No good story has ever started with a salad; at least not for anyone but vegans. Wine, on the other hand, is always associated with joy, celebration, or with making an affectionate toast to those who are no longer with us.
Wine in Chile, as is the case across the American continent, was brought by Spanish colonisers and spread across the territory thanks to the insistence on converting people to Catholicism. Also considered fuel for armies, at the beginning of the American continent's history, wine became a vital element for anyone who considered themself to be educated.
Distinct political and cultural realities established Chilean wine as a low-quality drink for the masses, ordinary, and synonymous with alcoholism from the 1970s to 1980s, which, thanks to the visionary investment from businesspeople such as Don Miguel Torres, managed to update its image and become a byword for sophistication and elegance.
It is always worth remembering that in 1994, the appearance of Carmenère was vital in establishing Chile as a country that produced high-quality wines, reaching its current status as the fourth-largest exporter of wines in the world.
These days, the versatility in styles of Chilean wine is impressive, combining the classic production that uses new barrels and offers a high alcohol percentage, with simple wines, naturally high in acid and low in tannin content. Thus it is expanding its horizons and setting itself apart from the Rolland style, which was characteristic of the first producers in the 1990s and 2000s.
The recovery of hereditary vineyards, the discovery of lost vines, the establishing of classic producers such as Santa Rita, San Pedro and Concha y Toro as upmarket global wines, the strong promotion of small producers under the banner of co-operation (MOVI, Colchagua Singular and VIGNO, amongst others) make Chile today into a whirlwind of excitement that makes wine into something much safer and more exciting than a Volvo, to quote the comparison once made by Tim Atkin.
These days, Chilean wine is diverse, multicultural, organic and biodynamic, not to mention sustainable, much more tolerant than ten years ago, and indulgent of crazy ideas like what Bodegas RE is doing with its combinations of Syrañan, Pinotel or whatever invention is crossing over from the dark side of local oenology.
Yet the big challenge is domestic consumption, symbolised by more than 400 businesses that produce wine and by the strong focus that the vineyards of medium to higher importance have on the export market, where all are eagerly aiming for an “Asian one shot“1 instead of investing seriously in local consumption to gain young people as customers and gain the loyalty of “entry level” consumers or, a much more difficult undertaking, succeeding in bringing expert consumers to invest in the great examples of Maipo, Cachapoal or Aconcagua that need to develop for a long time.
One can never ignore the Chilean loop with examples of quality such as Seña, Almaviva, Clos Apalta or Don Melchor, where even years ago the success of the “terroir” concept was confirmed with growths on Chilean soil. Yet the local consumer has not reached the point of putting his hand in his pocket to buy these wines, although he is always keen to receive them if it is a business gift.
Regarding local consumers, even when bombarded with offers of discounts of over 30%, it is difficult for them to see the difference between bottles that cost over US$10, when above all, the most conservative Chilean social class tends to regard wine and alcoholic drinks as an enemy that destroys families and causes absences from work and education.
The government’s efforts (or those of all governments) to allocate some of the money collected as taxes on wine and alcoholic drinks to educate people about responsible drinking are few. Here is another unbelievable fact: In Chile, it is prohibited by law to teach about responsible drinking in schools or educational institutions.
How can we increase domestic consumption of high-quality wines in a responsible way? There is only one answer: Through education. And educating young people and adults, parents and children, whole families, to change their daily habit from drinking carbonated refreshment beverages to a glass of wine (100 ml with a meal) should be the general aim for everyone.
It is hard to believe that an industry that generates more than half a million jobs, US$2,000 million in export sales of almost 900 million litres, hardly exceeds 15 litres per capita of domestic consumption. Maybe it is due to the executives of the large distribution businesses who are not professionals with a background from the wine industry, but are instead distributors focused more on retail and discounts than on building a brand in a sound way. They are young professional executives who are seeking to improve their CVs rather than people who see wine as a lifestyle.
Nobody is saying that exiting the fantastic export market of US$20-30 per nine-litre box is the aim, but rather that we should look for another sector to succeed in growing in in a good way and “not put all our eggs in one basket”.
If we consider that four domestic companies provide 60% of exports, it is enough to demonstrate that Chile’s great need is to position added value products in different price ranges. Products like those produced in the extreme southern and northern frontier areas, where winegrowing areas such as those in Chile Chico (46º32 south, compared to 42º35 south in Parque Bustamante, Chubut, Argentina), or those of the De Martino family in the mountainsides of the Villarrica volcano, show that these new horizons with volcanic land, temperatures similar to Burgundy and days of sunlight different to the cloudy days on the coast, offer desirable potential for wines such as Chardonnay, Riesling or Pinot Noir. Wines that are not yet Chile's strong points, even as exports.
Chile today offers high quality wines for US$20. Those who claim the opposite do not understand anything about wine, or even worse, are only interested in bulk wine and do not understand that what counts in on-trade worldwide is quality and not commercial oenological additives; something that is more evident every day and increasingly appreciated by consumers.
Another task for the major businesses should be to hire senior executives instead of millennials with more South East Asian stamps in their passports than work experience.
Wine is an undisputed ambassador for Chile overseas, but this reality is still not reflected in a preference amongst domestic consumers when it comes to choosing a beverage to accompany their meal. An annual consumption of around 90 million 9cl2 of beer shows that these days, Chile is a country that prefers beer to wine. And that is without even mentioning the per capita consumption of refreshment beverages with lunch or dinner.
Similarly, gastronomy is often dominated by the large investments of distributors who still block the wine lists of restaurants and the few or practically non-existent wine bars in Chile. Fortunately, the arrival of sommeliers in the service industry and in running gastronomy businesses is changing that reality, but it is taking time and it is not a change that we will see established in a few months.
To summarise: Chile is a major wine producer in terms of volume intended for export, with small producers who, thanks to hard work and co-operation, are managing to show that dedicating oneself to wine is an alternative way of life, but we need consumers to become proud of the wine as a national symbol for their efforts in order to finally see the light.
Weird fact: Chile only had its first National Wine Day (Día Nacional del Vino) in 2016. This is strange, considering that the beverage is an ambassador for Chile all around the world.