Wine: Red-hot Chile

July's first light dusting of white over the Andes signals a change of season in Chile. And with the snow comes the guarantee of irrigation for next summer's vintage from the snowmelt waters from the mountains. And thanks to the supply of mountain water, Chile isn't so crippled by drought as is the case in its New World "competitor" Australia.

The new-vintage sauvignon blancs already look invitingly aromatic and refreshing; and if winemakers are generally happy with the quality of their red wines, they're in raptures over the quality of their 2007 reds. Many believe the 2007 reds surpass the fine 2005 and 2003 vintage in quality. If so, there's every good reason to think that this vintage will enhance Chile's growing reputation as a producer not just of good-value varietals but of superior quality reds and whites too.

Maybe through isolation and the language barrier, Chile has not shouted as loudly of its progress as Australia, South Africa or New Zealand; but that's not to say it doesn't have as much to communicate. In fact recent years have seen a sea-change in Chilean wines for a variety of reasons. Exporting the equivalent of four in every five bottles produced makes it the biggest exporter pro rata of any major wine-producing country. Yet Chileans themselves are at last waking up to the improved quality of their own country's wines. They have started to buy and demand better, both on the Santiago high street and in restaurants. Ten years ago "red or white" would have done, but go to a Chilean household for dinner nowadays and eyebrows are politely raised if you haven't sought out a wine of at least the quality of an Errazuriz, a Montes, a Medalla Real or Marques de Casa Concha.

The most dramatic signs of progress are to be seen in the expansion of the Chilean wine map. The first extension runs 1,200 kilometres from the northern valleys of Elqui and Limari south to Bio-Bio along the north-south Andean backbone. Equally significant is the expansion of the east-west axis as the Pacific Ocean fogs and the poor but vine-friendly soils of the coastal ranges have become recognised as significant influences. Hence considerable excitement at the extension of cool Casablanca Valley to the San Antonio and Leyda Valleys close to the Pacific for grape varieties like aromatic sauvignon blanc and crisp chardonnay, of Elqui and Limari up north, and Bio-Bio down south for scented whites, syrah and pinot noir. The import of improved plant material is also starting to play a major role in improving the quality of just about every grape variety with the possible exception of the more established cab sav and carmenère.

It's a curious phenomenon that until relatively recently Chile was somewhat confused about what it had planted in its vineyards. First, what it thought was sauvignon turned out to be a poor relation and then its "merlot" turned out to be the ancient Bordeaux variety carmenère. After reluctantly accepting reality, Chile has turned this USP to its advantage by replacing merlot in its affections with carmenère. With the emergence of cooler regions, the potential for good-value pinot noir is enormous, while syrah (Australia's shiraz) is showing the most rapid growth for its equal potential. As our palates become increasingly stultified by the powerful warm climate shirazes of Australia and South Africa, Chile is capable of a more amenable and refreshing alternative with its growing population of spicy, peppery, cool-climate syrahs. Don't be fooled by all these developments into thinking that the welcome growth in alternatives will replace cabernet sauvignon any time soon. With 40,000 hectares under vine, considerably more than Bordeaux, cabernet is still king and the crown is safe for the foreseeable future.

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