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Exploring Chilean Wine Country with Gillian Sciaretta

Wed, May 03, 23

by Gillian Sciaretta

If there’s one takeaway I have from my time exploring the wine regions in Chile, it’s that the future, like the Chilean sun, is exceptionally bright.  


I was lucky enough to go to Chile this past April where I visited a select group of wineries: Undurraga, Clos Apalta, Vinedo Chadwick (including a Sena tasting) and Miguel Torres.  


This was my first time in South America, and my goal was to gain a better understanding of this country, whose winemaking capabilities are often unfairly generalized to being mostly value-driven Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. I knew there was more to Chile’s wines than that, and I wanted to see it and taste it for myself.  


Winemakers here are quick to give you a necessary overview of the extreme diversity of soils and climate-types Chile encompasses. And it’s mindboggling.  


Chile is a thin strip of land – over 2,600 miles long sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains. Its position creates a massive cooling effect, which sucks cool ocean air inland. Vineyards are located in the central part of the country reaching as far north as the Atacama Region to as far south as Bio Bio, with a distance in between of over 800 miles. That’s a distance greater than Seattle is from San Francisco! 


Each wine region has three unique growing zones going from west to east: The Costas (cooler coastal regions), Entre Cordilleras (warm inland valleys) and Los Andes (exposed mountainous areas). When it comes to the diversity of soils found here, it’s not a question of what they have, but rather what they don’t. Volcanic, alluvial, limestone, calcareous, granite, slate, loam...the list goes on.


What makes Chile so exciting when it comes to winemaking is that many of these regions are just starting to tap into their potential. The trail-blazing winemakers uncovering these new vineyard lands are like kids in a mega candy store that have been given free rein taste and explore with seemingly wild abandon.


Simply put, the new generation of wines being produced here are impressive. From Champagne-method sparkling wines to mineral-driven Chardonnays to complex Carmeneres to Cornas-worthy Syrahs to world-class Bordeaux blends, it is as difficult to generalize the types of wines you find here as you could with the wines from France, Spain or Italy.  


Chile, a sleeping giant, is awakening and finding its confidence and unique voice in the world of wine. To the benefit of wine lovers, it’s a place to uncover seemingly endless treasures.  


Please find below the list of wineries I visited along with some notes on each including the wines we carry here at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace.


Undurraga, established in 1885, is one of Chile’s oldest wineries, and in 1903 it became the first “New World” wine to be imported into the United States. Flash forward to today, the team, led by winemaker Rafael Urrejola, is pushing to new heights with their experimental wine line, Terroir Hunter, which I had the pleasure of tasting through.   


These are wines made from selected vineyard parcels in Chile’s most special terroirs. These wines range from Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays to red varieties including Syrah, Montepulciano Pinot Noir, Pais, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 


One of my favorites in the lineup is the one we carry at Gary’s as a Direct to Gary’s Exclusive, the 2020 Undurraga Terroir Hunter Pais Cinsault. Mostly Pais, a historically important red grape variety in Chile, this lighter bodied red has a silky texture. On the nose, delicate aromas of red fruits such as strawberries stand out, accompanied by subtle notes of herbs, black tea and wildflowers with soft earthy touches. On the palate it is elegant, juicy, with pleasant tannins and easy to drink. It’s perfect for Pinot Noir or Gamay fans!


I was also able to taste another Direct to Gary’s wine we carry from Undurraga, which is their flagship 2019 Field Blend. This red embodies the essence of the Maule valley inside and out. The purpose and objective of this old, single-vineyard wine is to pay ‘homage to the pioneering farming families who planted the first vines on these lands.’ Earning 95 points from both Wine Advocate and Wine & Spirits Magazine, this mostly-Malbec blend is tremendously floral, perfumed and nuanced, elegant and showy, open and expressive. It’s ripe but has very good freshness, and the oak is neatly integrated, and the acidity is vibrant and lifts the wine up. It’s super tasty and persistent  


Lastly, another exciting Undurraga wine we carry as an exclusive is the 2019 Vigno Old Vine Carignan. Vigno is a collaborative project to promote old vine Carignan wines from Maule. Old vine Carignan is a neglected gem in the Chilean wine industry. It was first planted on a large scale in Maule in the early 1940s, when, in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake in 1939, the Ministry of Agriculture proposed encouraging the planting of Carignan to improve the region’s wines. The reasoning was that the naturally high acidity and color of Carignan would improve the local wines.


For more than 50 years the vineyards of Maule have been home to dry grown, old vine Carignan. Previously a grape variety that was used to blend, Chilean winemakers are now realizing they have an untapped resource. Undurraga’s 2019 Vigno, which also earned 95 points from Wine Advocate, has intense aromas of raspberry and cherry with subtle hints of smoke and black pepper. Red fruits and spicy notes on the palate. Nice spiciness too! This red, I feel is perfect for fans of Southern Rhone reds like Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Miguel Torres Chile

Miguel Torres, a leading, family-owned Spanish winemaking company, was the first foreign wine company to arrive in Chile in 1979. Almost immediately, Torres made a lasting impact on Chile’s industry when they introduced modern winemaking practices such as stainless steel and French oak barriques.  

Today, Miguel Torres Chile makes wines in nine different appellations in Chile ranging from the single-vineyard Manso de Velasco, which sources Cabernet grapes from vines planted in 1905, to their Cordillera range that includes a Chardonnay grown in the recently planted Limari Valley, one of the northernmost winegrowing regions in Chile, located 200 miles north of Santiago.  


