The Big Stretch – The Emerging Chilean Fine WIne Industry

Author: Brian Croser
Source: Tapanappa
Review Date: Feb 2012

The following paper was recently given by Brian at the inaugural South American Wine Workshop in London.




I am not an expert on the Chilean wine industry and even less so on the Argentinean wine industry.  

Andres Ilabaca and the team from Vina Santa Rita can put their vineyards and wines into context better than I can and Edgardo del Popolo is a leader of the Argentinean wine industry, a pioneer of new sub-regions, vineyards and wine styles at Dona Paula in Mendoza and an eloquent champion of his country’s wines.

So why am I here instead of holidaying with my grand children at Tunkalilla Beach in South Australia?

I have been consultant to Vina Santa Rita for nearly 3 years now, charged with a brief to look at vineyard site selection, vineyard development and management and wine style and quality; in summary to play a part in the restless quest for improved wine quality at Vina Santa Rita. It is not an unpaid job but it is a labour of love, the only consultancy brief I have accepted since leaving Petaluma 7 years ago.

I first visited Chile in 2005 in company with Andrew Jefford and an Australian friend and geologist, Doug McKenzie.

We were guided on a “terroir tour “ of the Chilean wine industry by Eduardo Silva, from the Elqui Valley in the north down to Bio Bio in the south and clambered in and out of holes in the ground interpreting the geology and soil contribution to terroir in each location.  

As some of you know, it is not a chore to go to Chile, the geography is spectacular and immensely varied, the people are gentle, happy and intellectually inquisitive and the food and wine just gets better.

They are some of the ingredients that have kept me going back to Chile now a total of 10 times since that first trip but what got me there in the first place was a fascination to find out why Chilean wines are so different and distinctive.

Chilean wines and those of the Cabernet family in particular are distinctive on the global fine wine stage. 

Of course it seems ridiculous to assert that there is a Chilean wine character when more than in most wine countries the Chilean vineyards cover such a diverse range of climates and such a long stretch of latitudes. 

But Chilean wines of the Cabernet family in particular are distinctive and I would like to explore their personality and why it is expressed so strongly.

Arguably the Chilean fine wine future lies in maintaining and refining its traditional Cabernet family wine personality and at the same time diversifying far from it.


Cabernet Sauvignon and its relatives, grown in the Central Valley Region of Chile have dominated Chilean wine personality since they were introduced in the mid 19th century.  

Because of the absence of Phyloxera, Chile’s vineyards have the complete Cabernet family, all on own roots, including the prodigal Carmenere long absent from its Bordeaux homeland. 

Getting to know the Cabernet family better, Cabernet Franc is the father of Cabernet Sauvignon (the mother is Sauvignon Blanc) and of Merlot and Carmenere. Malbec shares a mother with Merlot (Magdelaine de Charente). All members of this incestuous family have been continuously represented in Chile’s Central Valley vineyards since the mid 19th century

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and its Bordeaux relatives grown in the Central Valley produce distinctive wine epitomized as,

“Nearly always with a glass staining vibrant curtain of colour opening to fresh aromas of spicy, slightly briary, essence of Cabernet fruit, tinged with an exotic edge of mulberry and cassis. The plump ripe fruit sweetness of the middle palate graduates to a plane of definite and savoury tannins. This is serious terroir driven red wine of a style that can’t be produced anywhere else.”

The questions are, why the intense colour? Why the briary exotic fruit and why the unusually savoury tannins?

There are two main forces at play that contribute to the unique qualities of Chilean Cabernet;

  • The genetics of the Cabernet family
  • The terroir of the Central Valley and in particular its climate.

Cabernet Franc and its offspring are genetically wired to produce spicy green flavours, pyrazine compounds accumulated before veraison. Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon also inherited the genes for late ripening.

Late ripening is caused by the lengthening of the lag phase of berry development prior to veraison, which is when pyrazines and tannins accumulate and the longer the lag the more of both. After veraison both pyrazine and tannin diminish in concentration.

Merlot inherited the green gene from Cabernet Franc but also the early ripening gene from its mother Magdelaine Noire des Charente. The preveraison lag phase is shorter for Merlot than for the two Cabernets and Carmenere so it has less pyrazine and less tannin.

