Sunshine wine will warm up those Chile nights
Of all the places I've been in the wine world, the one I most hope to return to is Chile. It is a landscape like no other, and in my experience of visiting the vineyards offers a welcome of unrivalled warmth. And the wines aren't bad either.
The country covers 2,500 miles from top to toe, occupying the western coastal fringe of the southern half of the continent of South America. Most of the vineyards are crowded into the centre of the strip, close to the capital city of Santiago.
This is a region of valleys. Their western slopes are formed by coastal hills, rising from the shore of the South Pacific ocean. To the east is the cordillera, the almighty mountain range of the Andes.
The mountains, snow-capped year-round and the highest in the western hemisphere, are an inescapable presence, but a benevolent one. Chile's ability to grow crops of any kind is dependent upon natural irrigation from the Andes. Through the rainless months of the long Andean summers, melting ice flows down the mountainsides in a thousand rivers to supply the canals first built here by Inca farmers more than 500 years ago.
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It is a landscape somewhere close to Eden. The climate is maritime, mercifully temperate, and dry. And thanks to the twin barriers of the Pacific and the mountains, the valleys are remarkably free of the pests and diseases that so often plague vineyard zones. Here there is far less need than in Europe to spray the vines against mildew and insect damage.
Chile is the only nation to have escaped the most ruinous vine pest of them all, the phylloxera. Since the 1860s, when it wiped out three-quarters of Europe's vineyards, this aphid-like louse, whose larvae eat and infect vine roots, has invaded every other wine region worldwide.
While vineyards are usually notorious for their lack of bird life thanks to constant pesticide spraying, in Chile it's another story. I will never forget one day in the Maipo Valley finding the fringes of the vineyards not just full of wild flowers, but aglow with the fleeting iridescent attentions of countless hummingbirds.
Moments like this in vineyards tend to foster considerable affection for the wine. And I'll admit it, Chilean wine has always held a unique place in my little vinous heart. And it's a regard that grows and grows. The winemakers of this enterprising nation have battled through political horrors and economic hardship to compete in a tough world market, raising quality all along the way.
If there's a common thread in Chilean wine I believe it's the naturalness of the flavours, a purity of style. Good value has always been a theme too, not just for the everyday brands, but among the "fine wines" now competing with French and Italian classics at the top of the market.
Michael Cox, head of Wines of Chile UK, this year celebrating the tenth anniversary of the trade organisation's establishment in Britain, has helped to double Chile's share of the European wine market in that time, and is determined that the move upmarket should continue.
Chile, he says, "needs to completely forget the bargain basement area," over the course of the next decade. "We might end up selling less liquid, but we should sell higher value wines. I see ten years of growth and progress in selling better quality wine."
I wish him every success. Here are a few of the more everyday Chilean wines that have impressed me .
Waitrose Soft and Juicy Chilean Red at £4.99 is the best of the new basic own-label wine range introduced this year at Waitrose. It is genuine sunshine wine from merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes, elegantly balanced with easy weight but comfortably concentrated, satisfying and clean-finishing. A real bargain.
Luis Felipe Edwards Carmenère-Shiraz 2012 (Waitrose £5.99) has a crimson colour and darkly juicy and roasty-spicy fruit. Luis Felipe Edwards' wines crop up with reassuring frequency at all price levels.
Miguel Torres Las Mulas Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Waitrose £8.99) is a pure, sleek cabernet in the generous Chilean tradition, luxed up with six months is new oak casks to impressive effect; an intense, darkly ripe bargain.
Serie Riberas Syrah 2010 (Morrisons £12.19) is a charmingly lush and poised vivid oaked special-occasion red by Chile's largest wine producer, Concha y Toro. This is similar in style to the defined and very expensive red wines of France's northern Rhône Valley.
Mister Shiraz 2011 (Majestic £8.74 or £6.99 if you buy any two Chilean wines) might be burdened with this dodgy name, and bears a self-consciously over-arty label, but the wine inside has a sumptuous purple colour and exactly the kind of generous sweetly ripe fruit for which Chile is so admired; deep, minty-spicy food wine to match roasts and stews.
Errazuriz Aconcagua Costa Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Waitrose £11.99) is a flag-flyer for serious white wine from Chile. The Aconagua vineyards lie close to the shore of the Pacific, and the Costa ("Coast") vineyard of leading producer Errazuriz is as close as it gets, which might account for the tangy, even bracing, breeziness in the flavour. You get the classic gooseberry-grassy sauvignon character here, but also a lick of richness, imparted not by oak maturing, but contact with the lees – the yeasty detritus of fermentation – for a few months in the vat before it is racked off for bottling.
My favourite Chilean chardonnay this summer is Torres Cordillera Valley Collection Chardonnay 2011. It's from the Limari region, close to the northernmost limit for vine-growing in the country, where the climate is even drier than that of the central zone and the vineyards lie at lower altitudes. This new Torres wine is lavishly coloured and equally extravagant in its lush, peachy fruitiness with toasted nutty oak elements. It has a pure, mineral quality that is somehow Chilean through and though – a style that stays sharp and clear in the tasting memory. It's another premium wine, priced at £11.99 online from independent merchant Thomas Peatling, and an umistakable reminder that Chile is a world-class player in the wine game.