15 March 2016

Finding the magic in his grapes

Eduardo Chadwick has led a pioneering effort to make Chilean wines famous for quality as well as price, Mike Peters reports.

A Western meal is often served one course at a time, and you can match wines with them individually. But a Chinese meal can consist of myriad dishes, all served pretty much simultaneously. What to do?

When a Chinese journalist asks this question of Eduardo Chadwick, one of Chile's top winemakers, he says a light, simple wine "that goes with anything" is not the best answer.

"I would look for a more complex wine," he says, "one that has good fruit but also some spiciness and other flavor notes. When you do that, a savory dish will bring out certain flavors, but a spicy dish will bring out different flavors in the wine."

His answer is intriguing but no accident. The journalists gathered at the Chilean embassy in Beijing to meet Chadwick are about to sample just such a wine from his family of vineyards.

"We make a Bordeaux blend," Chadwick tells China Daily, "but with a Chilean soul". That soul has a name: Carmenere, a grape with a spicy edge that flourishes in the soils on the western side of the Andes. It gives Chilean wine blends their particular character.

Chadwick's signature wine, Sena, reflects a winemaker who shrugs off convention.

For most of Chile's 300 years of winemaking, the results were mostly consumed at home or in neighboring Brazil. However, the country has huge areas of agricultural land and a small population, which means Chile can produce a lot more wine than it can drink. Last century, the country's leaders got excited about exporting wine, but by the early 1990s, their vineyards were generating lots of bottles but not much respect. People saw and expected solid but inexpensive wines.

"Cheap and cheerful, you mean," laughs Chile's Ambassador to China, Jorge Heine. "That's been the reputation of our wines."

Chadwick and others, however, believed the country could produce vintages as good as any in the world. California's legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi visited Chile and agreed.

Two decades earlier, the California wine industry was in a similar position: Americans who knew wine, and had money to spend on a quality bottle, were buying European labels. In the 1970s, it was Mondavi who convinced Baron Phillipe de Rothschild that California, particularly the Napa Valley, could be the wine world's Next Big Thing, and the two men formed a joint venture to create an iconic brand there. The result, Opus One, made believers first of European connoisseurs and then Americans, and today the label commands a premium price on wine shelves around the world.

Mondavi, touring Chile's wine country with Chadwick in 1995, was convinced that the terroir, the expansive agricultural land and the legacy of winemaking handed down from early Spanish missionaries could produce wine that would do for Chile what Opus One had done for Napa Valley.

"We were determined to produce the best and get the recognition," says Chadwick.

The first proved easier than the second.

Proof in the bottle

Convinced of his wines' quality, in 2004 Chadwick organized what have come to be known as "The Berlin Tasting". Sommeliers, wine critics and other professionals compared his wines "blind" with the best of Bordeaux and Tuscany.

The big surprise: his Vinedo Chadwick 2000 and Sena 2001 were ranked first and second over the revered First Growths and Super Tuscans on the table.

"I would have been happy to place a wine in the top five," he says today. "So even I was shocked."

But the case still had to be made for the aging potential of Chile's wines. In 2011, in another blind-tasting format, Chadwick presented 10 years of his wines in a series of vertical tastings (2001 vs 2001, 2002 vs 2002, etc) in Asia. Experts in Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul consistently ranked Sena as their favorite. Over the next year, he got similar results at blind tastings in London, Zurich, Moscow and five key Chinese cities.

"The professionals can detect wines like the five top Bordeaux in a blind test and some will instinctively be influenced by that recognition," he says. "But the general wine lovers always gave us the highest marks."

Value for money

In the global market, Chadwick says Chile's wines overall continue to have a reputation for being "not expensive and easy to drink". While free-trade agreements have made Chile's wines very price-competitive around the world, winemaker Chadwick and Ambassador Heine agree that hasn't been a bad thing.

Whether you are buying a "table wine" or a mid-range wine or a premium wine, Chadwick says, his country's wines are recognized as good value for money. "That creates interest in Chilean wines, and then people discover that Chile's finest wines are produced to equal standards with Bordeaux."

Addressing the question of matching wines with Chinese food, Heine says your personal taste should always be your first guide.

"Let me tell you a story," he says. "One of our former presidents, Salvador Allende, was a great gourmet and a bit of a dandy. He loved seafood, especially oysters, and he always ate oysters with red wine.

"That shocked his wine-loving friends," Heine says, "and they often asked the president how he could do that.

"It's no problem," he quotes Allende as saying. "The oysters do not know that I am drinking red wine with them."

Sipping by the book

She's published comprehensive books on the wines of Italy and France for Chinese readers, but Shanghai-based author Sophie Liu has a special place in her heart for the wine country of Chile.

That has led to her most recent book, Grandes Vinos de Chile: Legends of the Top 18, which was launched at a reception hosted by Chilean Ambassador to China Jorge Heine at the embassy in Beijing last week.

"People don't really know Chilean wine, its best wine, beyond the entry-level labels," she says. "While French wine is best-known in China, it's famous for five really great wines from Bordeaux. To know Chile's top wines, you have to learn about 18, so it's much more complicated."

That's changing some, thanks to visits to China by Eduardo Chadwick and other premium winemakers, classes and tastings hosted by wine professionals like Liu. "Sales of our highest quality wines were up 36 percent in China last year," says Julio Alonso, director of Wines of Chile Asia. "China will probably be Chile's biggest wine market in 2016."

Ambassador Heine saluted Liu as a true friend of Chile and its wines, adding that books like hers are important platforms for ideas.

"Sophie's book is not based simply on tastings and meeting our winemakers when they come to Asia," he says. "It's based on fieldwork-she has visited many times, done many interviews and conveys to the world vividly what Chile's wine industry is up to."

"I love the wine country of Chile, the laid-back but professional atmosphere and the friendliness of the people," she says. "When my work leaves me feeling stressed, it always feels good to be back in Chile."

The book is currently published only in Chinese, but Liu hopes to one day produce a translated edition.