It has never been easy to find a compelling narrative for South American wines. For the most part, the relevant word has been “reliable.” Argentina has its reliable malbec, always—one of those great yet infernal success stories, like New Zealand with sauvignon blanc, where a country’s wine hopes are flattened into a monotone. Chile’s history is more complicated. In recent years, it has been known for competent cabernet sauvignon, along with equally competent pinot noir from the cool Casablanca Valley and sauvignon blanc that, too, was utterly reliable.
If that last paragraph doesn’t sound thrilling, well, you’re getting the idea why Chilean wine hasn’t quite taken the world by storm. Over the years, there have been attempts to create interest in things like carménère—a smoky, vegetal red variety that migrated from Bordeaux in the 19th century. Its plantings were largely lost to history back in France, so Chile has a near monopoly. Has the world trembled? It has not.
Primarily, Chile has enjoyed the success of a handful of very large wine companies, including Concha y Toro and Santa Rita, which make completely acceptable and affordable wine. A few high-profile outsiders, like the Rothschild family (Los Vascos), have similarly provided consistency that was—wait for it—reliable.
What happened to Chile? Certainly it doesn’t lack for history. Wine has been present since conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, followed by missionaries who primarily cultivated a grape called país (known in the United States, sensibly, as mission). Its industry was largely developed by a mix of French expats and Chilean businessmen who turned to France in the 19th century to import a range of more fashionable varieties—cabernet and so on—which helped build a thriving industry for a while. Chile was also the rare place to escape the scourge of phylloxera, thus becoming a repository of old-school genetic material.
But Chile fell prey to a tale we tell a lot nowadays—the one about choosing to make safe, profitable wines over a sense of daring. This always ends with consistency becoming the hobgoblin of little wine minds. And there’s a related story: how a wine region’s ambitious producers chase an anodyne, internationalist style, just in time for the world to lose its taste for such things. Both things happened in Chile in the late 20th century, and both were sensible responses from an industry that had been held back by Chile’s grim political past, namely the reign of dictator Augusto Pinochet. So Chilean wines were, you know, fine. They just weren’t compelling.
In the mid-2000s, an alternate story began to percolate. It could be traced to a number of people, but in particular Louis-Antoine Luyt, a Burgundian who began making wine in the Maule Valley. At first Luyt focused on things like old-vine carignan, which still can be found in abundance in Chile. But by 2007 he also was drawn to país, which had been widely planted, initially for sacramental wine and for basic table drinking. País, along with carignan, continue to be used in the Chilean countryside to make the farmhouse wine known as pipeño, a straightforward drink often aged in redwood pipas, and sold informally from town to town.
To Luyt and other pioneers, like Roberto Henríquez, it represented a legitimate tradition—simple farmer wine made using rudimentary tools—that deserved respect, at a time when the world was looking for wines that felt more rooted in place and time. Not only did pipeño have tradition behind it, it also tapped Chile’s other exceptional resource: some of the world’s oldest, own-rooted vines. It’s hardly unique for a new wine movement to rely on old vines, but in Chile’s case there’s the ability to throw serious shade on pretty much any other country’s “old vines.”
The contours of the New Chile are broader than this, of course. The work of Pedro Parra, a soil consultant and winemaker, has helped to give far more precision and detail to understanding the country’s terroir. And large wineries, including Cocha y Toro and J. Bouchon, are now circling back and making their own país, an unthinkable development a few years ago, when the grape was considered trashy and low-quality, unable to produce more than the simplest of wines.
If these wines represent a smidgen of Chile’s overall production, well, that’s no different than what happened with the New California a few years ago, or what’s happening in France or Australia or Spain. Most are juicy and light-footed and utterly pleasurable without having to think too much—the exact type of wine that enjoys total currency among today’s drinkers. Pipeños from Luyt and Cacique Maravilla are sold in one-liter bottles, to telegraph that willful informality.
None of that should overshadow their real value as the first South American success story to find traction in a while. They’re thrilling and immediately enjoyable, yes. But they also have brought wine’s postmodern tale to a new continent.
- Many of the New Chilean wines come primarily from the country’s southernmost growing areas. That’s largely because the concentration of país, and old vines, is strongest in the southern regions of Maule, Itata and Bío-Bío. But threads of the movement can be found in most wine areas, which spread for hundreds of miles south of Santiago.
- In the New Chile’s most famous creation story, Luyt turned to legendary Beaujolais producer Marcel Lapierre, who accompanied Luyt on visits down Maule’s country roads. The two made what would become the ur-wine of New Chile, El País de Quenehuao, a país made in a carbonic style similar to Lapierre’s Morgon. But the French connection with Chilean wine has existed for nearly two centuries. Today, other expats are making high-profile wines, including Maitía’s David Marcel (French Basque) and Garage Wine’s Derek Mossman Knapp (Canadian).
