The Roller Coaster Ride of Chile’s Recent Vintages

In Spanish-speaking countries, a roller coaster is known as a montaña rusa, or a “Russian mountain.” It’s a peculiar name, with nebulous origins, but it captures what it’s been like to make wine in Chile over the last seven years.

Despite Chile’s renown for predictable, vine-friendly weather, vintages like 2010, 2011 and 2013 were far colder than typical. In 2012, temperatures were extremely hot. Then came 2014, which saw brutal spring frosts that decimated yields. And while 2015 returned to “normal,” meaning it was mostly sunny, warm and dry, the 2016 vintage was a rain-soaked, El Niño-driven nightmare for much of the country.

Unable to combat Mother Nature and years of warm currents brewing in the Pacific Ocean (El Niño conditions), Chile’s winemakers are embracing the steep ups and precipitous downs of their new reality. They’re discovering that cool conditions are not necessarily a curse, and that hot weather may not be ideal.

Most of all, they’re coming to grips with the notion that the days of vintages that mostly mirror each other from year to year are likely over.

Here’s a look at this decade’s harvests in Chile, with winemaker commentary and recommendations for what to drink from vintages 2010–2015.

 Chilean Wine 2010
Photo by Meg Baggott

2010 | A Refreshing Change

On the heels of three hot, drought-ridden years, the most intense of which was 2009, winemakers rejoiced at the cool conditions of 2010. “Finally, a year where I would not have cooked fruit,” says Marco Puyo, San Pedro’s chief winemaker, of his initial impressions. The historic winery, headquartered in Molina, in Curicó Valley, has holdings in eight Chilean regions.

According to industry reports, the 2010 harvest occurred about 10 days later than normal, meaning mid to late March for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and well into April for red grapes. Yields were low due to abnormally cool temperatures during spring flowering, which helped quality. In addition, the massive earthquake that struck much of southern and central Chile on February 27 led to additional delays in picking.

For Rafael Urrejola, winemaker at Undurraga, located in the Maipo Valley, the low yields and extended cool weather of 2010 were a godsend.

“I was already in the mood to make fresh, higher-acidity, more vertical Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says. “So there were no worries. In fact, I was confident heading into that harvest that it could be a special vintage for the style I was seeking.”

Cristóbal Undurraga of Koyle, in the Los Lingues section of the Colchagua Valley, agrees. “[It was] a great year for low yields and fresh wines.”

Recommended wines

Casas del Toqui 2010 Leyenda (Cachapoal Valley); $85, 93 points. Led by Cabernet Sauvignon, this blend has a fresh palate as well as cushion. Berry and cherry flavors finish with accents of oak, baking spices and herbs. Drink through 2022. Winery Direct. Editors’ Choice.

Maquis 2010 Viola (Colchagua Valley); $55, 93 points. This Carmenère-Cabernet Franc blend shows aromas of cherry, cassis, chocolate and herbal spice. The palate is intense, with firm tannins. Black-fruit flavors are peppery and chocolaty. Drink through 2022. Vineyard Importers. Editors’ Choice.

Chilean Wine 2011
Photo by Meg Baggott

2011 | Cool, But Ripe

The 2011 vintage was colder than the previous year, but an extended harvest under dry conditions made it “one of the best years in terms of quality,” says Undurraga. “March was very fresh, which resulted in nice tannins, ripeness and freshness. It’s one of my favorite years.”

“Less radical than 2010,” is how Urrejola describes the vintage. “But it was excellent, with more weight and structure than 2010. I think it fits right in between 2010 and a much riper 2012.”

“It was a beautiful year, especially in the south,” says Arnaud Hereu, winemaker at Odfjell Vineyards. Based in Maipo, Odfjell has been a pioneer in reclaiming old vineyards in the Cauquenes district of the Maule Valley.

“We don’t seek to make generous wines at Odfjell, at least in terms of high-alcohol levels and huge concentration,” Hereu says. “So, for me, a vintage like this was perfect.”

There were indeed many excellent 2011 red and white wines. And while the whites are now past prime, the reds are entering their glory years.

