New Releases from Chile

The growth and diversification of the Chilean wine industry continue apace.  Most of the country's best producers are now working with American importers, which until recently wasn't necessarily a given, and most of those importers have distribution that puts the best Chilean wines within the reach of more American wine lovers than ever before.  Chilean wines at all but the highest price points are moving well, worldwide, and this success has encouraged a growing number of producers to become more adventurous, whether in site selection, choice of varieties to plant or, especially, styles of wine to make.  I saw more wines of real individuality, of real character, this year than ever before--as opposed to merely "safe" wines.

At the same time a growing number of small producers has been emboldened to produce wines on what would have been considered an untenably small scale just a few years ago.  Many of these "garage" wineries are part of a new trade group known as MOVI (Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes;, and, in finding international distribution, they have overcome the stereotype of Chilean wine being large-scale and commercial.  In fact, most of the large wineries themselves have taken a leap into limited-production bottlings, usually with positive results.

Even the stereotype of industrial-scale production is becoming obsolete.  More than ever before, producers are focusing on their vineyards, having realized that there's only so much that can be accomplished in the winery, even with unlimited technology at their disposal.  In the 1980s Chile,  like most New World wine-producing countries, fell into the Better Wine Through Lab Work trap that resulted in far too many anonymous, interchangeable bottlings that tasted as if they were made by marketing people rather than by winemakers, much less from sites with distinctive character.  For the majority of wine-drinkers, that's fine, and always will be.  But serious wine lovers want to drink wines made by real people, from real vineyards tended by real growers.  They want personality with their wines.

When I traveled through Chile in January I found it interesting--and exciting--that most of my time with producers was spent in the vineyards.  I spent much time in the vines, or in sites where I could take in the topography of the vineyards, the majority of them hillside, by the way.  A decade ago the wines were being made to a model, usually a French one, and most winemaking discussions centered around cellar techniques, cooperage, and so on.  Most of the producers I talked to this year, on the other hand, were more interested in discussing soil differences, clonal selections, vineyard orientations, elevations and exposures, proximity to either the Andes or the ocean, and harvest timing.  "What has to happen in the winery is pretty standard wherever you are," one winemaker told me.  "Chile's next move, and a more important one, is to make sure that we're working with the best possible sites and grapes so that we can make wines that are individual, not imitations."

The next generation of Chilean producers is mostly highly educated, well-traveled and fluent in the ways of the international market.  They're pretty clear on the fact that they're competing against established countries and regions that can cruise on centuries-old fame.  They're also acutely aware of the challenge they face to convince a spoiled-for-choice marketplace that their wines should be taken seriously and judged on their own merits rather than as cheap substitutes for wines from famous appellations.  While it's necessary to look out at the world to assess the competition, and even to be inspired by it, it's a more daunting matter to have the cojones to look into your own world and be self-critical.  I've got my fingers crossed that the Chilean wine industry's move to self-examination and growing willingness to take risks continues, as the results so far are very encouraging.