Can Chile Break Out of the “Value Wine” Trap?

First of all let me say that I have nothing against wines that are good values. We all struggle to find wines that pass the “is it worth it?” test and Chile has for a long time been a reliable source of wines that answer this question in the affirmative.

But it is in Chile’s interest to be seen as more than just a good value supplier. So I was very interested when Wines of Chile asked me to participate in a blogger tasting stressing Chile’s terroir. I think that an emphasis on distinctive terroir is just what Chile (and Argentina and South Africa) needs to attract wine enthusiast consumers and clearly differentiate themselves from the bulk wine pack.

The Terroir Two-Step

Establishing a reputation for terroir requires two things. First, you have to actually have terroir, which is to say wines that really are reflections of particular and distinctive winegrowing regions or sites. And, second, you need to be able to communicate this to consumers. Absent the first factor it’s just marketing. Absent the second it’s an exercise in futility from a wine economics standpoint.

Wines of Chile provided us with a dozen wines (see list below) — three each Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon — and the opportunity to participate in an interactive video conference with Chilean winemakers hosted from Santiago by Fred Dexheimer (click here to view the video). I found the video conference to be very helpful and informative — the best yet! — both in terms of matching faces to wines and especially in unlocking details of the particular vineyard sites through Dexheimer’s probing questions.

Listening to the winemakers talk, it dawned on me that the rapid improvement in Chilean wines over the last decade derives from two sources. Improved winemaking is the first factor and the one that gets the most credit in discussions, but increased attention to matching particular varieties of wine grapes to particular sites is the under-rated other. This may be especially true for Carmenere, which was planted very widely back when it was mistaken for Merlot but that now is receiving more specific attention.

Taste the Terroir?

I organized two extended tastings to see if we could (1) detect the differences in terroir by tasting the wines and (2) find a terroir story in the wine marketing materials, especially the labels.

Sue and I were joined by Pierre, Cynthia, Patrick and Grant to taste the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir and by Ron and Mary for the Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. I was especially interested in what university students Patrick (who wrote a paper on Chilean wine) and Grant (who studied abroad in Burgundy) would say about the wines. Here’s what we learned

The Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir tasting was very interesting. The wines were well chosen both to highlight differences — differences between the Chilean wines and those from other countries and differences among the wines themselves. Our reference point for New World Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough and these wines avoided the “me-too” trap, presenting styles somewhere between New Zealand and France. Our reference point for Pinot Noir here in the Pacific Northwest is Oregon and the Chilean wines were very much darker and riper — so much so that Patrick wondered if he would recognize them as Pinot in a blind tasting.

All six of the wines at the first tasting came from cool climate sites, where altitude or ocean influences (or both) affected growing conditions. We could easily detect differences between the wines, but I will honestly say that we struggled to connect them to the variations in terroir. Some of the wines helped us a bit by providing detailed information about the viticulture on the labels, but some focused more on the winemaking rather than the terroir.  This was a very successful tasting in terms of quality of the wines themselves, but it left some questions unanswered.

The Mythbuster Test

The story was much the same for the Carmenere and Cabernet tasting. We enjoyed the wines a great deal, especially with food (tasty pampeana  empanadas), and some  wines were even better on the next day.  Each flight presented real differences in aroma, flavor and style, showing the diversity of Chilean wines at these price points.

Once again, however, we had mixed results in searching for the terroir connection. Some of the wine labels made a point to provide specific information about vineyard site and growing conditions, so the link between terroir and what was in the glass was quite clear. Other wines didn’t highlight terroir as much as history or winemaking techniques. A couple of the labels were printed in type so small or light that it was nearly impossible to know the marketing message (this particularly annoyed Sue, who is an inveterate label-reader). My trusty magnifying glass got a good workout trying to read the details.

Confirmed. Plausible. Busted. These are the available options on the Discovery Channel’s hit show Mythbusters. I think our tasting panel was a bit divided in reaching a verdict about Chilean terroir. At least two tasters came to a “Busted” conclusion. They just couldn’t find the link they were looking for between the wines and their terroir and their advice to Chile is “don’t give up your ‘good value’ market position.” Most of the rest of us believed that it was “Plausible” that the distinct differences between the wines was due to different terroirs, but the connection was not strong enough or clearly enough explained to arrive at a “Confirmed” conclusion.

