A profile of the visionaries behind the Chilean wine renaissance

Colchagua Valley is the most internationally-renowned of Chile’s wine regions, and home to the innovative viticulturalists who launched Chile onto the world stage.

A man harvest grapes in the Montes vineyard of central Chile. (Photo by Montes Wine/Facebook)
A man harvest grapes in the Montes vineyard of central Chile. (Photo by Montes Wine/Facebook)

Chile’s vineyards are among the oldest in the New World, harboring age-old varieties that can be found in no other country.

But until just a few decades ago, the Chilean wine industry was content to produce cheap, bulk wines for the local market.

Then, little by little, innovative viticulturalists started getting ambitious – scouring the country’s varied terior and experimenting with its grape strains, in search of high end, Chilean wine. Now, Chile is known for producing some of the most unique and complex red wines in the world – and is fast gaining a reputation for its white wines as well.

“When I arrived, I felt like I’d always known this place, as if from another life,” Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, a local winemaker, told The Wall Street Journal of her arrival to the Colchagua Valley in 1994.

The Colchagua Valley is now considered the country’s premier wine destination – and indeed, one of the premier destinations around the world – but when Lapostolle arrived, it was a different story.

“The owners apologized and told me that the yields were low,” she said. “Originally the vines had been irrigated but the water was diverted to a nearby town. And I said, that’s what I’m looking for, low yields. Rocky soil. It’s perfect.”

Perfect for high-quality wines, that is – whereas fertile soil results in high yields, it also makes for a more diluted wine.

Soon after Lapostolle purchased her vineyard, an event occurred that is now legendary among wine circles. A French wine researcher, or “ampelographer,” discovered a lost grape in Chile’s vineyards, which for years had been thought to be Merlot.

The lost grape was Carmenere, a variety thought extinct after a devastating phylloxera epidemic, in 19th-century Europe. Like many Chilean vineyard owners, Lapostolle discovered that a substantial part of her old vineyard was composed of Carmenere.

Now Casa Lapostolle’s signature red, Clos Apalta, is up to 78 percent Carmenere, and is recognized internationally for its outstanding quality. In 2008, the seminal Wine Spectator declared it the best wine in the world.

Meanwhile, some of Lapostolle’s Colchagua neighbors have been producing top-end wines for even longer. Aurelio Montes, of Montes wines, is considered one of Chile’s premium wine pioneers.

Beginning in 1987 as a fledgling and high-risk venture with two friends, Montes was one of the first Chilean viticulturists to plant on hills – and his experimentation has led to some of the country’s great new wine terroirs.

“Their 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, made from a 100-year-old Cabernet vineyard in the Curicó region and released under the label Montes Alpha, was arguably Chile’s first super-premium wine and gained them a following upon release,” writes wine critic Jay McInerney.

Since 2005 Montes has also produced a Carmenere, Purple Angel, that McInerney describes as “superb, spicy.”

Thanks to pioneers like Montes and Lapostolle, the “secret” of the Colchagua Valley is reaching the rest of the world. But the pioneer spirit lives on in Chile, with new regions establishing themselves in desert oases in the north and amid glacial valleys in the south, and a whole new world of Chilean white wine beginning to make its presence felt on the global stage.

For more information about vineyards and new wine regions, check out Wines of Chile.