Opinion

Why Regionality Is Key to Chile’s Wine Evolution

Chilean winemaker Rodrigo Soto spotlights terroir as the catalyst that will move the country’s wines forward

Rodrigo Soto
Rodrigo Soto. Photo courtesy of Veramonte.

Chile is well known for being a producer of wines that offer great value. Many of us in the winemaking community believe that the future for Chilean wines and the only way to move beyond this rather misguided stigma is to focus instead on Chile’s geographical richness, its unparalleled contrasts, its humble inhabitants, and its emerging wine culture. In other words, its regionality.

The wine industry in Chile has historically been dominated by large companies, which grow bigger and stronger every year, but a fracture has appeared in that model. Large companies tend to focus solely on promoting their brands when they could be doing more for the region as a whole by drawing attention to the different areas where they grow or buy their grapes.

Shifting Focus

Instead of purchasing grapes throughout the country—creating multitudes of labels within each portfolio that include every appellation while forgoing any real identity—large producers could focus on the locations of their actual vineyards. Then they could work to concentrate their efforts and promote those appellations through a pared-down but more focused portfolio. As the saying goes, rising tides lift all boats, and these internationally recognized wineries have a responsibility to help define Chile’s diverse regionality and lift up its wines.

Getting everyone on board has been an ongoing challenge, which begs the question: Can we midsize wineries, together with small producers, differentiate ourselves from the larger companies who focus so much more on their own brands—and work with each other to lift up the reputation of Chile’s wine?

Those of us who wish to promote distinct appellations face an uphill battle if the larger producers don’t see value in collaborating with us on that effort—and this is likely to continue to be a major challenge for Chile over the next 20 years. Defining the harmful effects of omitting regional origin from the dialogue is going to be part of the solution as we look toward the future. After all, as we have seen in Europe, appellations have far more staying power than any one label.

Understanding Chilean Terroir

If we want to see Chile evolve from being perceived as a “value” wine country to one that offers wines of distinctive regionality, it’s critical that we get better at defining more specifically what we do in the vineyards—and beyond—to live up to the quality that we winemakers love to profess. We need to better articulate within our own portfolios the main attributes of our geography and how they’re reflected in our wines. We must connect our brands to just one appellation, maybe two, and then focus our efforts fully on making the best wines we can from the fruit that comes to define our labels—not the other way around.

For instance, my Ritual Wines are made from Casablanca fruit, with a focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, which grow beautifully there. I have been encouraged, time and time again, to make Cabernet Sauvignon under my Ritual label, which would require that I source fruit from outside Casablanca to meet Ritual’s quality standards. While that may have been a profitable undertaking, it would not have been right for Ritual, which we have worked so hard to align and associate with the Casablanca region.

For me, there is a tipping point in a very specific aspect of winemaking: The Farming. And I use capital letters intentionally because this critical aspect is much more relevant to defining Chilean wine’s regionality than what most people would believe. We winemakers love to talk about sense of place in our wines. But how can we talk about it without, in many instances, even mentioning the word “farming”? Farming is key to articulating the main attributes of how terroir is reflected in the wines.

Regionality Through Sustainability

In my opinion, the only way to imbue grapes with characteristics derived from the terroir and promote consistency and long-term sustainability in our vines and vineyards is to farm in a deeply conscious way with a long-range vision. There’s no question that organic and biodynamic farming practices are very good methods for achieving terroir-driven crops that will self-sustain for decades. At our Veramonte properties, we employ these techniques to help guarantee quality and to make our vineyards live longer and express their fullest potential.

When I say “longer,” I mean that I expect Veramonte’s vineyards to live at least 30 to 40 years, which for the New World is currently a challenge, especially among those who don’t farm sustainably. In Chile, many vineyards are fading and dying at an average age of 18 to 20 years. That’s a big problem because we need long-standing crus to help define Chilean wine’s sense of place. At their best, young vineyards, in my opinion, give you climatic references but not true sensory profiles of a particular site.

So in order to connect the variables of farming and enable the consumer to identify a regional profile, one needs a few things to align. First and foremost, what’s needed is a unique site that has natural elements—such as native forests surrounding the property, coastal influence, decomposed granite—that cannot be replicated in any other property. This is what’s necessary for a vineyard to grow at its own rhythm, with respect to its own pace. That’s what biodynamic viticulture is always trying to coax.

The practice seeks to interpret the metabolism of a vineyard and incentivize the deep growth of its root system through various techniques that make the vine as self-sufficient as possible, while enabling it to self-regulate according to the local growing conditions—all with the hope that the same root system will eventually reach the parental material layer, or strata. That’s when action really starts happening, and the vines begin yielding the unique flavors and textures in the wine that we associate with terroir. Before that, any perception of terroir is really just speculation.

Cultivating a Sense of Place

In our case, the decomposed granite in our Veramonte and Ritual vineyards accounts for the unique mineral-driven profile of our wines. Whenever the root system is thriving in its natural elements without the aid of much human intervention, the wines show characteristics that are truly special. That’s what makes a particular piece of property differ from another—when it shows its own individuality—and only when the vineyard’s unique profile can be tapped into will a wine be able to express a true sense of place.

There are many in the Chilean wine business who share my view and who approach their vineyards with a similar outlook—with the aim of cultivating a distinct sense of place in the wines they produce. It is critical that we encourage those vintners to identify and promote these vineyards, as well as the appellations where they thrive. Perhaps then the larger brands will find value in finally doing the same. That will be the moment when our appellations become renowned and the wines will become consistent and—I hope—a classic region in the wine world.

The greatest wine regions in the world are known for their nuanced, well-defined, and unmistakable subappellations—even for some of their single vineyards. Chile has all the elements to garner a similar level of international renown. We just have to start putting our lands before our brands.

Rodrigo Soto is one of the Southern Hemisphere’s preeminent leaders in sustainable winegrowing. He has spent the last 17 years working alongside some of the New World’s leading pioneers in organic grape growing and winemaking, including Alan York, Ann Kramer, Álvaro Espinoza, and Mike Benziger. Today he’s at the helm of one of Chile’s most ambitious and important long-term organic vineyard projects: Since 2012, he has been directing the conversion of all four of the Chilean estates owned by Gonzalez ByassVeramonte, Primus, Neyen, and Ritualto organic farming.

Most Recent