Leading the charge at Miguel Torres Chile is head winemaker Eduardo Jordán, who spends more time in the vineyards than the winery because for him, great wines are made in the vineyard.  

My highlights from the visit:  


Overall, the Miguel Torres Cordillera range, is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive lines of wines out there in terms of quality-to-price ratios. From sparkling to still whites and reds, the 7 varietal-wine lineup hits the nail on the head with each bottling.


The 2020 Miguel Torres Cordillera Chardonnay was in Gary’s Top 10 Wines of 2022 and is a perfect example of the potential of the Limari Valley. This bright valley with its chalky soils, characterized by being deep clayey loam and alluvial terrain, as well as its maritime influence, has excellent conditions for growing the Chardonnay variety.  Fans of Chablis will love this bottling. It is mineral driven on the palate, with plenty of volume, elegant acidity and lasting rich fruity aromas, ending with a fresh, long finish.


Not to be missed is the 2020 Miguel Torres Cordillera de los Andes Reserva Especial Cabernet Sauvignon. This super elegant Cabernet comes from the famous Maipo Valley. It offers an exquisite aroma displaying classic notes of forest fruit, blackberries, and hints of leather. Wonderfully elegant on the palate, with soft tannins and a lingering finish of fruit and spices. It’s a steal for under $20. 


Lastly, I tasted the Carmenere from the Cordillera range, which was one of the better affordable Carmeneres I have tasted in a long time. The dark-skinned grape variety originally hails from the vineyards of Bordeaux but has found a particularly suitable home in Chile. A late ripening variety, Carménère needs high levels of sunshine and a warm summer to reach its full potential. The Cordillera range version shows the grape’s elegant side, with nice round tannins and flavors of wild berries, bay leaf, anise and leather.

Clos Apalta

“Clos Apalta is where Bordeaux meets Burgundy. Bordeaux in terms of the grape varieties and Burgundy in terms of the various changes in terroir on the property,” said Charles de Bournet, CEO of Domaines Bournet-Lapostolle, to me as we drove an ATV around Clos Apalta’s mountainside vineyards. If there were official Grand Crus of Chile, there’s no doubt that Clos Apalta would be one of them.  


Clos Apalta was founded in the 1990s by Charles’ mother, the Grand Marnier heiress, Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle and her husband, Cyril de Bournet, with the goal to make Old World Bordeaux blends that would put this New World region on the map. Today, Charles oversees the winery and its hospitality components, which include a handful of ultra-luxurious casitas that are managed by Relais & Chateaux and located next to the winery.  


The winery, designed renowned Chilean architect, Roberto Benavente Riquelme, is a masterpiece that melds together art, engineering and winemaking. The 38,700-square-foot winery is built into a hillside of the vineyard, and four of its six floors are underground.  


Here, Carmenere takes center stage in both the vineyards and the wine, which is accompanied by other Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The key to Clos Apalta’s signature freshness is the unique orientation of the organic, hillside vineyards, which decreases the amount of sunshine by two hours.

Clos Apalta’s numerous accolades (including a #1 ranking by Wine Spectator) are too long to list, but these stunning bottlings are a must for collectors of high-end Bordeaux, Napa Cabernet and Super Tuscans.  


Clos Apalta 2019PRE-ARRIVAL at time of publishing 

Clos Apalta Le Petit Clos 2019PRE-ARRIVAL at time of publishing

Vinedo Chadwick/Sena

When Eduardo Chadwick took over his father’s Chilean winery, he was frustrated. He was frustrated because he felt that Chilean wines were not getting enough respect from wine publications and that his wines were not earning the scores he believed they deserved.  


So, in 2004, he decided to take the matter into his own hands and organize a major blind tasting event where his wines would compete against some of the world’s best. The blind tasting was held in Berlin and saw 16 wines – six Chilean, six French, and four Italian from the 2000 and 2001 vintage, ranked by 36 judges made up of Europe’s top wine writers and wine buyers.  


More specifically, the bottles Eduardo put his Cabernet-based reds up against included Chateau Lafite 2000, Chateau Margeaux 2000, Chateau Latour 2000 and Solaia 2000. Maybe you’ve heard of them? 

When Eduardo found out one of his wines made the top 5, he was relieved. But when he found out his wines, the 2000 Vinedo Chadwick and the 2001 Sena, earned the number 1 and the number 2 spots, respectively, he was elated.  


The wine world was - as the kids say - shook.


The 2004 Berlin Tasting was one for the wine-history books and proved that Chile does produce world-class wines. Today, the wines from Vinedo Chadwick and Sena are some of Chile’s most sought-after.  


The story of the wine, Sena, presents a unique link with between Chile and one of California’s most famous wine-figures, Robert Mondavi. Following his intuition, in 1995 Eduardo Chadwick pioneered a joint venture with Robert Mondavi to handcraft a world-class Chilean wine. Chadwick searched alongside Mondavi for four long years before finding the ideal terroir in Chile’s Valle de Aconcagua that spoke to their instincts. Seña is the culmination of their vision. 


When I was in Santiago, I was able to have dinner with Vinedo Chadwick and Sena’s managing director, Juan Carlos Pagola, who brought along a vertical of Sena with the 2020, 2015 and 2009 bottlings. All the vintages were considered “warm vintages”, but through the wines Juan Carlos proved that despite the hot conditions, the old-vines were largely unaffected and maintained great freshness and complexity.  


These wines rival any classic Bordeaux-blend benchmarks and do a seamless job of combining old-world varieties with new world terroirs.  


Lucky for you, we still have some bottles of the high-scoring 2019 Sena left!

By Diane Jamgochian