Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Cool climate Chile

Grant Phelps, chief winemaker of Casas del Bosque, Chile, summarizes the amazing list of advantages which that country enjoys. He himself is not in the best of shapes, having flown in from the other side of the world and picked up some sort of bug on the way.  But he quickly warms to his task of describing a country which is close to a wine maker’s paradise:

  • great range of possible vineyard sites in this vastly long and thin country, a strip of land between the Andes and the ocean
  • some areas with ancient soils because of the lack of rivers in the valleys, enabling wine producers to chose between rich, tropical styles on new soils and more mineral, reserved styles on the old soils
  • highly reliable climate with virtually no rain in the growing season but plenty of water available from the snowmelt of the Andes
  • the lack of rain means very dry conditions and therefore virtually no disease; the country could easily go organic if it put its mind to it
  • season-long sunshine, with a particularly high level of luminosity, which leads to good photosynthesis and excellent ripening conditions
  • no phylloxera and very old Cabernet vines: 50-year-old vines, producing beautifully concentrated fruit, are common for wines that cost well under £10
  • inexpensive labour

There is one disadvantage: you have to budget for the winery to be destroyed by an earthquake perhaps every twenty-five years, but he doesn’t seem too concerned.  His brief is to produce the best possible wine without bankrupting the company.

Grant is pretty new in his current job, though he has made wines from the grapes of this estate before, as well as having previous experience in Chile, Argentina and his native New Zealand. What really inspires him are the possibilities for cool-climate wines in Chile.  In this part of the Casablanca valley they are between the coastal mountains and the Andes but the critical point is that they are only 18 kilometres from the sea.  As he drives to work in the morning it is typically misty, again cooling the vineyards, though the reliable sunshine soon burns that off. The Humboldt current brings cold water up from the Antarctic and cools the areas close to the sea.  It’s great for winemaking if not for swimmers.   In the hottest month, January, he has measured a maximum of 30º and a minimum of nearly 1º.  As a result, the biggest challenge is actually frost.  24 giant windmills have been built to mix up the layers of air, preventing the coldest air settling on the vines and killing buds in spring and leaves in autumn. They are expensive to run at about £13,000 per night and you might need them for 25 nights a year but they are essential.

Casas del BosqueThe resulting wines of the Casas del Bosque estate are classy and great value.  They typically show excellent, if reserved, fruit, are very clean in the modern manner and are balanced. They are all around the 13 or 13.5º alcohol mark but have good counterbalancing acidity. Grant helpfully explains that the reserva, gran reserva, etc designation in Chile means simply what the individual estate wants it to mean.  So all their entry-level wines, available at Grape Expectations for about £8, are ‘reserva’.  This may point to a problem about the meaning of words but there is no doubt that the wines are special.  We tasted:

from the Casablanca Valley:

  • Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009
  • Reserva Chardonnay 2009
  • Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2008
  • Gran Reserva Pinot Noir 2008, £11.50
  • Gran Reserva Syrah 2007, £11.50
  • Estate Selection Family Reserve 2006, the top wine, £27

plus from the warmer Rapel Valley, two and a half hours away:

  • Reserva Carmenere 2009
  • Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Grant and Tim Of these, I particularly enjoyed the Pinot Noir with its good cherry fruit and some complexity and the Gran Reserva Chardonnay – a fine combination of moderate oak and lively citrusy fruit.  The Cabernet, as with all the reservas, is exceptional value for money. The Syrah is unusual being grown at the limits of temperature tolerance – yes, it is genuinely cool in parts of Chile.   But the point is they are all good.

Thanks to Grant and to Tim Pearce of Grape Expectations for putting on this excellent and highly informative tasting.  You couldn’t really have more information, short of going to the winery itself. And that is high praise.

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