountain ranges), and Andes. The old Denomination of Origin (DO) system that most Chilean wine lovers are familiar with, naming wine regions from north to south, will also continue to be used. To see a map of the new appellations click here.
While this system is intended to make it easier for consumers to understand the origin of the Chilean wine they are drinking, the system is not without critics. Peter Richards MW is one such critic. He says that certain areas have been classified into the new system inappropriately. For example, parts of Limari have been classified in the ‘Costa’ designation, while other parts of Limari, which are geographically more west, have been designated as ‘Entre Cordilleras’. He also states that designating the entire Casablanca region as ‘Costa’ does not account for the very different styles of wines produced in the much warmer easter parts of the region. Mr. Richards states that in order for producers and consumers to really be able to identify the origins of the wine, a classification system must be based on localities. For example, using the name Apalta, which isn’t currently legally recognized in Chilean wine law, would clearly indicate the style of wine in the bottle – a rich, lush red wine. To read Peter Richards full article click here.
Even some producers are expressing concern over this new system, especially about the very large ‘Entre Cordilleras’ designation which makes up 89% of vineyards. Aurelio Montes, president of Montes, and Eduardo Chadwick, president of Errazuriz, have both expressed concerns about the new system. They are skeptical that the classification will actually help consumers understand the style of the wine in the bottle. Will Maipo Entre Cordilleras really mean anything to consumers?