Bío Bío Valley, Chile
Now I’m guessing that with the popularity of Chilean wine that many (if not all) of you have tried a wine from this South American country before. And following on from that, you would most likely have tried an entry-level, fruit-forward wine meant for near-immediate consumption. If so that’s completely understandable, because Chilean wine, much like Australian wine in the 1980’s and 90’s, is dominated by larger wineries who pump out cheap but good quality wine that is easy to understand and lacks anything resembling a regional fingerprint; sometimes it’s even hard to pick the varietal! Well today I’m going to be getting into one of the lesser-known and high-quality focussed wine regions of Chile to show you there’s more to this country than jammy Bordeaux Blends and sweet, melony Chardonnay.
As I covered in my first Chilean Friday Focus piece on the Aconcagua Valley (see here if you missed it), this country has a wine history that dates back to 1550, and has had a long rollercoaster ride in the global wine game. The majority of the wine industry is based in the aptly named Central Valley in the centre of the country, just outside of Santiago on the foothills of the Andes. This is a warm, dry region with abundant irrigation provided by snowmelt from the Andes. Making wine is easy here, and the relatively flat sections allow machine harvesting and long, unbroken rows of vines. This allows the production of plump, easy to drink and very cheap reds and whites. Today however, we are journeying to one of the southern-most wine growing regions in Chile, the Bío Bío Valley, and in this part of the country, making wine is not so easy. The rewards for those who are willing to battle through here though are great.
The Bío Bío Valley is about 400km south of Chile’s capital Santiago, and is one of the southern-most wine regions in all of South America. In Chile, only the Malleco Valley is further south, which is a region that seriously struggles to produce consistently good wine. Across the border in Argentina, the Rio Negro region is just further south; however its location high up in the Andes reduces rainfall and increases solar radiation, allowing grapes to ripen more evenly. Here in Bío Bío though, the balance is just right; rainfall is abundant though not enough to waterlog the vines and promote excessive fungal disease pressure, and there is just enough sunshine to ripen the grapes but still ensure they retain refreshing acidity. Like so many famous regions such as Burgundy, the Mosel and Champagne, it is when vines are pushed to the very edge of survival that they produce some of their best grapes.
Despite it being positioned as one of the last points of viticulture in the Americas, this only puts Bío Bío on the same latitude as Gisborne in New Zealand- one of its most northerly regions, as well as Bendigo and the Grampians in Victoria and the Limestone Coast region of South Australia; far from the warmest regions, but definitely not our coolest! This is due to one key global anomaly; the Humbolt Current. This current carries cold Antarctic waters northwards along the coast of Chile, and all the way up to the equator, and if you were to go for a swim in the waters off Bío Bío, it would be a refreshing shock, as the waters here are only around 15 degrees! This body of cold water just off the coast of the Bío Bío Valley chills the whole region with a cool breeze, and allows overnight temperatures to drop considerably, even on the hottest days. This is a key influence on the retention of acid in the berries, and means they rarely develop the big, blowsy fruit notes and high alcohols of wines further to the north. This region is further away from the protective Andes mountains, which acts as a guard against rain from neighbouring Argentina to regions further to the north, which means rainfall is higher in Bío Bío than almost any other region in Chile. Now vines need water of course, but too much is an invitation for fungal diseases like Downy and Powdery Mildew, which can decimate whole vineyards given the chance, and are notorious for their difficulty to remove once established in a vineyard. So how could this be a high quality region?
As with many regions in the New World, research and technology is the key to improving viticulture in many regions, and no more so than here in Bío Bío. The development and institution of specific vine training systems, or trellises, has allowed international cool-climate varieties to be grown here with great success. Systems such as the Lyre trellis, developed in the 1980’s, divides the canopy of the vine down the centre so it resembles a lyre in shape, allowing sunlight and wind through the very middle of the vine. This dries out the whole canopy, while at the same time exposing more leaves to whatever sunlight pokes through the clouds, giving the vine its best shot at ripening healthy, high-quality grapes. It also gives vignerons the ability to efficiently spray the growing grapes with treatments to prevent the growth of the ever-present fungal diseases. The one down side to this trellis system is that it cannot be mechanically harvested, and all grape bunches must be hand-picked- quite unusual in Chile. This procedure is obviously more expensive, and therefore this encourages winemakers to set their bar higher and make more premium wines in an attempt to justify the costs; an unexpected bonus from a simple change in trellising system!
This increase in quality can be seen in several ways outside of the flavour of the wines too. First is the move away from traditional grape varieties Moscatel de Alejandria and Pais, which are sturdy, productive, disease-resistant but very flavourless varieties, to more modern varieties like Riesling, Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer. The next is the investment in the region; many large, successful wineries from the north such as Cono Sur and Gracia are buying land here, and a few years ago a plot of land was even purchased by Chablis royalty William Fevre! Perhaps we’ll see some more cool-climate Chardonnay from this region soon!
Wine Sales Manager