I remember when Chilean wine first hit the U.S. market in the 1980s. This South American spindle of a country came to the game with a winemaking climate as perfect as any in the world, low land and labor costs, and a small domestic market that meant there was an export-driven culture.
They took what sold: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Chardonnay and Napa Sauvignon and just re-did it down in Chile. Even with the costs of shipping through the Panama Canal, Chilean wines were cheap and cheerful when they arrived in stores and on restaurant wine lists in the eastern and central U.S. It was a case of “anything you can do, I can do cheaper”. This strategy was effective at attaining a foothold in the U.S. market, the country’s primary export destination, but over time the Chilean wine industry started to experience the effects of outside competition and the country’s own economic success. Twenty years of virtually unbroken economic growth under a new democratic government meant that labor costs started to rise. Even more of a shock was the appreciation of the peso relative to the dollar. Simultaneously, competition increased from a re-emergent Argentinean wine industry bolstered by a two-thirds currency devaluation following a currency crisis in 2001. Australia also flooded the low end of the U.S. wine market with an endless succession of ‘critter’ wines.
Chile needed a new script. That script was to move up the quality ladder and make wines that were distinctive and did not depend solely on price to be successful. This week I met a man who has been in the center of those changes, Rodrigo Soto, winemaker for Huneeus Vintners Chilean properties. He was visiting Texas to promote his latest wines and we got together to taste some of the latest vintages and talk about happenings in Chilean wine. Wine industry veteran Augustin Huneeus has built a family of brands that straddles California and Chile. In the U.S. Quintessa Winery, in Napa Valley, is the jewel in the crown but other labels include “The Prisoner”, a popular Napa Valley red blend, Saldo Zinfandel, and others. Soto is in charge of the Chilean wine making, where the labels are Veramonte, Primus, Ritual and a joint venture with Neyen.
The Veramonte label aims to be a popular-priced ($10-$15) volume label. Although the volumes were smaller than I expected (around 130,000 cases/year). This is the label that most closely follows the initial Chilean model that I described above. The grape varieties are the usual suspects: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The now obligatory (on fashion grounds) rosé and, somewhat audaciously, a Carménère (Carménère is much less well known than the other varieties in the lineup and can be tricky to do well). The grapes are grown on the estate ( Huneeus-owned) vineyards in Chile’s lush central valley areas of Colchagua and Casablanca and from independent growers in the Maipo Valley. Despite Chile’s vertical extension of 2,600 miles, all of these areas are within 50 miles of the capital, Santiago (which, incidentally, makes Chile one of the world’s most convenient countries for wine tourism).
The Primus label does to wine quality what Mick Taylor did to the Stones guitar section when he replaced Brian Jones. It’s a palpable step up in quality with prices to match ($15-$20). It is also a tighter focus – just four wines. They are all red, and all built around the Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and, odd man out, Carménère. These wines go head-to-head with Napa Cabernets and blends and stand comparison. It is the now familiar same-quality-at-a-lower-price-point story, but in the boutique, not mass-market, end of the market.
The Ritual label (not to be confused with the California winery with a similar name) sells at about the same price as Primus but focuses on the Casablanca Valley as its grape source. The Casablanca Valley is intriguing, with possibly the best cool-climate areas in the central valley that may make great Pinot Noir and Chablis-style Chardonnay. The jury is still out as quality improves each year in this relatively unexplored area. Soto is making an impressive Pinot Noir. It is a doppelgänger for a Sonoma County Russian River Valley Pinot. The 2011 that I tasted had forward fruit of raspberry with cloves and coffee and soft, lush tannins that made it ready to drink now despite its (southern hemisphere) youth. Part of the explanation for this style may lie in Soto’s six years making wine at Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma Valley, California.
Ritual also has a Sauvignon Blanc (not tasted).
