The red hot Chilean

For almost a decade, the New World wine boom passed Chile by - 'wine was for getting drunk'. Now, Chile has won the hearts of British wine drinkers, and the inspiraton can be attributed to Ignacio Recabarren
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The Independent Culture
The term New World does not necessarily suggest an open mind and a modern, flexible approach to winemaking. California has it. Australia has it, New Zealand has it, But progress in Chile, as in Argentina and South Africa, has been hampered by the constraints of paternalistic hierarchies and a rigid cast of mind.

Ignacio Recabarren, now 45, was never destined for corporate structures or stifling line management. Coltish and dapper, he exudes the thoroughbred sensitivity of a whippet. And behind Speedy Gonzalez English - "those Kiwis next year will be in beeg troubles" - Recabarren's success is built on hard work tempered by intuitive spirit.

If Chile has at last won the hearts and palates of British wine drinkers, much of the inspiration can be attributed to Recabarren. He is currently winemaker at the Santa Carolina and Casablanca wineries, rising stars of the UK market; a consultant elsewhere; and nursing his own pet project on the outskirts of Santiago. His single-minded pursuit of quality and character brought him to London last week to receive the Grapevine 1996 Winemaker of the Year award for raising the profile of Chile on the international market.

For almost a decade, the New World wine boom, already underway in California and Australia, passed Chile by. Islets of fine wine existed, notably Cousino Macul's Bordeaux-style reds, but "wine was for getting drunk," says Recabarren.

A graduate in agricultural engineering, Recabarren started his winemaking life in 1975 as an assistant at the Marga Marga co-operative. After joining the giant Santa Rita winery south of Santiago two years later as assistant winemaker, he met the spaniard Miguel Torres, whose simple but radical investment in temperature-controlled stainless steel showed that fruitless old hulks could be transformed into enjoyable white wines. In 1980, almost by accident, Recabarren became chief winemaker when Santa Rita changed hands, working closely for the next four years with his mentor, Gavriel Infanta, the man responsible for Cousino Macul's reputation.

After a trip to California in 1984 - "it was like a window opening and seeing something amazing for the first time" - Recabarren was told he could make two changes at Santa Rita.. "I said OK, first I'll burn all the big old rauli [a native wood] barrels and then I'll buy new French oak." The old barrels went up in smoke, and Recabarren's reputation as a red winemaker exploded.

On a visit to Bordeaux the following year, his former college mate Paul Pontallier at Chateau Margaux gave him a tip: go slowly and select carefully from the best raw material. Recabarren chose a small (for Santa Rita) 20,000 litre vat of cabernet sauvignon from the 1984 vintage and matured the wine in French oak barrels. The result, 1984 Santa Rita Caberent Sauvignon, swept the board at the 1987 Gault-Millau Olympiades in Paris, seeing off a handful of top Bordeaux chateaux.

A major investment in oak barrels followed - 6,000 in 1989. Santa Rita's reputation was enhanced, but success was bittersweet. Pressurised to fulfil orders, but with insufficient wine at his disposal, Recabarren left the company in 1989.

If California and Bordeaux had shaped his approach to making red wines, working at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand, and later Australia, transformed his view of white winemaking. "I realised I had never known how to make white wines properly. They chilled the grapes and the juice, picked the grapes at different times, used good clones and properly researched both vineyard management and winemaking."

Travel also made him acutely aware of Chilean wine's lack of personality. In the Central Valley, where Chile's vineyards are concentrated, yields are high and identity lacking. "The first thing you need to do is to find the right source for producing the best grapes, then work very hard in the vineyards to produce high quality fruit. If you concentrate on creating a good relationship between the soil, the climate and vineyard, and constantly experiment, you will eventually produce something from the terroir, something special made by a Chilean winemaker with its own character."

On his return to Chile in 1990, Recabarren overhauled Santa Carolina's export market white wines and was given virtual carte blanche to pursue his ambition to build a winery in the cool Casablanca Valley, inspired by his visit to New Zealand. In between, he helped launch the small boutique winery, Vina Porta, in the foothill of the Andes, and became head winemaker at Caliterra for the1994 vintage. Not one to twiddle his thumbs, except in a blending vat, he now also consults for the La Rosa winery and has embarked on a merlot, cabernet and chardonnay project with Chile's biggest winery, Concha y Toro.

With his reputation as a winemaker established and the Casablanca project well under way, Recabarren has joined forces with two partners to create a winery of his own - "my baby" - producing Bordeaux-style red wines close to Aquitania, the winery of Cousino Macul and Paul Pontallier, in the foothills of the mountains overlooking Santiago. After 20 years, Recabarren is on the threshold of fulfilling his dream of producing high-quality wines. And Chile is finding its personality

Recommended from Recabarren

1994 Santa Carolina Chenin Blanc pounds 4.49, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. A good value, clean, nicely rounded, appley chenin blanc with a Vouvray- like dry, citrus-crispness

1995 Santa Carolina Chardonnay, Lontue Valley pounds 4.49, Oddbins. Captures the vivid varietal fruitiness of chardonnay and rounds it out with just a hint of oak

1995 Vina Casablanca Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley pounds 4.99, Oddbins, Thos Peatlings East Anglia branches (01284-755948) Eldridge Pope Dorset branches (01305-251251). With the zip and zing of the new vintage, this peachy, ripe, lightly oak-tinged chardonnay is piercingly fresh and fruity

1994 Santa Carolina Chardonnay Reserve, Maipo Valley about pounds 5.49, Oddbins, Safeway. Aromatic with a delicately smoky note, this is a rich, full-throttle, barrel-fermented style

1994 Vina Casablanca Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Isabel Estate about pounds 6.99, Moreno, London W2 (0171-706 3055); Eldridge Pope. With its almost coffee- like French oak overlay, this smoky, blackcurranty, cool climate cabernet sauvignon, a first for the Casablanca Valley, needs a month or two to soften

1993 Santa Carolina Merlot Special Reserve pounds 5.25, selected Sainsbury's. Vibrantly youthful raspberry and plum-like fruitiness with a light veneer of oak