Sebastian Faulks is one of my favourite novelists and I have always been impressed with the apparent authenticity of his work which I assumed was based on meticulous research. Thus his great novel about the First World War, Birdsong seems to bring you the very smell of the trenches and then his magnificent study of the nineteenth century treatment of mental illness Human Traces appears rooted in a detailed analysis of the fumbling of those pioneers. I was therefore very surprised when earlier this year I heard him say in a radio interview that he did little research and that most of his work came from his own knowledge and imagination. But this was confirmed for me when I read his novel Engleby in which the eponymous hero (or villain) described drinking a cheap bottle of Chilean red wine in a scene set in the ‘60s. In fact at that time there was no Chilean wine imported into Britain or if there was it wasn’t cheap. Faulks is simply assuming that because there is now there must have been then.
So in this, my 100th blog, I decided to write about something close to my heart, Chilean wine. I first drank Chilean wine on my first trip to Chile in 1980 and was very impressed, particularly with the reds but even at that later date there was not much being exported. Two years later I met and married my wife while living there and brought her back to live with me in England in 1983. At that time I believe there was just one brand imported into the UK, Concha y Toro.
I don’t recall who had the idea first, whether it was my wife or I. She insists it was her so I’ll let her win that argument, but we decided to try and import some Chilean wine ourselves. So in the mid-1980s on a trip back to Chile my wife persuaded a well-established and locally famous brand Viña Underraga to appoint her as its representative in the UK. I should say that my wife had no previous business experience except working as a secretary for big companies although she did tell them that I was well connected with the grocery trade which I suppose I was at the time, but as a supplier of cake mixes not of alcoholic beverages!
She set up a business called Fine Wines from Chile and started to import the wines at first in small quantities as a single container filled with wine would have been a prohibitively costly investment. We started by selling them to friends and neighbours who were all impressed with the quality. Viña Underraga is famous for its different shape of bottle which is more triangular, a little like Mateus Rosé although I assure you the contents were infinitely superior. This started to be a problem as it took more space on the shelves and was frowned on by retailers we approached. Nevertheless we enjoyed some success sampling the wines at fairs and using such contacts as we did have to widen the distribution. But it was still a very small business and probably not registering very much on the market share charts.
Then the Wine Importers Association decided to turn their attention to Chile. Australian wines had become particularly well established, Bulgarian wines were popular at the cheap end and Californian wines had also made their mark. The switched-on Commercial attaché at the Chilean Embassy also decided to get behind Chilean wines. He saw how open the British market is to wines from other parts of the world. After all we have virtually no domestic wines to protect. He formed a Committee to consider how best to proceed and invited the two importers of record to join it together with other major shippers, distributors and retailers. So my wife found herself sitting down with buyers from Tesco and Grants of St James’s. At that point we decided that this was in danger of overwhelming us and gracefully withdrew from the market. The great thing about a wine business is that when you decide to close the business you can drink the stock.
But the Committee was the start of great things for Chilean wine in this country and consumption has grown from that very low figure to fully 8% of the market today, or the equivalent of one bottle in every case imported. Hardly any self-respecting wine list from pub to upmarket restaurant will not have at least two Chilean entries, one red and one white and many will have several more.
So what is it about Chile that makes its wine so good and such good value? Chile has a history of wine –making dating from the time of the Spanish Conquistadors, but the wines came into their own when noble Bordeaux vines were planted in the mid-nineteenth century. Thanks to the natural barriers of the Andes and the Pacific, the vines were never affected by the phylloxera epidemic which devastated European vineyards in the late nineteenth century, and are grown ungrafted to this day. Ironically the French had to replant their vineyards with stock from Chile or California which also escaped phylloxera, a fact seldom acknowledged by the French.
But while the grapes are descended from French aristocracy the Chileans have particularly favourable growing conditions. Chile as everyone knows is a long thin country that is geographically and climatically defined by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the East. The vineyards are mainly found in the Central Valley around Santiago which is 35° south of the equator. Wines produced in Europe are all produced at latitudes much further north than 35°. This means that Chilean grapes are exposed to more sunshine but are not spoiled because of the cooling effect of the cold air from the Andes and the Humboldt Current that brings cold water from the Antarctic. Thus there is a wide diurnal temperature variation between day and night-time temperatures which has the effect of maintaining the grapes’ levels of acidity. The climate is dry with an average of 38 centimetres of rain annually and little risk of springtime frost.
But the poor economic and political conditions of the 1960s and ‘70s affected the wine industry as much as any other. The growers could not invest in modern fermentation plants or in new barrels. Chile has no oak from which the best barrels are made so the producers made the best they could of their old beech wood barrels but eventually the effect of mould or rotten wood affected the taste. Domestic taste buds may get accustomed but export is unlikely. Then in the early 1980s as the economy grew modern methods of wine making were introduced. French, Spanish and American oenologists brought their expertise to Chile. Investments were made in modern fermentation plants, which allowed them to make the clean fresh white wines preferred by modern drinkers and these days the white wines will be stored in stainless steel vats. Proper oak barrels were introduced replacing the traditional beech wood barrels allowing good quality red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chile’s own Carmenère grapes to be aged in oak.
As Chile exported more of its wines and took part in international competitions there was some scepticism over the authenticity of some of its varietals. Wines purporting to be Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc did not seem to have the classic taste of those two well-known grapes. On investigation what Chileans were calling Merlot was in fact the grape Carmenère while the Sauvignon Blanc was Sauvignon vert, a mutated cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Now proper Merlot and Sauvignon cuttings have been imported and Carmenère is sold in its own right.
Chilean wines now regularly beat French and other wines in competition. They are usually cheaper because their brands are still not as well-known as the famous Premier Crus. One brand I particularly enjoy is Cono Sur, a nice pun as it sounds like Connoisseur but means Southern Cone, the southern part of South America. Cono Sur is produced by Alfredo Hurtado whom I have had the pleasure to meet. Alfredo has studied wine growing in other parts of the world but now practises it to a high art in Chile. His wines are organically grown and his vineyard is carbon neutral. Of course he is sensitive to the issue of wine miles but uses light weight glass to reduce the effects of transportation. His organic methods include using predators to catch pests, and garlic paste to deter ants. He also employs flocks of geese to hoover up some of the bugs. Spraying is a waste of time he says because you simply create a desert which before too long is reinfested with whatever pest you were trying to control. So you have to spray again.
I commend his wines but if you can’t find them I’m sure you can find another nice Chilean wine to go with your turkey this Christmas. We certainly shall.
And on the pleasures of wine-drinking I quote from a leter to The Daily Telegraph from a Mr Scotford Lawrence writing on the advice of the Royal College of Psychiatrists to restrict wine consumption to no more than two small glasses of wine per day:
"Since retiring more than ten years ago, I have taken a master's degree, written a couple of books and translated two more, served as a trustee of a charity, lectured, and worked as a technical expert for a national museum and as an adviser to two continental museums. I garden and am active in a local sports club.
But reading the advice from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, I wonder what I might have achieved had I not, as I have all of my adult life, drunk several glasses of wine with dinner each night."
Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved