Chile’s first Grand Cru appellation?

Few wine buyers would know that Chile had an appellation system, yet one has been in place since 1995. Like its European counterparts it divides several large viticultural regions into increasingly smaller parts. Only a handful of the appellation names are well known, but one is increasingly seen on labels of the finer Chilean reds: Colchagua Valley.

Colchagua Valley is a zone within a sub-region (Rapel Valley), which in turn lies within a region (Central Valley). Within Colchagua itself are six areas including a couple that might be familiar: Chimbarongo (on many Cono Sur labels) and Santa Cruz (on the Montes Alpha range).

xAround 150km south of Santiago, following the course of the Tinguiririca River down from the Andes, the Colchagua Valley runs from the foothills east of the Pan-American Highway westwards towards the Pacific Ocean. The river provides a ready source of irrigation water, essential in this dry area. The regular, warm climate combined with high fertility, meant that for years the valley floor was considered ideal for a large production of bulk wines. But, as in most of Chile, in the past decade the emphasis has been switching to quality rather than quantity.In this long, narrow country the Pacific Ocean is rarely more than 80km away allowing winds to funnel up the valleys cooling the vineyards, especially at night. There are dramatic diurnal temperature differences, meaning cold summer nights, known to help grapes maintain acidity and to improve the colours and flavours in red varieties. Recent plantings by several wineries including Montes and Canepa has extended the valley ever closer to the ocean where temperature differences are even more extreme.

The most radical recent development is the number of new vineyard plantings on hillsides inside the valley, some with impressive gradients. We are not in the foothills of the Andes here, but in the much lower Coastal Mountains. At vast expense, the hillsides are cleared of boulders and natural vegetation and may even be terraced. The hillsides give lower fertility naturally reducing the vigour and yield of the vines and also provide good exposition. Many of the finest hillside vineyards face south, away from direct sunlight.

When the Chilean authorities created the official viticultural regions (partly to please Brussels for EU exports), they did not envisage that a ‘Grand Cru’ might emerge so soon. But many would argue that one already has.

xApalta is a bowl of vineyards in the Santa Cruz area. Casa Lapostolle uses sixty-year old vines there for its flagship wine, Clos Apalta, made mainly from Carmenère and Merlot. Montes are developing the slope next to Lapostolle and have already achieved great success especially with Syrah, notably the extraordinary “Le Folly” from a steep 0.6-hectare plot. Several other well-known wineries either own vineyards or source grapes from Apalta, and others are developing nearby slopes.Behind the rocky hill that rises behind Apalta is Arboleda where Caliterra have their state-of-the-art winery and grow their best reds, using high-density plantings in their bid to reduce vigour.

In the main part of the valley, on the Ninquén Hill, Mont Gras is just one of several wineries making increasingly ripe Carmenère. One of the oldest in the valley is family-owned Viú Manent, known in particular for their well-structured Malbecs. They too are planting on the hills further down the valley on a beautiful site called El Olivar, and Bisquertt has planted on a neighbouring site.

xThe Colchagua valley is starting to look like a true, great wine valley. It has extensive vineyards on both the valley floor and hillsides with increasing numbers of side valleys being developed. In one of them, Luis Felipe Edwards has created a huge terraced hillside vineyard, reminiscent of the northern Rhône. And, back east in the Andes foothills another old family winery, Casa Silva has been revitalised in recent years. Their Los Lingues hillside vineyard is the source of some of their best Carmenères and other reds. My prediction is that several ‘Grands Crus’ will emerge in the future from Colchagua.Although known mainly for reds, wineries based in Colchagua produce whites too and I’ve been impressed by Viú Manent Sauvignon and by Santa Laura Chardonnay.

Yet it is the reds that shine. There is good Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from older vines, but it is Merlot, Carmenère, Malbec and increasingly Syrah that seem most exciting.

Nine wineries have grouped together to form Viñas de Colchagua, a promotional body that provides tours and information. Its tiny office is based in the small town of Santa Cruz, which now boasts an excellent four-star hotel and restaurant.

The Valley really has become the most cohesive vineyard area in Chile and we will undoubtedly hear much more of this appellation in the future.