The Humbolt Current Influences the Taste of Chilean Wines
If you haven’t explored the Chilean wine sector in your local shop or online, now is the perfect time to rectify this oversight. Often overlooked and underreported, Chile boasts a wine region that consistently produces exceptional wines deserving of wider recognition.
Ingredients for Success
Chile’s geographical and climatic conditions are exceptionally well-suited for cultivating outstanding grape varieties. Stretching over 2,600 miles from north to south and measuring just 110 miles in width, this slender country benefits from the Pacific Ocean gracing its entire western border and the majestic Andes Mountains adorning its eastern coast. This unique combination of factors results in a harmonious interplay of cool Pacific breezes and the moderating influence of the mountains, creating an idyllic environment for grape cultivation.
Chile’s coastal terroirs are marked by two key elements that significantly contribute to the distinctive character and nuances of its wines: the Humboldt Current and the Coastal Range.
The Humboldt Current, also referred known as the Peru Current, is a cold oceanic flow that consistently imparts a cooling effect. Flowing north from Antarctica along the west coast of South America brings nutrient-rich water to the Galapagos Islands. Named after the naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt, this current is driven by strong winds that displace warm and nutrient-poor surface water, allowing the cold Antarctic waters to rise to the surface, creating an upwelling phenomenon. The Humboldt Current is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, supporting the world’s largest fisheries, and is the reason why some species of penguins can thrive near the equator.
The Humboldt Current allows grapes to ripen slowly, preserving their distinct flavors. This gradual ripening process maintains herbal notes, such as jalapeno, asparagus, and grass, while also enhancing the wines’ citrusy fruitiness with hints of lime, lemon, and grapefruit. Almost every day, vineyards are enveloped in a protective blanket of fog that lowers air temperatures, creating an ideal environment for producing high-quality grapes.
The Coastal Range, a mountain range running along the Pacific Coast from north to south, plays a pivotal role in shaping the terroir of the region. This range houses various types of granite, with the western slopes directly influenced by cooling maritime conditions, and the eastern slopes acting as a barrier against the cold sea air. These site variations, combined with different soil types, yield a wide spectrum of styles among Chile’s coastal Sauvignon Blanc wines, offering a plethora of options for consumers to explore and savor.
Vitis vinifera grapes were introduced to Chile during the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries who brought European vines to the region. Hernan Cortes and his soldiers exhausted the wine they brought with them from Spain to celebrate the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. Consequently, one of Cortes’ first acts as governor was to order the planting of grapevines throughout New Spain.
In 1545, Pedro de Valdivia, the first royal governor of colonial Chile, sought vines from the King to aid in the evangelization of Chile. It is believed that Pais (Listan Prieto), a red wine grape, was among the first grape varieties introduced by the Spanish, with Rodrigo de Araya (1555) noted as the first Spanish conquistador to initiate agriculture in Chile, including the cultivation of vineyards.
The responsibility of tending to these early vineyards primarily fell upon Jesuit priests, who utilized the wine produced for religious purposes, particularly for the celebration of the Eucharist. Notably, during the 16th century, Chilean historian Alonso de Ovalle documented the presence of various grape varieties in addition to the common black grape, including muscatel, torotel, albillo, and morale, which were extensively planted in the region.
During the period of Spanish rule, the production of vineyards in Chile was subject to certain conditions, which required Chileans to purchase most of their wine directly from Spain. However, in 1641, the importation of wine from the Viceroyalty of Chile and Peru to Spain was banned, adversely affecting the colonial wine industry. This ban led to a surplus of grapes, which were subsequently used to produce pisco and aguardiente, nearly decimating Peruvian wine production.
Despite these restrictions, Chileans continued to prefer domestically produced wines over the oxidized, vinegar-rich wines imported from Spain, which did not withstand long voyages. They even exported some of their wine to neighboring Peru. However, one shipment was seized at sea by the British privateer Francis Drake. Instead of provoking Drake, Spain accused Chile and ordered it to destroy most of its vineyards, though this directive was largely disregarded.
