Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon searches for new terroir


The Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is a well-known variety with aging potential that has received increasing recognition thanks to a number of excellent quality wines. Most of these wines come from the Maipo Valley, which has historically been considered its best-suited terroir.

Noteworthy sectors with well-known vineyards include Puente Alto, Los Morros, and Alto Maipo, which are steadily being surrounded as Santiago – a city of over seven million inhabitants – grows and spreads.

Over the last 20 years, growing competition for land from real estate developers has increased land value, often making it unfeasible to invest in new vineyards in the valley.

One winery facing competition from real estate development is Cousiño Macul. While most its vineyards are located in the Macul and Buin areas of the Maipo Valley, it was forced to remove some of its vineyards in Peñanolen area in order to make room for housing complexes and a shopping center to meet the needs of the growing population.

It is an oasis of great quality that has no room to grow.

On the other hand, one of Chile’s great strengths that has not been taken advantage of is the fact that the Cabernet Sauvignon’s 100-year old ungrafted and pre-phylloxera genetic material is distributed throughout other valleys such as Maule and Bío Bío.

Many of these old vineyards are located in non-irrigated areas with cooler climates and, in the case of Maule and Bío Bío, more than 500 kilometers south of Santiago.

¿Why has the Maipo Valley taken credit for being the choice terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon?

One of the reasons is the concentration of prestigious vineyards that have produced many awarded wines such as Don Melchor, Viñedo Chadwick and Almaviva. The soil and agroclimatic conditions are great for Cabernet Sauvignon, but different compared to French Terroirs.

For sure, the challenge for Chile is to understand that despite the country has a great potential for growing grapes, not all places are suitable for certain variety. Cabernet Sauvignon for years has been the Terroir for this variety. Winemakers and wineries make this look the only choice.

However, more than 10 years ago, notable wineries led by French and Chilean winemakers began to challenge the idea that great Cabernet Sauvignons could only be produced in the Maipo Valley. Thus began a commitment to explore a different way of managing the 100-year old vineyards in the valleys of Aconcagua, Cachapoal, Bio Bio and Maule.

Many Chilean wineries started searching for new valleys to establish Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, focused on lowering the high alcohol content and seeking the ideal soils.

¿How the transition started in Maipo Valley to produce Cabernet like French Style, less concentrated and longer ageing?

Let´s remember that Chilean Cabernet, Chilean style, is high alcohol level-near 14.9º- very concentrated, fruity and lot of oak. This started to change.

The first change was to harvest an average of one month earlier than was custom in the Maipo Valley, thereby generating a lighter wine but with greater storage potential.

The tendency to harvest earlier than usual began to be adopted by some wineries in the Maipo Valley like Perez Cruz. The winery made this change over the last couple of years, recognizing market preferences for lower alcohol levels.

Viña Errazuriz in the Aconcagua Valley has 2.5 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon on a hill with a 30-35% slope. The vines were purchased from Viña Santa Rita in 2002 and have produced excellent results.

Errazuriz seeks to lower the alcohol level depending on the style and plot. They have six different plots of vineyards with varying slopes and exposure to the Pacific Ocean. Also, since 2015, they have been experimenting with non-irrigated plots and evaluating how to obtain fresh, aromatic wines with lower alcoholic content (13.5 to 14 percent).

Another example from the Aconcagua Valley in the Valparaíso Region, 100 kilometers north of Santiago, is the work being carried out by Francisco Carevic at the family-owned Peumayen Winery. He believes the main strength of this terroir is the climate, pointing out that the Aconcagua River allows cold air to enter from the Pacific Ocean.

Carevic says that they obtain Cabernet Sauvignon with an alcohol content of 14 percent by beginning to harvest in mid-April. The proximity to the Andes mountain range also has an important effect on the microclimate of the Panquehue terroir, which has rocky soils low in organic matter and with excellent drainage.

The Colchagua Valley is also betting on Cabernet Sauvignon. A terroir worthy of mention is the Lolol sector, approximately 50 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, and very close to the Apalta Premium area of the valley.

This is where the innovative Viña Nerkihue can be found, having established vineyards on the steep northwest slopes of the Lolol Valley. The thermal amplitude of the valley and its shallow soils translate into freshness, concentration, elegance and typicity, and have produced wines with an aging potential of 15 years.

Nerkihue produces only 1,600 bottles of Quiebre Cabernet Sauvignon – unoaked, aromatic, fresh, elegant, round, and lower in tannins. It is considered a gastronomic wine, perfect to drink on its own or to pair with food. Wine producers are increasingly recognizing the opportunities the Colchagua valley presents for establishing new vineyards.

Just north of the Colchagua Valley, lies the Cachapoal Valley. In a sector called Millahue, VIK Vineyards is innovating in the production of Cabernet Sauvignon thanks to the winemaker Cristián Vallejo, who works under the counsel of French-Chilean winemaker Patrick Valette.

They have 10 years of experience and are placing their bets on six clones of Cabernet Sauvignon (337, 191, 169, 170, 685, 341) from certified Mercier Nurseries in France, and one clone from Davis, California (46), each delivering attributes that complement one other.

According to Vallejo, “the terroir of Millahue is perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon since it achieves an elegance and balance that you cannot find anywhere else in Chile – the ripe, persistent and linear tannins stand out with an aromatic complexity that combine with a perfect acidity.”

The vineyards are planted in a soil with clay that allows for greater complexity thanks to good drainage and enough angular stones.

The Curicó Valley in the Maule Region is also betting on Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker José Luis Martin-Bouquillard, General Manager of Folâtre Winery (also the owner of Clos Andino), notes that for the Cabernet Sauvignon they are producing, the harvest begins in late March or early April, since it is near the fresh air of the Andes mountain range.

Folâtre Vineyards & Winery chose to produce Cabernet Sauvignon to complement its wine portfolio and meet customer requirements. Their varietals include La Llavería, Varietal Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Finally, the challenge for the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is to consolidate and to continue searching for new terroirs to produce this variety to raise their exportation. In addition, the 100-year-old genetic material that exists in southern Chile must be selected, identified and propagated so that Chile can become an official source of unique DNA in the world.

Written by Agronomist, Maximiliano Morales, Founder of & Wine Specialist of National Geographic Explorer Expedition Ship



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