The vast topography of Chile gives rise to its diverse selection of varietals.

Bound by four geographic boundaries, the Atacama Desert in the north, the Andes Mountains to the east, the Patagonian ice fields to the south and the great Pacific Ocean to its west, Chile is an amazingly diverse amalgam of terroirs and geography. It is easy to imagine the wondrous potential that lies within this land that is narrow (265 miles east to west) but long (2880 miles north to south). To understand Chile’s wines, one need only to look at its geography. The influence of the Pacific Ocean, soils and altitude become quite apparent.

From the outside it may seem “easy” to understand the topography of the many east-to-west valleys that stripe the landscape from the mountains to the sea. One would be correct in assuming that these valleys allow the winds of the Pacific to bring its cooling influence through the valley, creating an ideal microclimate and lengthy hang times for vitis vinifera vines. And, that the altitude of the Andes plays a significant role in the temperatures, soils and topography of each vineyard. But that is really just the tip of the iceberg.

There are three distinct zones within these east-west valleys that are identified within the country. The first is that of the Costa Areas. Th ese are regions that are closest to the coast and considered ‘cool’ climates. They are identified as being influenced most strongly by the Pacific Ocean and, more specifically, by the Humboldt Current. This cold flow comes from the south and works its way north, penetrating into these areas, creating fog conditions in some valleys as well as maintaining cooler temperatures for long ripening seasons for the grapes. The valleys designated as Costa Areas include Ovalle in Limari, Casablanca, San Antonio-which includes Leyda, San Juan and Marga Marga-Lolol within Colchagua, Coelemu and Portezuelo, both of which are in the Itata Valley. Casablanca is perhaps the most recognized and is a true candidate for the leading light of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production marked by great balance, finesse and bright acidity. San Antonio, especially in Leyda, also specializes in these three varietals, but by no means are the soils homogenous. Where Casablanca is more alluvial and fluvial, San Antonio has harder rock, granite mixed with clay, which lends a greater minerality to their wines. Despite its cooler clime, many producers are convinced that heavier red grapes such as Syrah, Cabernet and Chile’s “National” grape Carmenere also have tremendous potential. Carmen winery makes some terrific Sauvignon Blanc and their Pinot Noir is something to watch out for as well. Vina Calina’s Chardonnay can top many of its Californian cousins with fruit and also brings a zesty minerality to the table.

The second zone is called Entre Cordilleras, which denotes the area between the two mountain ranges: the Andes and the Coastal Mountains. Some would call this the “bread basket” of Chile. This is perhaps its most fertile area, quite often on plains, which are much easier to farm. The style of the wines from this zone is strikingly different from the Costa areas. They are richer, more opulent, and powerful in a way-the majority being reds. This is where Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot really find their stride. This zone includes many of the valleys that are virtually household names such as the Maipo including its five subzones. The Colchagua and Maule are synonymous with powerful reds. Lesser-known areas such as Yumbel and Mulchen within the Bio Bio Valley, Rancahua and Peumo within Cachapoal Valley and Rauco and Sagrada Familia within the Curico Valley also show much promise. Soils here range from alluvial to decomposed granite and clay to sand. But have no doubt that the reds here are not wimpy. The creme de la creme include Carmn de Peumo from the Concha y Toro family of wines whose Carmenere is considered the best in the world. Los Vascos, which is owned by Domaines Baron de Rothschild is always a source of great quality, especially with their Le Dix.

Errazuriz’s top line Vinedo Chadwick, along with Don Maximiano are definitely cellar-worthy. And Montes Alpha and Lapostolle make some very special wines from the Apalta vineyards.

The third zone is known as Andes. The mountain range defines the country itself and is inextricable when it comes to its wines. The altitude of these vineyards is amongst the highest in the world. With the rise in altitude come some cooler temperatures, creating a veritable low simmer for the grapes to ripen on the vines. Amazingly, this same altitude also lends itself to ripening by lifting the vineyards above the fog line in many cases and allowing for an extreme case of photosynthesis ‘on steroids’ with these vineyards’ solar exposure. The upper Elqui Valley with Vicuna and Paiguano, the majority of the Choapa Valley including Salamanca and Illapel, the upper reaches of the Maipo: Santiago, Pirque, Puente Alto and Buin. Parts of the Colchagua (San Fernando and Chimbarongo), San Clemente within the Maule, Requinoa and Rengo within Cachapoal and Romeral and Molina inside the Curico Valley are all part of the Andes designation. You might think that whites might dominate this region, but it is the reds that excel. Cabernet here can reach startling heights in quality (pun intended) and is its leading light. Other Bordeaux varietals also do well, as does Syrah. Whites are also given special attention in these growing conditions with Sauvignon Blanc being particularly showy and more powerful than the Costa version. Almaviva, the partnership between Concha y Toro and the Mouton-

Rothschild family is at the top of the range. Antiyal has cult wine status for Chilean aficionados and is also a biodynamic estate.

Chile is blessed with a rich diversity among extremes. Yet another benefit of being isolated by the desert, ice, nearly impassible mountain peaks and the ocean is that it is free of the plague of phylloxera. Chile is a truly unique and special place for the vine. The potential that critics once spoke of in Chile is now flowering, but in my opinion, the best is yet to come.

TERMS TO KNOW

Chile’s signature grape is the Carmenere, deep purple red grape full of berry and spice. It grows in the Costa areas and is a good partner for red meats (courtesy Wines of Chile).

ESPECIAL: Two years of aging

RESERVA: Four years of aging

GRAN VINO: Six years of aging Interestingly though, if a bottle says Reserva Especial, there is no legal definition or minimum aging requirements by law.

PAIS OR MISSION: Chile’s second most-planted grape variety behind Cabernet Sauvignon.

SAUVIGNONASSE OR SAUVIGNON VERT: A unique hybrid of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that is endemic to Chile.