Malbec didn’t inherit the green gene as its father was not Cabernet Franc but it did inherit the early ripening trait from its mother, also Magdelaine.

Imposed on these genetic tendencies the unusually cold nights of Chile’s Central Valley further lengthen the lag phase and the accumulation of green flavours and tannins prior to veraison.  

This is offset by the lack of summer and autumn rain, which allows grapes in the Central Valley to stay on the vine up to the edge of winter.

However the long pre-veraison lag phase does explain the spicy and briary aromas and the savoury tannins of Chilean Cabernet from the Central Valley.  

Fruit exposure to light and warmth before veraison help to moderate the accumulation of tannins and pyrazines and the best Chilean Cabernets are grown with open canopies and leaf stripping from the fruiting zone after flowering.

After veraison the tannins and pyrazines decrease and the colour pigments (anthocyanins) and the ripe fruit flavour compounds increase. Tannin and flavour ripening stop in the cold nights of the Central Valley climate so again ripening is confined to the days and maturity is further delayed. Pigment accumulation is temperature and light stimulated and the prolonged ripening period allows high concentrations of colour to develop during the greater number of days to ripeness. This explains the intense colour of Chilean Cabernets.

The reduction of the spicy green flavours to subliminal levels at harvest, combined with sun induced ripe Cabernet fruit flavours creates the exotic mulberry and cassis edge to Chilean Cabernets.

The traditional Cabernet vineyards of the Central Valley are closer to the foothills of the Andes and the cold air drains down into the vineyards at night creating a big differential between day and night temperatures. Hillside sites within these traditional vineyards have warmer nights creating different nuances of Cabernet.

There are newly developed vineyard areas closer to the coastal range that are still warm enough to ripen Cabernet and Carmenere but do so more rapidly and earlier because of higher night temperatures and lower diurnal range.

These will produce a different Chilean Cabernet style but I am sure with the hallmarks of the best of the breed.

 For example,Vina Santa Rita has planted a new vineyard on beautiful granite based soils at Pumanque in Colchagua just 30 km’s from the coast and I compare the temperatures there to those of Santa Rita’s traditional vineyard at Casa Real in the Maipo Alto at Alto Jahuel in the foothills of the Andes and as points of reference to Coonawarra in South Australia and to the Medoc in Bordeaux.


REGION Heat Summation (°C days) Diurnal Range (°C) Average Minimum (°C) Average Maximum (°C)
Bordeaux 1485 11.4  11.2 22.6
Coonawarra (Australia) 1399 14.4 9.5 23.8
Pumanque 1513 14.2 10.1 21.9
Alto Jahuel 1637 17.6 8.9 26.5

 In my view the best and most typical Chilean Cabernet comes from the Maipo Alto, from either the hillside colluvial soils or the quaternary alluvial benches of the river. Casa Real from Vina Santa Rita is a classical example of the best of traditional Chilean Cabernet from this combination of soils in Maipo Alto.

For Carmenere, which is genetically later ripening and accumulates more pyrazine than Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot, a hotter region is required to moderate the pyrazines and to achieve full flavour and tannin ripeness.

Marchigue and Apalta in Colchagua answer the temperature requirements of ripe Carmenere but it is on the colluvial fans at the foot of the Apalta hills that Carmenere achieves its best expression. 

REGION Heat Summation (°C days) Diurnal Range (°C) Average Minimum (°C) Average Maximum (°C)
Apalta 1781 16.5 10.2 26.7
Marchigue 1845 15.3 11.1 26.4

My bet is that Pumanque will grow lovely subtle Cabernet Franc and Merlot of dimension and class as well as ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere.


Lets leave the traditional vineyards, the inland valleys and the Cabernet family located around Santiago’s latitude of 32 S with the back drop of the Andes towering to 7,000 metres less than 50 km’s to the east.

It’s a cliché to say Chile is a remarkable country, 4270 km’s long on a similar longitude to New York and stretching between 17S at the north in the Atacama dessert and 56S at Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn.

