Wine writer Raymond Blake tackles the quandary as to why our love affair with Chilean wine is only equal to a bargain buy and if new developments of a more premium kind might tempt our palates, and pockets. 

Ireland’s love affair with Chilean wine knows no bounds. Or does it? “Fine for a drinks party, not for a dinner party,” might best sum up our attitude; we lap them up on a daily basis, loading bottle after bottle into our supermarket trolleys, but when we want something ‘special’ we tend to look elsewhere. We focus on Chile when a well-made bargain that delivers a rush of clean fruit flavours is needed, but when we go in search of something more nuanced and complex our gaze turns back to Europe. Which leaves the Chilean winemakers in a Catch-22 situation: delighted with their rampant success on these shores, but perplexed at their inability to encourage their fans to trade up. Is there a glass ceiling?

Very possibly. On a recent visit to Chile, one that took in a host of wineries, tastings and, above all, long discussions with winemakers and other figures in the wine trade, one question, asked in a dozen different ways, became the mantra for my visit: “What can we do to get Irish wine drinkers to trade up to our premium wines?”

Initially, I struggled for an answer, but gradually I formulated a response which ran something like this: Be prepared to move away from the high-volume, safe commercial option and take a bold step towards producing wines of greater distinction, always aware of the risks such a strategy holds. Some consumers may be lost on the climb up the quality ladder, but that risk can be minimised by well-thought-out communication and promotion.

I am delighted to note that some have already taken the bold step – it’s just that the message has failed to get through so far. The producers listed below are amongst them. Many of their wines are already well known in Ireland. Others, often with more character, are not. It is time to seek them out.

Names to watch for

MONTES

Aurelio Montes established his eponymous winery, now managed by his son, also Aurelio, in 1988. The Montes make a virtue of hillside planting and the vertiginous vineyards could challenge those of the Douro and Mosel for steepness. Should you ever get to visit there’s also an on-site restaurant, Fuegos de Apalta, serving superb steaks courtesy of famed Argentinean chef, Francis Mallmann.

CONCHA Y TORRO

Under the deft guiding hand of Marcelo Papa – a regular visitor to Burgundy to source the best barrels available – Concha y Toro produces a huge range of wines. The basic wines don’t hum on the palate but the black liveried ‘Reserva Privada’ carries more depth and texture, endowing the wines with lasting appeal.

CONO SUR

The man who made Cono Sur’s name, Adolfo Hurtado, has moved on but his legacy remains in a quintet of Pinot Noirs, headed by the impressive Ocio, that have become standard bearers for this grape in Chile. All the vineyard work is organic and visitors are encouraged to explore by bicycle, taking care to avoid the flocks of geese.

MORANDÉ

Founded by Pablo Morandé in 1996, with Riccardo Baettig now in charge of winemaking, Morandé has blazed a pioneering trail: using concrete eggs and large foudres for fermentation, planting vineyards at high density and being the first winery in Chile to be certified sustainable. The superb sparkling wines have yet to reach Ireland. Fingers crossed.

ARESTI

Aresti was founded in 1951 and has grown in the decades since to include four estates in Chile’s Central Valley, with exports to 40 countries across the globe. You can stray safely from the twin Sauvignons – Blanc and Cabernet – here, and drink instead of the characterful Origen Semillon and the Altitud 1245 Merlot. Both deserve a wider audience.

VON SIEBENTHAL

Originally from Switzerland, Mauro von Siebenthal settled in Chile 10 years ago after a decade of trans-continental commuting. He produces wines of compelling elegance and harmony; in short, they deliver a masterclass of what Chile is capable of when the correct approach is taken.

And for lottery winners

ALMAVIVA

Luxurious flavours abound here, perhaps lavish at times, but there is real class too, an element of reserve that keeps you coming back for another sip to discover another hidden corner of flavour. The wine needs at least a decade to show at its best, maybe even two.

VIK 

Money talks at Vik, from the long, low-slung winery to the nearby luxury hotel, clad in billowing titanium panels, where each room is individually themed. The wines reflect the no-expense-spared approach, replete as they are with dense, concentrated fruit flavours and a surfeit of oak. These are full throttle wines.

The grape to watch

Look beyond tried and tested Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and then beyond Chile’s signature variety, Carmenère, finally pausing to consider the delights of Syrah. In relative terms, we have only seen a glimpse of Chilean Syrah on these shores. Don’t ignore it! 

Author: Raymond Blake

Raymond Blake is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers and has written for Food & Wine since its launch in 1997. Since then his travels have taken him to almost every corner of the wine world and he visited Chile and Argentina late last year. Forthcoming trips will see him visiting Bordeaux, Piedmont, Austria and Burgundy.

He is the author of two books on Burgundy:
'Breakfast in Burgundy – A Hungry Irishman in the Belly of France’ (New York, 2014.)
‘Côte d’Or – The Wines and Winemakers of the Heart of Burgundy’ (Oxford, 2017.) 
(Short-listed for the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards, 2018.)
In addition, he is much in demand as a speaker at wine-themed dinners and other events.