Chile’s wine history, despite its political ties with Spain, has been significantly influenced by French winemaking, particularly Bordeaux. Before the phylloxera epidemic, wealthy Chilean landowners visited France and began importing French grape varieties. Don Silvestre Errazuris was among the first to do so, introducing grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. He hired a French oenologist to oversee vineyards that produced Bordeaux-style wines. Recognizing the potential in Chile, he also attempted to cultivate the German wine grape Riesling.
The arrival of the phylloxera epidemic in France provided an opportunity for the Chilean wine industry. As French vineyards fell into disrepair, many French wine producers brought their expertise and skills to South America. Consequently, Silvestre Ochagavia Echazaret founded Ochagavia Wines in 1851, and Don Maximiano Errazuriz founded Vina Errazuriz in 1870, both using grapes imported from France.
About the Grapes
While some countries center their wine industries on one or two grape varieties, Chile is the opposite. Rigorous soil studies are part of the regular reviews by Chilean winemakers as they seek to determine the best grape varieties for their vineyard sites.
The Leyda Valley, a small sub-area of the San Antonio Valley located 90km west of Santiago and adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, is a cool-climate region influenced by the Humboldt Current. It produces vibrant and fresh wines, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The soils of the Leyda Valley wine region are mostly composed of clay and loam, with a granite base that assists in water drainage. These soils are ideal for growing premium grapes that can adapt to low-fertility terroirs. The grapes are smaller, resulting in more concentrated juices.
Economics of Chilean Wine
Wine is produced in Chile from Atacama to Araucania, with vineyards running up and down the regions’ valleys. In 2021, there were 130,086 hectares of planted vines. In 2022, Chilean wine production totaled 1.244 billion liters, a 7.39 percent decrease from 2021. In 2022, Chilean wine export volume totaled 833.5 million liters, a 4.0 percent decrease from 2021, while domestic consumption reached 292 million liters.
The Chilean wine industry’s primary collective goal is to champion its premium wines globally and eliminate its image as a cheap winemaking nation. Efforts initiated in 2018 have been successful, leading to a 20 percent increase in value sales in China and encouraging uplift in value sales in the US, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.
Sustainability is of paramount importance to wine producers, and the Chilean government has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. In 2020, approximately 76 wineries, representing 80 percent of bottled wine exports, were certified sustainable. There is also an effort to reduce the quantity and weight of bottles and packaging to ensure that 100 percent are separable, reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2030. Chile is not only producing exceptional wines but also committing to a sustainable and environmentally responsible future for the wine industry.
In My Opinion
At a recent Master Class event in New York City, Chilean wines were presented
1. 2018 Matetic, EQ Granite Organic Pinot Noir
In 1892, Jorge Matetic-Celtinia arrived in Punta Arenas, having journeyed from the historic port of Fiume in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is now known as Rijeka in Croatia. His journey marked the beginning of an extraordinary wine-making legacy. In 1899, he planted his inaugural vineyard in the picturesque Rosario Valley, nestled between the coastal valleys of Casablanca and San Antonio. This region’s unique terroir would play a pivotal role in the production of exceptional wines.
The year 2001 saw the dawn of a new era with the inaugural harvest for the EQ line of wines. This collection featured Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, each showcasing the distinctive character of the region. Notably, the 2001 EQ Syrah stood out as Chile’s first cool-climate Syrah, heralding a new dimension in Chilean winemaking. In 2002, the vineyard made a momentous shift towards organic and biodynamic agriculture, underlining a commitment to sustainable and eco-friendly practices. This decision not only safeguarded the environment but also enhanced the quality of the grapes.
Matetic’s state-of-the-art winery was meticulously constructed in 2003, boasting modern architectural design, gravitational flow systems, and the use of natural materials such as wood and stone. This architectural marvel harmonized with nature and became the birthplace of exceptional wines.