- The New Chilean roster has gotten a boost from natural-wine supporters on several continents. That’s logical, as many país vineyards remained too remote and noncommercial to ever require chemical farming; and the rudimentary winemaking unintentionally takes a chapter from natural-wine playbook.
- The pipeño tradition is predominantly red, but there is a white-wine pipeño tradition as well, much of it based on moscatel (muscat of Alexandria), effectively the white-grape counterpart to país. The variety is increasingly used to make a white pipeño and other, similar wines.
- Cinsault—the workhorse grape of southeastern France—also has a long and worthy history in Chile, often as a counterpart to país, and old vines are used to make varietal versions.
- Cabernet sauvignon, the country’s most planted wine grape, isn’t being left out of the New Chilean trend. While producers might find it surreal for lowly país to have trumped cabernet in popularity, more are seeing the need to make less commercially obvious versions. There’s also progress toward nuance with things like pinot noir in the Casablanca Valley.
- One surprise with the pipeño wines is how fresh they taste. Their acidity—a trait in which país is notoriously deficient—is somehow well preserved with traditional winemaking. And this trait is sure to be explored in the near future, especially with a handful of Californians attempting their own mission revival.
The Essential Producers
Louis-Antoine Luyt: Luyt produces two lines of wine, one mostly from carignan and cinsault made using carbonic maceration and bottled with colorful minimalist labels; the other focused on pipeño (usually not carbonic), including bottlings like Carrìzal and Portezuelo from specific farms.
Roberto Henríquez: Henríquez did his time with large wineries, including Santa Rita, but also worked with the Mosse family in the Loire area of Anjou. He returned, like Luyt, with ideas of how to adapt French natural-wine philosophies to Chile. Today he has become a strong defender of the pipeño tradition, making país from 200-year-old vines in Bío Bío.
Pedro Parra y Familia / Clos des Fous: Parra is an example of how New Chile has a broader tale to tell. He has worked for nearly two decades as a consultant, helping wineries to better understand their terroir. In 2010 he launched Clos des Fous with three partners to make more pure, transparent examples of commercial Chilean wine. But he also makes wines under his own label that focus on traditional grapes from Maule and Itata.
Viña Maitía: Marcel and his Chilean wife Loreto focus on wine from the more arid inland Maule area, with a concentration on carignan. Wines like his Weon seem at times to be bridging a gap between pipeño rusticism and a more commercial proposition.
Cacique Maravilla: Manuel Moraga farms old family land in the little-known Yumbel area of Bío-Bío, toward the very south of traditional Chilean winegrowing areas. He too opts for pipeño in a one-liter bottle, with a lighter style that toes the line between ethereal and hard-edged.
The Essential Wines
Pedro Parra y Familia Pencopolitano Itata-Cauquenes Red: We’ve been excited about Parra’s other wine, cinsault-based Imaginador, but this field blend from two regions and what amount to younger (60 years or so) vines is more intense and structured. An unmistakable spice and smoke (syrah, carmenère and so on) comes together with ripe black fruit (país, malbec) and meshes with a Bordeaux-like vegetal bite.
Bouchon País Salvaje Valle de Maule Red: The large Bouchon winery’s entry into país tradition comes from wild vines growing among the trees at their estate in Mingre. Traditionally fermented, it’s more robust than many país, with a smokiness and vegetal, peppery side that’s reminiscent of mezcal, in a good way.
Louis Antoine Luyt Carrizal Pipeño Red: This wine comes from 250-year-old vines on granitic sand in Maule. It, too, is smoky and almost mezcal-like—a welcome trait in a lot of pipeño—with tight, bright fruit and chamomile high tones.
A Los Vinateros Bravos Granitico Itata White: While white grapes are less common in Chile’s old bush vines, Leonardo Erazo, one of Parra’s protegés and a winemaker at Argentine malbec powerhouse Altos Las Hormigas, combines moscatel with semillon to make a remarkable specimen. The muscat perfume is strong, but there’s a richness and musk, almost like bacon fat, making for that mix of mineral firmness and lushness that define a great white wine.
De Martino Viejas Tinajas Itata Cinsault: The large and prestigious De Martino winery also wanted to commit to a New Chilean approach, in this case from head-trained vines in the more mountainous coastal area within Itata. It’s surprisingly dense in its rubyish, strawberry cinsault fruit—perhaps thanks to aging in amphora.
The Essential Fringe
Orange crush: Of course skin-fermented wine would be part of the New Chile, including an exceptional version, Tierra del Itata, made by Erazo and British wine writer Christelle Guibert (who has a similar project in Muscadet) from 150-year-old muscat vines.
New territory: Luyt is pushing boundaries beyond país, including his rare Cruchon Coteaux de Trumao pinot noir, grown about 300 miles south of Itata in the Bueno Valley, a region previously unknown for wine growing.
Shades of pink: While pipeño is already a light red, there’s also a growing interest in that nebulous pink zone between red and rosé, as with Garage Wine’s Old Vine Pale, a blend of carignan and mourvèdre that comes across not unlike a trousseau.