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Icon Wines: The evolution of Chile’s fine wine renaissance

September 2, 2021

Wine collectors and enthusiasts alike don’t need to set foot in Chile to understand that this South American country has entered the ranks of ‘First-Growth’ wine nations. For at least two decades, interest has been piqued by both the diversity and exceptional quality on offer.

Home to a varied palate of grapes and wine styles, the further south you go in Chile, the cooler it becomes. Ambitious winemakers have been exploiting this and other terroir matters; high altitude wines are all the rage in Chile, and terroir has increasingly become enshrined in law. Familiar valleys and sub-regions are officially divided into three key zones: Costa, Entre Cordilleras, and the Andes. No longer is Chile merely the land of fruit-forward, varietal expressions – regional differences and site-specificity are now king.

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Typically, Chilean wines are known by many around the world to be exceptional value-driven wines known to wow consumers with their quality-to-price-ratio. It’s not unheard of to hear one raving about a Chilean wine that they purchased for $20-$25 and have them compare it to the likes of a $45-$50 bottle of Bordeaux or a mid-ranged Italian super Tuscan. In fact, the country seems to be quite famous for this, no longer considered to be the wine world’s best kept secret. But as good as those wines may be, there’s an entire ‘next level’ of quality wine being made to tempt the curious imbiber, so long as you’re willing to reach further into your wallet.

Top-level Chilean wine – now priced very ambitiously – has become world-class. Growers across the nation have been refining their red and white offerings, getting better in leaps and bounds. At the turn of the millennium, there was a tendency to provide maximum impact with ripeness, concentration, and levels of oak. However, there has been a dramatic paradigm shift in recent times, with winemakers favouring elegance and restraint, in addition to the charms of perfectly ripe and expressive Chilean fruit.

Icon Wines: Eduardo Chadwick

Icon Wines: Eduardo Chadwick is largely responsible for Chile’s move into the fine wine space.

The pivotal moment for Chilean wine came during a 2004 tasting in Berlin that was conducted by Steven Spurrier, creator of the globally famed 1976 Judgment of Paris. Two wines from Chile were voted in first and second place ahead of some of the most heralded wines from France and Italy, including Château Latour and Lafite from Bordeaux, and Sassicaia from Tuscany. And just like California after that Judgment of Paris tasting, the word was out, and Chile’s reputation was sealed. And since that day, the quality of Chilean wine has gotten better and better.

This Chilean wine new renaissance can be largely credited to the uniting of two of wine’s royal families. In the early 1990s, Chile was becoming known for its mass-produced, affordable wines, but Éduardo Chadwick, whose Viñedos Familia Chadwick owns the Errázuriz winery – and controls additional portfolios, including Arboleda and Caliterra – knew that the country could produce top quality wines.

There’s an entire ‘next level’ of quality wine being made to tempt the curious imbiber, so long as you’re willing to reach further into your wallet.

In 1991, Chadwick teamed up with California’s Robert Mondavi to make a world-class wine in Chile. The result was Seña, which means “sign,” as it was to be a sign of Chile’s ability to make fine wine. Crafted using grapes grown just 90 kilometres north of Santiago in the Aconcagua Valley, it would become Chile’s first icon wine and its current vintage, from the 2018 growing season, is arguably its best ever. Priced at $200 a bottle in Ontario, Seña is made from five Bordeaux varieties and delivers beautifully defined fruit, balanced acidity, and fine-grained tannins. It will surely have a long life in the cellar.

Chadwick and Mondavi aspired to produce a fresh, balanced wine unlike the riper, fruitier wines from Chile’s generally warm growing conditions. (Since 2005 – after the passing of Robert Mondavi in 2004 – Éduardo Chadwick is the sole proprietor of the Seña brand.)

The 2001 vintage of Seña ranked second at that Berlin tasting in 2004. It was beaten only by Chadwick’s other icon wine, Viñedo Chadwick.

Icon Wines: Chile

Icon Wines: Winter in Chile.

Compared with the greats of Bordeaux, Viñedo Chadwick may have a brief history, but it’s been a remarkable one. As the comparative tastings and independent assessments have shown, it is a wine of high and consistent quality that has shone a bright light on the quality potential of Chile, and the wonders of cabernet from Puente Alto in the Maipo Valley. Any list of Chile’s most lauded and expensive bottles cannot possibly omit Viñedo Chadwick.

At about $450CAD, Viñedo Chadwick is quite different from Seña. This is almost purely cabernet sauvignon (the 2018 vintage has three percent petit verdot) from the Maipo Valley, the source of Chile’s best cabernet sauvignons – an area that’s warmer than where the grapes for Seña were grown – and 2018 was a perfect year there, too. This vintage of Viñedo Chadwick is textbook cabernet, a wine that presents itself as a benchmark. Technically impeccable, it’s a delight to drink, with elegant and well-structured fruit that has depth and breadth, finely calibrated acidity, and harmony all the way through.

Backed by a long list of highly influential critics’ scores to prove it, the best Chilean icon wines are now world-beaters and quintessential South American collector’s items, now often distinctive and in a league of their own.

Seña and Viñedo Chadwick are a pair of magnificent wines, each distinctly different from the other. What unites them, apart from their coming from the same stable, is their quality, year after year. And in the 2018 vintage, that quality has been enhanced by perfect growing conditions that have resulted in exquisite wines.