A new frontier in Chile for a rapidly growing wine industry

Recent successes in Valle de Malleco, the wine growing region farthest to the country’s south, bring Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to the Chilean market, inspiring excitement over the unexplored possibilities of a cooler, wetter climate.

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With cooler temperatures and more rain than Chile’s primary wine growing regions in the Central Valley, Región de la Araucanía is poised to become the country’s next major wine growing region. A report in La Tercera points to a small handful of vintners, both foreign and Chilean, who have turned to the southern region in recent years as an ideal testing ground for two classic varietals: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Though there are Chardonnays and Pinot Noir’s crown in some of Chile’s more established regions, the most successful Chilean wines tend to be workhorse red varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenére, and the popular white varietal Sauvignon Blanc.

Though grapes are grown predominantly for pisco as far north as the Atacama and Coquimbo (about 400 kms north of Santiago), the majority of wine grown in Chile is produced in the four administrative regions of the Central Valley. Surrounding Santiago and stretching some 250 kms to the south, the sub-regions of this area produce Chile’s best-known wines, particularly those of the fertile Maipo, Colchagua and Maule Valleys. Farther South than the Maule Valley, large scale wine production tapers out, ending with relatively few vineyards sprinkled through the Bío-Bío Region, nearly 500 kms south of Santiago. Temuco, the most recent place of interest for Chilean winemakers, lies some 170 kms to the south of Bío Bío.

Among the first vintners to begin experimenting in La Araucanía was the team behind the Maipo Valley’s successful Viña Aquitania. In 1995, Aquitania purchased land in Traiguén, near Temuco, and planted its first Chardonnay vines, an early-maturing variety specific to the cooler regions of Europe. The first Chardonnays from the vineyard were released in 2000 under the name Sol de Sol. During these years the area around Traiguén was so recently planted it had not been assigned a denomination of origin. Due to the extraordinary quality of Sol de Sol’s 2002 Chardonnay, the Minister of Agriculture created the denomination Valle de Malleco, área de Traiguén.

The Sol de Sol team did not turn its attentions toward Pinot Noir until 2006. Felipe de Solminihac, the sole Chilean on Aquitania’s four-person team, explained, “we wanted to see for certain that the conditions in the vineyard would work well. In the second place, to make Pinot Noir is much more difficult than other varietals.”

The notoriously temperamental Pinot Noir grape also produces some of the world’s most beloved wines, particularly those hailing from the chill regions of Northeastern France, where the classic vineyards of Burgundy produce wines almost exclusively using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Climatic similarities with this region encouraged Solminihac and his team to import their first Chardonnay vines. “The temperatures and rains [in La Araucanía] are very similar with the difference that in Chile, in La Araucanía, the summer months are drier than in Burgundy (France).”

As with any wine, even the most minute differences in climate and soil result in dramatically different expressions of the same grape. The team behind Aquitania and Sol de Sol has no interest in imitating the classic Pinot Noirs of France, nor their juicier Californian cousins. “We are making a particular, new type of wine. It will not be like those grown in California, for example. California is completely different.” La Araucanía’s climate allows the grapes to mature longer than those in Burgundy, resulting in higher sugar content. The end result, Solminihac says, is a heavily aromatic Pinot Noir, fuller bodied and with a higher alcohol content than its French counterparts.

The winemakers at Aquitania are not the only ones exploring the possibilities of La Araucanía. La Tercera pointed to several other Chilean winemakers who have turned to the wilds of Region IX, including the all-Chilean team behind Clos de Fou, and the larger VC Family Estates. Following in the footsteps of Sol de Sol, these vintners will also base their new projects around Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, introducing another major varietal into Chile’s roster of globally recognized fine wines.