Interview: Changing What Americans Think About Chilean Wine

Chile remains a strong country for wine imports.

It’s firmly within the top five countries in terms of the total volume of wine shipped into America. Chile’s wine resurgence that began in the ‘80s and ‘90s — with the introduction of improved production and aging technology — has blossomed into a robust global presence. Though obviously not the import powerhouse of Italy, Chile is competitive in America with the likes of Argentina and Australia.

Why the popularity? Chilean wine, for starters, has a history with deep roots. Spanish conquistadors planted the country’s first vines in the 17th century. Vineyards trace their traditions back hundreds of years.

Chile also enjoys an ideal winemaking climate. It’s conditions are sometimes referred to as the midpoint between California and France. No wonder vineyards here produce world-class wines.

But do most Americans know that? What does the average U.S. consumer think about Chilean wine?

For answers to these questions I recently spoke with Cristobal Undurraga Marimon. He’s a sixth-generation Chilean winemaker, co-owner of Koyle Winery in the Los Lingues zone of Alto Colchagua. Koyle’s portfolio of wines runs from $17 to $100 per bottle.

Beverage Dynamics: How do Americans view Chilean wine?
Cristobal Undurraga Marimon: U.S. wine drinkers are always searching for a niche category, a new experience. So there are more of them now searching for Chile. But Chile today is still mostly perceived as a value place for wine.

That’s why we try to add some complexity for the value. Every wine is an offering. We try to make it a fair trade with complexity and value. I see wines from other countries — countries without Chile’s history or viticultural focus — selling for $200 a bottle. How is that a fair trade?

BD: How can Chile raise its profile beyond being a ‘value’ country?
CM: We really started working towards that in the 2000s. Before that, Chile wine was really commercial. Now there are more and more nice properties in Chile. There are 10-20 wineries in our country that are working very seriously towards making great wine. It’s only a matter of time before more people notice.

We’re pushing to build up Chile as a unique, authentic region in the world. As a wine region, your style should be unique, or you’re not doing it on your own terms.

BD: What is unique about Chile as a wine region?
CM: Chile’s identity as a wine region is all about diversity. We can grow so many varietals here. From Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir to Cabernet to Syrah. Even Mediterranean varietals come out really interesting in Chile. We’re growing thirteen different varietals at our winery. This gives us an open kitchen when blending. We have so many more aromas and textures and flavors to work with.

koyle-wine-dinner-at-mark-hotel-051

Koyle wines.

BD: Koyle embraces biodynamic winemaking, but without marketing this heavily. Can you explain both motivations?
CM: A key part of wines is what we put into the viticulture. The irrigation, the fertilization — we make our compost using manure from the geese on our vineyard. We use no chemicals. We have many animals on our vineyard. This brings magic to the place, with such a biologically diverse complexity of life. Wine is not just about the grapes but the people and the terroir behind the grapes, and all of this is what it takes to make unique wines.

In 2011 we started making more of a focus on creating wines that reflect their place. These are not commercial or standard wines, but wines that can truly reflect a place. It’s all an effort to give consumers more-authentic flavors.

In terms of communicating this, I believe that the best way is for people to try out more wines. Sometimes people just have too much information already in their lives. So we don’t market our biodynamic methods as much. Rather, we want people to taste wines made biodynamically, and those that are not, and decide for themselves.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com

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