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Tim Atkin MW on Chile: ‘Bonkers’ wines from exceptional climates

Published:  15 October, 2020

Tim Atkin MW’s latest presentation for Wines of Chile highlighted the exceptional dynamism and often ‘out there’ terroir of wines emerging from the world’s longest country.

Spanning on average just 177km in diameter and a length 4270km from north to south, with rain variation between 50mm and 1500mm per year – not to mention the impact of El Nino and La Nina weather patterns and huge variation between the cool Pacific ocean and warmer Andes – Chile is one of the world’s most climatic and topographically diverse countries.

It is winemakers’ increasing ability to hone that diversity, however, that Atkin singled out for praise in his latest masterclass for Wines of Chile.

“Chile has changed dramatically. 1997 was the start of a big sea change in Chilean winemaking. People went to higher alcohol to later picking to green harvesting to leaf plucking. And there was a lot of influence by certain American critics and possibly other international consultants.

“Since about 2010/2011, Chile has come back from that. A lot of these wines create freshness or balance, with less new wood – or the new oak is extremely well used – and show more of a sense of place.”

Examples at the masterclass included a Sauvignon Blanc from limestone soils – an unusual combination for coastal Chile, where granite is the norm – and Chile's only 100% Verdejo, which required ‘a lot of time and patience’.

Perhaps the most out there wine, however, remains Vina Ventiquero’s Tara Chardonnay, planted in the Atacama desert.

With just 20ml rainfall in a good year, and sometimes none at all, Atacama is the world’s driest desert.

Cooling ocean influences and coastal fogs help to cool vineyards, though Vina Ventiquero had to consult with soil experts in order to irrigate and manage the desert’s high salt content.

“I think you can taste salt in this wine,” Atkin said. “If you can taste limestone in the first wine, then this tastes almost salty. It’s one of my favourite Chilean Chardonnays. The three white wines have all been very distinctive: a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc from limestone soils, then this amazing unique Verdejo from Maipo, and finally this bonkers wine from the desert. It’s crazy. Only crazy people out there would do it, but I’m so glad because it’s been a real success.”

The reds included a 2018 La Ronciere Licanten Malbec, a 2018 Errazuriz Las Pizarras Pinot Noir and a 2016 Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blend from Maquis Viola.

“Carménère can sometimes have a reputation of being boring. But in the right places, it’s great. This is one of those wines,” Atkin said.

He also spoke about the variation between vintages in recent years, partly related to the El Nino and La Nina oscillation events.

He said: “2016 was wet and cold, a tricky vintage, almost ‘European’. 2017 was very hot with some fires in coastal areas. 2018 was brilliant, it produced some really goods wines: cool, dry, balanced, historic. 2019 saw drought with heat in summer, while 2020 was a very early vintage – thank goodness in some ways because Covid made it difficult to harvest the grapes and work in the wineries. In other words, what I want to emphasise really is the diversity of Chile.”

He continued: “From top to bottom it’s like driving from London to Senegal. How can it not be diverse with that spread? The new Chilean winemakers are doing amazing things. There’s incredible dynamism,” he concluded.

More information on Akin’s presentations for Wines of Chile, which were based on his annual review of the country, on Monday 12 and Wednesday 14 October can be found here.