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Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting a blind wine tasting for a group of fellow oenophiles. The tasting theme centered on identifying Chilean red wine varietals. The results were both educational and enjoyable for all. Our tasters were unfamiliar with every Chilean red wine and confessed that they were quite surprised by what they liked and disliked about each one. No doubt preconceived notions about Chilean varietals were dispelled by simply tasting the wine. Many commented that they benefitted immensely from the wine comparisons and have a new found respect for the popular Chilean varietals. Bottom line: Experience is the best teacher.

Many times, when a winemaker is questioned as to her/his interest in Chilean winemaking, the hands go up in a gesture of resistance. What follows is a short response: “I don’t favor Chilean Wines.” To which I reply: “Have you tasted the predominate varietals?” A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer doesn’t get us very far into a conversation about it.

Sounds simple to most people… wine likes and dislikes are totally subjective. So, my first rule-of-thumb is ‘laissez-faire’… or, leave it alone then. But, my instinct tells me that many people do not really know the true nature of Chilean wines…simply because they have not tasted many of the popular varietals emanating from this increasingly recognized wine producing country.  So, for those of you who are curious about it, let’s explore Chile’s wine growing regions, the popular grapes grown, and the wines produced.  Our aim is to inspire experienced and amateur winemakers to consider adding Chilean winemaking to their ‘to-do list’ this spring.

It is in the ‘grape’ that the mystery and joys of Chilean wine can be found.

Let’s begin with the growing regions of Chile. The geographic and climate conditions closely align with the Mediterranean making Chile ideal for growing wine grapes. There are five major controlled viticultural areas of Chile include: Aconcagua, Casablanca, Maipo, Rapel, and Cuirico/Maule Valleys. The areas are labelled ‘Denomination of Origin’ or “D.O.” But, bear in mind that Chile has an arid and cool climate to the north and a cold rainy climate in the south. It is the middle or center region of Chile, better known as the Central Valle that is the most notable in terms of grape growing and wine production.

The Central Valley includes: Curico Valley, Maule Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley, and Maipo Valley. Among these, you will find that the biggest names in Chilean wines emanate out of Curico, Maipo, and Cochalgua Valleys. The reason: Given the climatic conditions and vineyard soil types, multiple grape varieties flourish and thrive. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the wine growers “heaven on earth”.

Short of presenting a ‘named’ vineyard with a ‘known wine brand name’ attached to it… Chile’s Central Valley, and in particular Curico Valley, constitutes the primary viticultural area from which Chilean grapes for New Jersey winemakers will be gotten for 2014.

Curious about Curico Valley Grapes? Let’s take a deeper-dive into the grapes grown there and the wine varietals that are most popular. There are many experiments relative to the grape growing that is going on in many regions of Chile today. But, given Chile’s history of almost five-hundred years of winemaking, we have to consider its prime area of production: Central Valley. Here, you will find every popular red and white grape used in winemaking. And remember, it is in the ‘grape’ that the mystery and joys of Chilean wine can be found!

Red Grape Varieties:

Cabernet Sauvignon tops our list of red Chilean wine grapes. The wine made from this grape is typically full bodied, dark in color, high in tannin levels, and has a dry mouth feel. Sensory descriptors include blackcurrants, chocolate, and tobacco.

Carmenere is a grape that produces a medium bodied wine that is bright red in color, lower in tannins for a softer mouth feel. Sensory descriptors include red fruits, berries, and spices. 

Malbec holds high prominence among red wine grapes grown in Chile. As a stand-alone wine, Malbec is a medium bodied, deep, rich and dark purple in color, with smooth tannin levels. Malbec can be blended with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to create the very popular Bordeaux-style wines. Sensory descriptors include violets and plums, tart red fruits and earthy minerality.

Merlot is a lush, blue colored grape. Merlot wines have a characteristic intense and vibrant red fruit flavors, soft tannins, and are medium bodied. Sensory descriptors include black cherry, blueberry and plum.    

Pinot Noir gets its name from the French words for ‘pine’ that describes the pine-coned cluster of grapes… and ‘black’ for the grape color. It produces a smooth, light-to-medium bodied wine. Sensory descriptors include raspberry, cherry, strawberry, and clove.  

Syrah (Shiraz) is a dark skinned grape primarily used to make a full bodied, tannic, distinctive varietal wine. It is also used in blends typified in the Bordeaux style wines. Sensory descriptors include blackberries, plums, black pepper, tobacco, and espresso.

White Grape Varieties:

Chardonnay is a green skinned grape that produces a white wine that many describe as fresh and delicate. Sensory descriptors include melon, apple, pineapple, pears, lemon and if oaked can hint of vanilla.

Sauvignon Blanc is a green skinned grape that originated from the Bordeaux region of France. Sauvignon Blanc is a pale colored medium bodied wine with intense flavor. Sensory descriptors include tropical fruits, pineapple, lemon, citric fruits.

Pinot Gris is a white wine grape that is believed to be a mutant clone of Pinot Noir. The cluster of grapes resembles a pine cone…described by the French word for pine or ‘pinot’.  ‘Gris’ means gray in French which describes the grayish-blue color of the grapes. It generally is light bodied, can be fruity. Sensory descriptors include pear, apple, melon, and mango.

Viognier is a white wine grape. Typically, the wine is dry but rich in texture. Sensory descriptors include peach, apricots, and pear.

So, if you have never made Chilean wines, there are quite a few Chilean grape varietals to select from. Each has characteristics that can lend suitably to a stand-alone varietal wine or a special blend. The possibilities are endless when one contemplates the combinations of grapes. Whether your winemaking interest lies in crafting a Bordeaux style wine… or making a more exotic blend hint of Meritage or Opus One, the winemaking options using grapes imported from Chile are many and only limited by your palate and imagination.

As Chile continues to expand its wine grape growing regions, it is hard to predict what unique and pleasant surprises may arise in the years ahead. For now, there can be no doubt that Chilean varietal grapes grown in Curico Valley … and the blends that they make possible … offers Grapes N’ Barrels winemakers a wonderful world of wine possibilities worth exploring.

If you are looking for a unique and special wine to enjoy yourself, share with friends or gift for that special occasion… consider Chilean winemaking!

As they say in Chile: ¡Viva la uva! Long live the grape!

Please join us during our Chilean Winemaking Season: May 1st through June 15th 2014

Interested? Call us now at 732-851-6800 for information and reservations.