The year 2004 brought well-deserved recognition when the EQ Syrah was selected as one of the Top 100 wines of the year by Wine Spectator Magazine. This prestigious acknowledgment marked a significant milestone, as it was the first Chilean Syrah to earn a spot on this list. Furthermore, in recognition of their dedication to sustainable practices, Demeter awarded biodynamic certification to all the vineyards, covering a vast expanse of 160 hectares. This certification was a testament to Matetic’s unwavering commitment to eco-conscious viticulture, further enhancing the quality and purity of their wines.
The origin for this wine is the Casablanca Valley, with granite soils, 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyard is managed based on organic and biodynamic principles producing high-quality grapes with a strong sense of terroir. Fermented in steel tanks, aged for 14-18 months in 75 percent new French oak it delivers an intense violet-red color and delivers aromas of red fruit, cherries, and strawberries with earthy, mineral, spicy (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper) notes. The palate is delicate, complex and concentrated tannins with well-balanced acidity and supple tannin and leaves behind hints of dark chocolate and strawberries for a happy memory.
2. 2023 Montes, Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc. Made from grapes grown in the farthest corners of the Chilean coast.
The Montes Winery was founded in 1988 by Aurelio Montes and his partners, driven by a clear mission: to craft exceptional premium wines. This vision is symbolized by the angel featured in the Montes logo, reflecting the unwavering faith in both the present and the future of Chilean wine.
Nestled in the Zappala region of Aconcagua, just seven kilometers from the coast, the grapes for Montes wines are exclusively sourced from a single vineyard. This location benefits from a cool climate and its proximity to the ocean, resulting in wines with a remarkable combination of racy acidity, mineral notes, elegance, and distinctive aromatics. Each year, the grapes are meticulously hand-harvested in mid-April, a later harvest date necessitated by the region’s cooler climate.
To capture the full spectrum of aromas and flavors, the grapes undergo a cold soak for four hours before undergoing a slow fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks, which extends for 30 days. Furthermore, the wine is aged on its lees for 6-8 months to impart a round and harmonious character to the palate. Since the year 2000, Montes wines have been exported to over 80 countries, symbolizing their global recognition and appreciation.
In the glass, Montes wines reveal a bright, inviting yellow hue. The aromas are intense, with prominent notes of passion fruit, pink grapefruit, and pineapple, interwoven with hints of tomato leaf and green chilies. On the palate, the wine boasts a medium-bodied profile with vibrant acidity that enlivens the tasting experience. The finish offers a delightful touch of salinity, providing a delightful counterpoint to the sweetness of floral notes that overlay the fruit flavors.
3. 2021 Santa Rita, Floresta Chardonnay
This winery stands as one of Chile’s foremost wine producers, nestled in the picturesque Alto Jahuel region of the Maipo Valley, renowned for its excellence in wine production. Its rich history dates back to 1880 when Domingo Fernandez Concha founded the winery. At that time, the influx of wealth from the Atacama Desert mining industry into Santiago fostered the growth of a burgeoning wine sector just south of the city.
Santa Rita was a pioneer in this budding industry, importing grapevines from France and embarking on a journey to craft exceptional wines. Presently, Santa Rita boasts a network of five wineries spread across Chile, collectively possessing the impressive capacity to produce and store nearly 90 million liters of wine.
The radiant lemon-gold hue, as it glistens in the glass, serves as a captivating prelude to a symphony of aromas that dance upon the senses. Delicate notes of verbena, zesty lemon peel, succulent melon, and the invigorating caress of sea breezes grace the olfactory landscape, promising an enticing and revitalizing wine for the discerning palate.
The tasting journey is an extraordinary one, characterized by a remarkable juxtaposition. This wine exudes an unexpected opulence and full-bodied character that defies the conventional expectations for a white wine. Its texture is remarkably plush and luxuriously smooth, enveloping the taste buds in a velvety embrace, leaving an indelible impression.
As the wine unfurls its finale, the finish is nothing short of enchanting. It lingers with the essence of sweetened grapefruit, adding a delightful hint of citrus sweetness to the experience, while interwoven with the intriguing mineral complexity of wet stones and the earthy allure of ocean gravel. This wine, with its multifaceted layers and surprise elements, is a true masterpiece for those seeking a captivating and memorable white wine journey.