Chilean wine: worth paying more for

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 13/06/2008

While Chile is claiming a greater share of the UK wine market, producers are struggling
to beat our mean streak, writes Jonathan Ray.

These are exciting times for Chile's winemakers. Theirs is the fastest growing country sector in the UK wine market. Off-trade volume and value have increased by a healthy 20 per cent in the past 12 months.
Harvest with promise: picking carmenere grapes in the Colchagua Valley With a retail market share of 8 per cent in the UK, Chilean wine sales have never been so buoyant. Indeed, for the first time we now drink more Chilean wine than we do Spanish.

It's a far cry from when I first worked for Oddbins all those years ago. In those days we stocked just one Chilean wine, a red from Concha y Toro. We were thought rather daring for having it on our shelves and, although it was jolly good, it did veer towards cheap and cheerful.

But Chile has come on a pace since then and as I criss-cross the country tasting its wines (given its 2,500 km-long and 100 km-wide shape, I'm doingmore crissing than crossing), I can see just how far.
I visit Limarí Valley in the north and then the central valleys of Casablanca, San Antonio, Cachapoal and Colchagua and taste some cracking wines along the way: spicy syrahs, silky pinots, chocolaty carmèneres, rich, dark cabernets, zesty sauvignons and buttery, rounded chardonnays. They are approachable and exciting and, in many cases, surprisingly complex.

"Twenty or so years ago we in Chile knew so little," Andrés Caballero, chief winemaker at Viña Casablanca, tells me. "We knew nothing of irrigation or clonal selection. We won awards for our merlot, only to find it was carmènere, and dug up our pinot noir as fast aswe now plant it. Today we all understand our vineyards and varieties far better and we're now trying to understand our markets."

The UK is Chile's biggest consumer (we overtook the US last year) and despite the country's success here,
producers seem to have painted themselves into something of a corner on price. They initially sold us their
wines at knockdown prices in order to gain market share.

British consumers are notoriously mean, so Chilean producers are finding it hard to get us to trade up.
More fool us because there are some stunners tobe had for only a few quid more than we currently spend
on Chilean wine: on average, just £3.98 a bottle. "You pay so little for your wine!" exclaims Andrés Gillmore of Viñedos Emiliana, Chile's foremost organic/biodynamic vineyard."You are happy to spend £4 on a Tube ticket rather than walk, but are reluctant to spend it on wine.

Unfortunately our wines are perceived as cheap in the UK, even though we have moved on from simple one-dimensional wines to varied and complex ones that express beautifully their terroir.
They are still astonishing value and I would argue that a £12.99 Chilean wine is easily the equal of a £20 French one."

On what I have tasted over the last few days, I would agree. As a wine-making country, Chile is blessed:
phylloxera has never struck; there are few vineyard pests and thanks to its diverse geography (with the Atacama Desert to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes to the east and Antarctica in the south) Chile boasts extraordinarily varied soils, climates and altitudes.
This enchanting country is home to some of the best value, most rewarding wines.
You just need to dig deeper than £3.98 to fully appreciate them.