The New Wave of Chilean Wine
Minimal intervention wines from Itata, Limarí, Casablanca & Aconcagua.
Every time I’m in Chile I’m impressed by the breadth of great wines being produced, though many of them tend to never leave the country. Even within the country they’re difficult to find sometimes. The lack of a great wine shop in Santiago, at least that I know of (recommendations please!!) that focuses on natural and biodynamic producers, required me to enlist my good friend Isidora Diaz who edits the website Revista Fondo (listen to my interview with her here) to seek out some wines for me.
“The really special ones are not in stores, but I know a few people distributing the good stuff,” she told me when she volunteered to help source. It started to feel a bit like a drug deal.
She sent me home loaded up with a selection of high-altitude wines from the Elqui Valley in the north and bottles from small winemakers that I had never heard of from the Itata Valley. While dining around Santiago, restaurants were also a reliable source of interesting wines.
I’ve grown quite fond of the sémillon coming out of Chile and I’m seeing them start to get a following outside of the country. Escándalo’s 2020 Sémillon, from old vines in the Colchagua Valley, I’ve seen everywhere from Brooklyn to Guatemala in the past year, and it was on several menus around Santiago, like Demencia Restobar. Vines of this Bordeaux grape were much more widely planted decades ago in Chile and rivaled only País in terms of hectares. Then Sauvignon Blanc came along and sémillon fell out of favor, dwindling to almost nothing. Today, what’s left are mostly 30-year-old vines, though they are some of the more interesting South American whites I’ve been tasting. Roberto Henriquez, Maturana Wines, Garage Wine, Louis-Antoine Luyt, Charlie Villard, and several other winemakers in Chile all have some variation of old vine sémillon in cooler coastal climates like Casablanca, Itata, and Colchagua.
In the far north, in the Elqui and Limarí valleys, the southern reaches of the Atacama Desert, where pisco grapes were long the only thing growing, wine is starting to come into its own. It’s hot and deathly dry here, but the limestone soil, especially in Limari, is something not common elsewhere in Chile. The result are some really special wines being made. Ventisquero Tara Atacama’s wines come from a single small vineyard that was planted in 2008 near the town of Huasco, a short drive from the Pacific, where the morning fog and strong winds help cool the climate. Cloudy and gold in color, their Tara White 1, 100% Chardonnay, has appeared on the menu of Boragó on and off for years. It’s far from a classically made Chardonnay, so it’s has been a great pairing for a more experimental menu where classic wines rarely find a home, as was Marcelo Retamal’s Reta, a Pinot Noir from Quebrada Chalinga in Limarí.
From Isidora’s haul, there was Pingo Pingo, a Cariñena from Viñedos de Alcohuaz, also made by Marcelo Retamal. Planted at 2188 meters above sea level in the Valle de Elqui, it’s possibly the highest planted Carignan in the world. Aged for three years in cement eggs and four in the bottle, so the 2015 is the first vintage to be released. It’s acidic yet maintains balance. It’s radically different from Carignan from the Maule Valley.
The Itata Valley and the Bío Bío region continue to be a source of interesting wines, despite the long distance south of Santiago. The vines are old here and the equipment is almost non-existent, so the variations of what you might find tend to be wild and the potential endless.
I’m seeing lots of wines from Cacique Maravilla, where 7th generation winemaker Manuel Moraga is dry farming vineyards that were planted in 1776 near Yumbel, reaching New York. His país vines are estimated to be 250 years old and everything is done manually and they’re unfiltered and mostly untouched. The pipeño is reliable, but it’s the Gutiflower, a sparkling moscatel with a touch of torontel and corinto that I pick up a bottle of whenever I see it.
Isidora introduced me to a few new winemakers from the area as well. There was Australian winemaker and importer Alice L’Estrange, with lots of funky wines from Guarilihue, like her Cracklin’ Rosie, a sparkling cinsault, and her Pepiño Pastiche, an oxidated white made mostly from muscatel. Others making wines from Itata like Carter Mollenhauer, Pino Román and Roberto Henriquez are also worth seeking out.
At Ambrosia Bistro, Rosario Onetto, whose selection is always spot on, served a Vino La Joda’s Mejor ser que Parecer, alongside the uni I ordered. It’s a Pet-Nat from the Aconcagua Valley that was 100% muscatel, from Jorge Carrancá and Daniela Meruvia, a pair of winemakers that just started releasing their first wines and I’m eager to see what else they produce in the coming years.
At Nkiru Bar, owner Raúl Yañez randomly introduced me to Charlie Villard, after I was asking about his Ramato, a Pinot Grigio with 60 day skin contact, that I tasted the night before at Yañez’s restaurant upstairs Olam. It was a pleasant coincidence because he had his wonderfully strange early harvest Malbec that he made less than 600 bottles of. Most of them went to a few restaurants and they were grapes from a neighbor, so he’ll never make it again. That’s the beauty of Chilean wine right now if you are lucky enough to encounter it: small batches of one of a kind wines from bewildering landscapes made by interesting people.