“This was the coolest year I can recall,” says Rodrigo Zamorano, winemaker for Caliterra in Colchagua. “But physiologically, the grapes were nice. Harvest was only about five days delayed. For fresh, elegant wines, this was one of our best years.”

Chile’s Small Wineries Are Crushing It

Recommended wines

Santa Rita 2011 Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $85, 93 points. Aromas of cedar, spice and berry fruits are stylish. This perennially superb Cabernet is focused and balanced, with flavors of spicy red currant and briary berry fruits. Drink through 2026. Palm Bay International. Editors’ Choice.

Undurraga 2011 Altazor (Maipo Valley); $50, 92 points. This slightly herbal blend of mostly Carmenère and Carignan offers aromas of tobacco, licorice root and anise. Tight and fresh in feel, but with padding. Earthy berry, hoja santa and tobacco flavors finish with a note of graphite. Drink through 2023. Maritime Wine Trading Collective.

Chilean Wine 2012
Photo by Meg Baggott

2012 | Warm and Generous

The 2012 vintage was the result of the hottest year in Chile since 2009. Central Valley regions from Aconcagua down to Maule produced very ripe, fleshy wines. Coastal wines, which are normally higher in acidity and can struggle to smell and taste ripe, were more generous than usual.

“I prefer 2010 and 2011, but our best ratings for our Terroir Hunter Cabernet were for the 2012,” says Urrejola. “With the recent experience of 2009, we knew what a warm vintage could result in. We picked three weeks earlier than in 2011 and still got that fleshy palate many people expect from Chile.”

Even coastal wines from places like Casablanca, Leyda, Limarí, San Antonio and Casablanca display more girth and fruit character than normal.

“Broader palates, more generous, but beautifully balanced if you picked at the right time,” is how Urrejola describes Chile’s best 2012 coastal wines, noting that Syrah was excellent.

Recommended wines

Montes 2012 Alpha M (Colchagua Valley); $90, 93 points. Aromas of earth, cola, dry leaves, black cherry and cassis announce this saturated Cabernet blend. Dark, toasty flavors of blackberry come with vanilla, herb and tobacco accents. Drink through 2024. Guarachi Wine Partners. Cellar Selection.

Luis Felipe Edwards 2012 LFE900 Single Vineyard Blend (Colchagua Valley); $35, 93 points. This Syrah-Carmenère blend has bullish black-fruit aromas. Blackberry, black cherry and blackened toast flavors finish in smoky darkness. Drink through 2025. Domaine Select Wine & Spirits. Editors’ Choice.

Chilean Wine 2013
Photo by Meg Baggott

2013 | Cool and Dry

This vintage was almost as cold as 2011, especially at the end of the growing season, which resulted in an extended harvest.

According to Urrejola, “there are beautiful wines from the traditionally warm areas” like Colchagua and Maipo. “A warm January and February, followed by a cool, dry March and April is great for Cabernet [and some Carmenère], because there are no cooked flavors or lost acidity.”

“With cool weather comes less rain, and this was a very dry year,” says Rodrigo Soto, chief winemaker at Veramonte in Casablanca.

“I recall really cool nights that allowed for bright colors in the red wines and intensity of fruit aromas on the nose,” says Luca Hodgkinson, the former winemaker for François Lurton, in Lolol, western Colchagua. He’s now in charge of winemaking with Wildmakers, a boutique operation.

Recommended wines

Koyle 2013 Royale Carmenère (Colchagua Valley); $26, 91 points. Spicy black-fruit aromas include notes of balsam wood. This is deep and layered, but not heavy. Flavors of chocolaty oak, peppercorn and blackberry finish with a rich helping of mocha and coffee. Drink through 2020. Quintessential Wines.

San Pedro 2013 1865 Limited Edition Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah (Cachapoal Valley); $30, 91 points. Aromas of Italian herbs, eucalyptus and black fruits open this structured Cabernet-Syrah blend, while flavors of plum, berry and chocolate finish herbal and meaty. Drink through 2020. Shaw-Ross International Importers.

