If you're an oenophile with a love for imported wine, you'd be forgiven for not paying heed to Chile. Despite a long and respected winemaking history, with traditions as old as those of North America — by which I mean the agricultural enclaves of Spanish missionaries, established in the 17th century — the Chilean scene has always seemed a little derivative, a little second-tier.
They make Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They make a bit of Pinot Noir. In other words, they make what everyone else makes.
In the '90s a fuss arose over Carmenere, an archaic French variety in Chilean soil that had been for decades mistaken for Merlot. But excitement for Carmenere sort of presupposes excitement for, well, Merlot. And while Carmenere's quirky savoriness was enough to hold a wine geek's attention, its flavors often came off as reedy and herbaceous — not attributes to generate a firestorm of interest.
None of this is to say that there aren't great wineries in Chile, with its thrilling climatic range driven by a roiling Pacific Coast, with its agricultural valleys spilling out of the wild Andes, the Maule, the Colchagua, the Maipo, and with its cool climes in regions like Valparaiso and Bio Bio. Brands such as Lapostolle, Montes, Errazuriz and Casa Marin are rightfully world-renowned. But it is one thing to make world-class wine, another to capture the world's imagination.
Well, that's starting to happen: A new style of wine is making inroads in the market that was probably never meant to attract attention. These are rustic, peasant wines; village wines, made for immediate consumption by farmers who tended vines passed down for generations. And as the generations passed, the vines got older, the fruit more interesting, until a new wave of Chilean winemakers and enologists discovered them.
Local talent Pedro Parra, Leonardo Erazo, and Manuel Moraga Gutiérrez have set about reviving these vineyards, and a few prominent emigré winemakers, like Frenchmen Louis-Antoine Luyt and David Marcel, and a Canadian, Derek Mossman Knapp, have joined them. They've managed to create buzz for these little wines, championing not their grandeur but their simplicity, honesty and authenticity.
Most of these vineyards are old and remote, found in places like the Itata Valley — cool, high elevation sites far from pest pressures. These vines can reach 200, 250, even 300 years of age. Not surprisingly, they represent an unparalleled clonal heritage, planted to historic varieties, like Carignane, Cinsault, Muscat of Alexandria, and perhaps most interesting, Pais, a variety once ubiquitous in 18th century California, known then by its adopted moniker, Mission.
In California, the Mission was mostly ripped out after less than a century in favor of more palatable varieties. In Chile, it makes a rustic quaffer with robust tannins and a puckery grip.
Indeed none of these wines would be considered polished, or suave, but all of them have a ton of character. And all of them, literally, channel Chile's past in a bottle — all of them taste like history. They may well turn out to be the lens through which we can best see the entire country's vinous heritage, and glimpse its future.
Louis-Antoine Luyt 2015 Itata Valley Pipeños Portezuelo
Drawn from a 200-year-old Pais vineyard, in the hands of expat Louis-Antoine Luyt this is a wine with a light touch, the scent of dusty spiced strawberry and spicy, earthy flavors with plenty of acid to go along with gritty and lean tannins. One of several "pipeños" Luyt makes (a Chilean word for village wines), they're all worth checking out. About $18 for one liter at the Wine House, Domaine LA, and Lou Wine Shop.
Garage Wine Co. 2014 Maule Valley Red Blend Lot No. 56
This Maule Valley blend of mostly Carignane, with Grenache and Mataro, is made by a trio of winemakers including Derek Mossman Knapp, a Canadian who came to Chile to ski and never left. This wine has Carignane's earthy plum scents and flavors of dark cherry laced with tobacco. It's stocky and very firm, and benefits from a quick decant. About $33 at Woodland Hills Wine Co., the Wine House and in Huntington Beach at the Southern Hemisphere Wine Center.
A Los Viñateros Bravos 2015 Itata Valley Volcanico Pais
Leonardo Erazo tracks down vineyards of character like this one, from a 150-year-old own-rooted, dry-farmed Pais vineyard in the Itata Valley. He does little to alter the traditional viticulture and has a gentle hand in the cellar, pressing light, bottling young. This amiable wine comes in much lighter than the other two, with scents of bramble and muddled strawberry, flavors of fresh, bright red fruit, and mouthwatering acidity. About $20 at Domaine LA, the Wine House, or directly from the importer, the Source, at thesourceimports.com.