From the Irish Times, Saturday 6th February, 2016
We Irish have always liked the wines of Chile. They currently outsell Australia, France and every other country. Chile offers well-made wines at very keen prices, and dominates the sub- €10 section of most supermarkets. Move into the €10-15 section and it produces some seriously good wines that would cost €5-10 more if they came from any other country. They take their viticulture and winemaking very seriously, putting huge amounts of effort and money into researching the best grape varieties for each region, the best soils and terroirs.They are acknowledged masters of sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet. They even have their own signature grape, carménère, which can be very good in the right hands – try the Carmen carménère to see how it has come on. But somehow Chile has never seemed sexy. It has never attracted young hipster wine geeks looking to produce the kind of quirky, offbeat wines that you find in Europe.
Until recently, most large producers concentrated on well-known varieties that were in demand worldwide. The Maule Valley, farther south, was derided as a source of cheap wine for local consumption. But now, it seems, Chile is starting to do funky as well, using grapes grown in this unfashionable region. It was here that the first vines were planted in Chile, some 500 years ago. The vines are dry-farmed, or unirrigated, and grown without trellising, both highly unusual in Chile. Most are ancient; some, it is said, centuries old. The grapes are cinsault, carignan and even país, all varieties scorned by all for many years.
Carignan originated in Spain, where it is known as cariñena, and the Languedoc, where it adds colour and acidity to blends. It has been grown in Chile for centuries but most vines date from the 1940s, when it was planted widely following the 1939 earthquake.Six years ago 12 producers (now 17) banded together to form the Vignadores de Carignan, or Vigno for short, to protect and promote old-vine Carignan from the Maule Valley. All wines must come from dry-farmed old bush vines in the valley, and 65 per cent of them must be carignan. Odjfell, de Martino and Miguel Torres were all founding members.Even further south, Itata has old cinsault and even muscat vines. Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt (I featured his excellent cinsault Quellu last year) has led the field, and recently produced a wine made from 250-300-year-old país bush vines.
All of this interest has had a beneficial effect on the local economy: grape prices have increased very sharply recently, having been stagnant for many years. Land prices are also rising quickly as the big producers rush in to buy vines. Employment has increased, as old, untrained vines require much higher levels of manual labour.Sadly, this is one part of Chile that does not sell for less than €10. All of the wines I tasted here, and at the Wines of Chile tasting last year, cost more than €15 and were usually over the €20 mark. In addition to the wines below, the Montes Outer Limits Cinsault (€23.99, La Touche, Greystones; Clontarf Wines; Thomas’s, Foxrock; WineOnLine.ie) is a lovely example of soft, juicy cinsault.
The Catalan firm Torres was an early investor in Chile, and for a while it seemed as if it had missed out by locating itself south of all the action, in Curíco, close to the Maule Valley. However, it was perfectly placed to take advantage of the shift in interest farther south, and produced a sparkling wine called Estelado, and Reserva de Pueblo, a red wine, from the país grape, as well as the Cordillera Vigno below.De Martino has not only used ancient vines, but has revived ancient winemaking techniques. The wine below was vinified in 100-year-old clay tinajas or amphorae. The result is exceptional. But then all of today’s wines represent a fascinating slice of Chile’s history.
WINES OF THE WEEK
Fragrant red cherry and canned strawberries with an earthy note, and light tannins on the finish.
Stockists: Mitchell & Son, chq, Sandycove, Avoca; Blackrock Cellar
Deliciously meaty, rustic ripe dark fruits with a good tannic structure. Lovely wine. Stockists: Donnybrook Fair: Fresh, Smithfield; Hole in the Wall: Redmond’s: Sweeney’s; Dicey Reilly’s, Ballyshannon
Odfjell Orzada Carignan 2012, Maule Valley, Chile, 15%, €21.95
Big, powerful and bursting with ripe juicy dark fruits; a bracing acidity wrapped in a tannic cloak. With spicy beef or lamb dishes. Stockists: Searsons, Monkstown