The Neyen label is the jewel in the Huneeus crown – an uncompromising attempt to make the best wine in Chile. I first tasted this 80/20 blend of Carménère/Cabernet Sauvignon at Savor Dallas’s reserve tasting this Spring. It was the revelation of that show. A few questions revealed that the reason a wine could deliver such quality, seemingly out of nowhere, was that the grapes were from mature vines (some over 70 years old), but the crop had previously been sold to make what many people consider the best wine in Chile: Casa Lapostolle, Clos Apalta. We tasted the 2008 and I was struck by its intensity of fruit and the subtlety of the flavors embodied in the wine. It is somewhat inscrutable at present but will improve for maybe 10 years.
With the four labels in mind I peppered Soto with some random questions. I have indicated when the answer is a quote. The others are my paraphrasing of his answer.
What is the future for the Veramonte brand?
He is considering narrowing the range of varieties to focus on its strengths. Further efforts at making distinctive wines will be made but the label cannot abandon its price point.
Why no sparkling wine from Chile? The cost of making Champagne means that the French provide a de facto retail price umbrella of $25+ for the category. The Italians have astutely stepped in with quality Proseccos. Why not Chile?
There are sparkling wines from Chile and he would not rule out making one, in which case he would go with traditional Champagne varieties. He reveals that there is even the little known, but integral, Pinot Meunier grape growing in the country.
Do you plan to expand your grape catchment area?
He sees more reason to go south, than north. Soil studies north of the valle central show the same type of soil as in the Maipo Valley but a lack of water means that it is sterile. Southwards is more promising.
I had a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc from Leyda. So far as I know, the production method was fairly conventional but unlike 90% of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc it was really distinctive due to a flinty flavor that French might term gout de terroir. It reminded me of some of the wines from the Loire. When the New Zealanders started exporting Sauvignon Blanc wines they had a style all of their own and just said to the world ‘This is how sauvignon Blanc should taste’. Any plans to take on your Sauvignon Blanc as a project to make a really distinctive variation?
He has lots of projects and is very open to new styles of Sauvignon Blanc. He doesn’t think he could establish a new model for Sauvignon Blanc single-handedly but maybe try a small bottling reserve one year and go from there.
Every grape seems to grow successfully in Chile, have you tried the difficult Italian varieties, Nebbiolo or Sangiovese?
“In terms of trying Italian varieties, the answer is no, we have not try yet. And probably that will come with time, at this time we have been very French in our approach to varieties and winemaking. I am sure there are some micro climates and locations that will be very well suited for Italian varieties. But in my opinion the innovation needs to come in refining what we have and do it very well with precision, passion and good use of knowledge and technology. We cannot continue making low end wines, we need to reinvest and focus 100% in quality.”
Any plans for a dessert wine?
“Desert wine is in my plan, we are starting with a little bit of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Vert. But just as an experiment. I think it will take some time, but definitely worth a try.”
What wines will we see next from Veramonte, Primus, Ritual and Neyen?
“You will see a complete renovation in the wines coming from us, in terms of tannin structure, precision, fruit character, smoothness and roundness. As I said before, with all the changes we are doing in the farming (organic and Biodynamic), plus all the investment we are doing in the winery we are focusing in presenting outstanding quality at every different price point. And that comes with the adjectives that I just describe. I am personally totally committed to eliminate forever the bad descriptor of “Chilean Character” in our wines. I totally understand how polite people have been saying this instead of short, drying and green. In my view, all the wines, no matter in which category need to be absolutely delicious and enjoyable. As we go further up in price point and effort in producing them, we can add more complexity to the conversation, but the purpose of wine is to make or create a remarkable experience around food and friends. And for that it needs to be a perfect match.”
Why does Ritual not have a Chardonnay, given the success of that grape in Casablanca? “I am glad that you ask, because I am working on that project right now. First, we are changing our farming in a very dramatic way in order to secure the quality and longevity of our vineyards. Through the process, of course, you start paying a lot more attention to details and you start discovering really interesting things. We have some blocks of old Wente selection (AC: a clone of Chardonnay) planted in the mid 90’s. I think there is tremendous potential, it just need to be farmed accordingly to the quality a bottle of Ritual requires.”
“In terms of new wines, we are working on a lot of projects , small quantities and remarkable quality. I hope to surprise you on next visit, and for sure I hope to see you again soon.”
Rodrigo, thank you for your time.