What isn’t obvious is that the subduction of the Pacific tectonic plate under the Nazca plate of the South American continent is not only creating the Andes but it is also creating a trench along the Chilean coast as deep as the Andes are high. Chile is on average only 177 km’s wide from the peak of the Andes to the Pacific coast and in reality is just a narrow ledge halfway up the steep 30% slope from the bottom of the Peru-Chile trench to the top of the Andes, at its extreme a rise of 15,000 meters.

The cold Humboldt Current flows from the Antarctic Peninsula up the Chilean coast along the trench and creates the biggest upwelling of cold water from the ocean depths on the earth’s surface.

This upwelling and current keep the entire coast of Chile cool in much the same way the Californian Current keeps the coast of California and Oregon cool.  It is also subject to disruption when El Nino brings warm water and rain to the coast of Chile while Australia has drought. The opposite occurs when La Nina is in place and the warm water is on the Australian side of the Pacific as it is now. Then Chile has drought and Australia has rain.

From the bottom of the trench the knife-edge of the South American continent has scraped off a sliver of the Pacific Ocean sea-bed surface and deposited it onshore as the coastal range creating the opportunity to find in that range some old sea bed sediments in contrast to the very young igneous rock of the Andes and the Central Valley.

In this coastal range and in the valleys transversing it, cool growing climates can be found between Elqui in the north at 30S down to Temuco at 40S.

Further south than Temuco at Orsono and Valdivia, very high rainfall (nearly 3 meters) and low temperature summations probably preclude viticulture.

Between 30 and 40S the climate obviously becomes cooler and wetter towards Patagonias.

A comparison of the heat accumulated in Limari in the north down to Temuco in the far south and places in between reveals this north south temperature gradient along the coast.

Region Heat Summation (°C days) Diurnal Range (°C) Average Minimum (°C) Average Maximum (°C)
Limari 30°S 1741 12.2 12.1 24.3
San Antonio 34°S 1145 10.6 10.1 21.9
Temuco 39°S 901 11.3 8.6 19.9

An equally spectacular gradient exists from the foot of the Andes to the coast demonstrated at a mid-latitude (34S) just south of Santiago. 

Region Distance to Coast (km’s) Heat Summation (°C days) Diurnal Range(°C)
Maipo Alto 90 1637 17.6
Pumanque 30 1513 14.2
Leyda 15 1327 11.2
San Antonio 0 1145 10.6

The heat summation and the diurnal range drops as dramatically from the foothills of the Andes to the coast over the short east/west distance of 90 kilometers as it does from Limari to Temuco over a north/south distance of 1000 kilometers.

Leyda and San Antonio are exactly suited to growing Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because of their low heat summations and their low diurnal ranges. Because of the warmer nights close to the coast the plants can produce flavour during the night as well as during the day.

The Casablanca Valley is just a little north of San Antonio and its centre is only 25 kilometers from the coast. It has a low heat summation but by contrast because of cold night air sliding from the hills to the east it has a very high diurnal range and the vines close up at night and the days are warmer.

Because of this Casablanca produces a different style of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, slightly more angular with riper fruit salad flavours, more malic acid and more alcohol but very fresh and assertive. 

The Leyda and San Antonio Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are gentler with lower alcohols and more citrus and complex flavours but without the same force as Casablanca.

Comparing Casablanca and San Antonio with Burgundy demonstrates why Leyda and San Antonio have such a bright future with Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay.

Region Heat Summation (°C days) Diurnal Range (°C)
Burgundy (Dijon) 1172 11.4
San Antonio 1145 10.6
Casablanca 1245 17.2


In Chile there is viticultural choice.

The big stretch is from Shiraz in the north at Limari to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for table and sparkling wine near Temuco in the south.

The short stretch is for the Cabernet Sauvignon at Alto Jahuel in the east to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir at San Antonio on the coast.

Then there is the choice of soils from the old seabed sediments of the coastal range and coast to the very young Andesite igneous rocks of the Andes and its alluvial valleys.

In the centre and to the north of Santiago, low total rainfall and the virtual absence of summer rain creates irrigation dependency but also provides the opportunity to ripen fruit right up to the edge of winter.

In the relatively unexploited south, annual rainfall in excess of a meter, including significant summer rain, creates more risk and the need for earlier ripening but vines can be independent of irrigation. It will be worth the risk.

There is viticultural choice and now you can understand why I love going to Chile.

BJC. 11/1/2012. 

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