Chilean Wine 2014
Photo by Meg Baggott

2014 | Decimated by Frost

The spring of 2014 will be remembered for unprecedented frosts that virtually wiped out vineyards in many parts of Chile, especially the Casablanca Valley.

“This was the worst frost period on record in Chile, and Casablanca was the hardest hit,” says Grant Phelps, winemaker with Casas del Bosque in Casablanca. “No level of frost protection spared anyone. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay got it the worst. Sauvignon Blanc hadn’t broken bud yet, but the frosts were so severe that they damaged the buds, even though there was no exposed green tissue at that point.”

Undurraga’s Koyle vineyards, however, didn’t sustain damage from the cold. “After we got through the frosts, it was a great vintage,” he says. “Inland, we had a nice harvest that wrapped up several weeks early due to low yields.”

Recommended wines

Kingston Family 2014 Lucero Syrah (Casablanca Valley); $20, 91 points. Ripe black-fruit aromas are spicy and a bit lactic from oak. Hence, the palate is full and creamy, with acidic cut. Blackberry, herbal spice and toasty oak flavors finish with ease. Kingston Family Vineyards.

Carmen 2014 Gran Reserva Carmenère (Colchagua Valley); $15, 90 points. Berry, spice, herb and oak aromas are inviting. Blackberry, mixed herb and dark chocolate flavors are integrated through the finish. Trinchero Family Estates. Best Buy.

Chilean Wine 2016
Photo by Meg Baggott

2015 | By the Book

The word on 2015 is that it was more of a textbook Chilean vintage, meaning warm, dry and uncomplicated.

“I’m just now blending our top reds, so I don’t know how they’ll show two years from now,” says Urrejola. “But they look good, especially wines from Cauquenes in Maule. Maipo wines will be riper than 2011 and 2013, but less [ripe] than 2012. Coastal wines are looking really good.”

Having not yet tasted Chile’s big-league reds from 2015, I recommend the Sauvignon Blancs, which are showing classic varietal characteristics including overall vivacity, punchy aromas and racy citrus flavors.

For comparative purposes, Phelps says that he harvested Sauvignon Blanc for Casas del Bosque in 2015 starting on March 23, whereas in 2013, it was April 8 and March 8 in 2012.

Recommended wines

Leyda 2015 Single Vineyard Garuma Sauvignon Blanc (Leyda Valley); $18, 90 points. Briny citrus aromas are pungent. A crisp palate holds flavors of stony lime and green apple. MundoVino-The Winebow Group.

Errazuriz 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (Aconcagua Costa); $22, 90 points. Aromas of grass, scallion, baby garlic and lime reflect cool-coast origins. A juicy mouthfeel is minerally, while flavors of nettle, lime, passion fruit and green onion finish with snap. Vintus LLC.

2016 | Challenging & Wet

A few winemakers are saying they like 2016, but it was a major El Niño year that delivered a lot of rain throughout the growing season and two massive storms in April.

Veramonte’s Soto explains the weather’s effect: “El Niño makes the Pacific Ocean warmer, especially close to the coastline. This translates into rain and higher nighttime temperatures, which make the vines more active. So you get early maturity without the requisite sugar.”

“A mind-bendingly challenging vintage,” is how Phelps describes 2016.

“In Casablanca, we had extremely cold growing conditions throughout spring and summer,” he says. “The big difference compared to other cool vintages was the heavy morning fog throughout the months of February and March.

“On many days, it was so dense I had to drive to work with my windshield wipers going. This delayed ripening, but producers who didn’t overcrop still made excellent Sauvignon Blanc and some good Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Syrah were the most affected.”

And then things got worse.

“The whole country, with the exception of Maule and Itata in the south and Limarí and Elqui in the north, was hit by four days of heavy rain in mid-April,” says Phelps. “This was accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures that turned a large chunk of the country into a rot fest.

“Vineyards that were lucky enough to survive the first bout of monsoon rains were pretty much wiped out by the next storm only five days later,” he says. “It was the most rain I’ve seen during harvest in my 16 years in Chile.”

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