If the terroir story is important (and I think it is if Chile is going to upgrade its market position), then the wineries need to do a better job making the connection. I think Wines of Chile has provided a very good foundation, but the individual wine brands should take better advantage of the opportunity to promote the terroir factor. The labels of the San Pedro 1865 Sauvignon Blanc and the Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere get high marks for their terroir message, although the Carmen’s tiny type was difficult to read.

The Los Vascos “Le Dix” didn’t even try to tell a terroir story — the focus was all about selecting the very best lots and blending them. But it was a terrific wine — Ron’s favorite, I think — which suggests that while terroir is important, it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only distinguishing characteristic.

Can “terroir wines” help elevate Chile’s international wine reputation? It’s a plausible proposition, but like most initiatives the key will be execution, especially coordination between Wines of Chile and key producers to provide wine enthusiasts with a clear and consistent message.

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Vina Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Casablanca Valley

100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $12.99

 San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Leyda Valley

100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $19.00

 Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley

100% Sauvignon Blanc / SRP: $25.00

 Emiliana Novas Pinot Noir 2010 Casablanca Valley

100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $19.00

 Cono Sur 20 Barrels Pinot Noir 2009 Casablanca Valley

100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $32.00

 Morandé Gran Reserva Pinot Noir 2009 Casablanca Valley

100% Pinot Noir / SRP: $17.99

 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere 2010 Cachapoal Valley

100% Carmenere / SRP: $22

 Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere 2010 Apalta- Colchagua Valley

95% Carmenere 5% Carignan / SRP: $14.99

 Koyle Royale Carmenere 2009 Colchagua Valley

85% Carmenere 8% Petit Verdot 7% Malbec / SRP: $25.99

 Ventisquero Grey Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Maipo Valley

94% Cabernet Sauvignon 6% Petit Verdot / SRP: $29.00

 Maquis Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Colchagua Valley

100% Cabernet Sauvignon / SRP: $19.00

Los Vascos Le Dix Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Colchagua Valley

85% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Carmenere 5% Syrah / SRP: $64.99

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The photo shows (clockwise from top left) Grant and Patrick, Cynthia and Pierre, Mike’s magnifying glass and Mary and Ron. Thanks to Sue for the photos. Thanks to Wines of Chile for the wines and supporting material. Thanks to my research assistants for their feedback on the wines and marketing strategies.

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9 responses

  1. Interesting discussion, Mike! Philippe Jeanty was with us for Thanksgiving and “value priced”, but not “good wine” came up in our discussion of Chile Vs various other wine regions….

  2. MIke, as I look at these wines I can’t help but wonder why all the selections of Pinot Noir came from Casablanca? Hard to make much of a determination on terroir when the focus group all comes from one location (the Sauvignon selections seemed the best cross section) – how does one compare and contrast? Maybe once it’s determined that each has merit unto it’s own, then you can delve into specifics from each region better. However mostly I’m thinking that the sampling my not have been large enough or diverse enough to be helpful.

    • You raise an interesting point. The three Pinots actually came from quite different sites within the Casablanca region (good detail about this in the video conference). So it worked on a micro-terroir level but it would be difficult to communicate.

  3. I had thought Chile has had great wines, above the ‘value’ category for many years. Some folks just were not aware of that fact. Concho Y Toro Don Melchior has been around for a long time.

  4. Mike

    With the coming World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games can we [eventually] expect to see some sparkling wines emerge from Brazil? If so what will be their likely quality?

    Michael Hince
    Melbourne Australia

  5. Interesting article, Mike. I should start by saying that I’m not a terroirist. It’s not that I don’t like terroir, but I love wine irrespective of whether terroir is evident or not. The two things that strike me as particulalry noteworthy in this piece are: the use of technology to conduct a tasting (outstanding news! Would love to get in touch with the organisers about how they ran it); and that some of the most enjoyable wines in your line-up wwere not afforded the title of ‘exponents of terroir’. All of which begs the question: ‘why should a winery focus on trying to express terroir in their wines when an enjoyable, and valued wine can be made in its absence?’

  6. fun tasting, Mike. I agree the PN would have been a better cross section with at least one from the Leyda valley.
    I find it interesting that you described the Chilean PN as somewhere between France and New Zealand, as that is exactly my feeling with the Sauvignon Blancs! I always tell people that the wines taste like they are right between France and New Zealand, and if you have a world map, Chile is basically halfway between the two countries!

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