Chile is often described as the Switzerland of South America, and its wines are no exception. Known for their reliability, consistency and the value for money they offer, Chilean wines are a familiar presence on the UK’s supermarket shelves and wine merchants cellars, with over 85% of Chilean wine imports sold via the off-trade. However, the country’s trade body, Wines of Chile and its UK director Anita Jackson are keen to highlight the fact that there is far more to Chile than just cheap and cheerful value-driven wines, but a much wider variety of quality wines that appeal as much to the aficionado as the casual everyday drinker.
What does Wines of Chile do to support the UK off-trade?
Many independents contact Wines of Chile looking for advice on where to find new wines, what’s new and of interest. Last year I hosted staff tastings and gave an overview on Chile and its wines. This is a resource that I can easily provide and has a maximum benefit when it comes to ‘hand selling’ Chilean wines. In July we held an online tasting and masterclass specifically for independent wine merchants, with those attending being sent a tasting pack of ten wines. During the Zoom masterclass the winemakers joined to talk about their wines and their USPs to those that attended, and we intend to repeat this in 2022.
Are Chilean wines a must-stock for every independent wine merchant, and if so what is the appeal?
Where do I start? Chilean wine is a crowd pleaser and can offer wines on all levels, from entry-level wines that even at £6 - £7 represent good quality and great value. However, Chile’s sweet-spot is in the £8 - £12 price point, so by spending a little more you get a whole lot more, and this is where regionality and the new DOs comes into play.
And for special occasions in the £15+ price range, Chile can offer top Burgundian style Chardonnays, stunning Cabernet Sauvignons, top Pinot Noirs and Syrahs – think Pangea made by John Duval.
What else would you say makes Chile and its wines stand out?
Chile is such a unique country, long and thin, 2,600 long and only 100 miles at it’s widest point. In the North is the home to the highest driest desert in the world, and to the South, the lake district, which borders Antarctica. Flanked in the East by the Andes mountains where the wines strike a balance between cool climate, minerality, elegance and sheer style. And to the West the Pacific ocean provides a cooling influence over the regions offering elegant cool- climate wines.
In between these natural borders is where the wine regions are located, and each has its own DO’s East to West such are the differing terroirs within each region. Image Source: www.winesofchile.org
There are 93 different grape varieties currently planted in Chile, which is split 42 white to 51 red grape varieties. Pais, Cinsault, Semillon & Muscat are the new/old kids on the block in Chile and the wines being produced from these grape varieties are a world away from the old perceptions of Chile.
How should an independent drinks merchant go about selling Chilean wines if they don’t already do so?
Don’t be afraid to try the new wines from Chile, they have a story to tell, they are different, and there are plenty of importers who stock the ‘new Chilean’ wines, as well as a balance of the more traditional styles.
Use Wines of Chile for educating your staff so they feel more confident in talking about these wines, instead of just selling Valley Central Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc - give them something exciting to sell.
The wine regions are really pushing the boundaries, with wines now made in the Atacama desert, and down in Patagonia and even Chiloé Island, where they use sea shells around the vines to protect the roots and reflect the sun away from the vines. And yet, Chile is still perceived as the go-to for entry-level value wines, when it produces so many diverse different styles of great quality, elegance, and finesse.
What do you think is the average UK wine consumer’s perception of Chilean wine and is it changing?
Chile does produce great value wines, but value can be a negative as consumers are happy with the quality at a lower price point and don’t feel the need to trade up, so we do need to continue to educate consumers and it takes time to change perceptions. However, I think that more knowledgeable wine drinkers consider Chile as a premium wine producer and are willing to buy and try different wines from the country.
It’s also good to see that supermarket ranges for Chile are not just solely focused on wines at £10 and under and have increased to £18+. Ocado for one now sells Don Melchor at £95 a bottle.
And what about the UK trade? Is it well versed in Chilean wine, or do you think that more education is required?
We continue to work with the trade, and have been doing this for nearly 20 years now, since 2003 when Wines of Chile was established. Chile isn’t standing still in looking to new regions to plant vines, new ways to make wine, and creating new styles, so it’s important to keep up to date with knowledge and there’s always something to learn.
Given the sheer number of producers, where to start in trying to devise a comprehensive range, and what are the most common mistakes that wine merchants made in this respect?
Sometimes account managers choose and sell in the entry level £8 - £12 range rather than try to challenge their customers to sell a higher priced wine, or one that is a bit quirkier than a safer style.
How have shipments to the UK performed in recent years?
In 2020 exports to the UK, Chile’s third largest overseas market, increased, but this was largely down to importers and retailers concerned that there would be issues post-Brexit at our ports, so there was a surge of exports before the EU exit date, and also an increase in wine consumption by consumers during the first lockdown.
What impact did Brexit have on trade with the UK?
Chile benefitted from a free trade agreement with the EU and was very quick to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK, which meant that Chile was in a strong position when the UK left the EU. However, as Australia and soon to be New Zealand both have negotiated free trade deals with the UK this will impact Chile as previously wines from both these countries attracted CCT.
And what about Covid – what impact has that had on the Chilean wine industry?
As the pandemic took hold in March 2020 Chile was mid harvest, and so had to adapt very quickly to safety measures and social distancing. Fortunately, there was no obvious impact on exports from Chile due to Covid, and there was minimal disruption at the Chilean ports in 2020; those wineries that did see a decline in sales were dependent on the on-trade or duty free sales.
What do you think are the main challenges facing Chile’s wine sector in the coming years?
The decline in exports to China early in 2020 caused our producers some headaches, and by August 2020 bottled exports had declined by 29% in volume and -27.5% in value, with the situation only slightly improving in September 2020.
Now in 2021 we are dealing with the knock on effect from the incident in the Suez Canal, and China’s retention of sea containers that is affecting exports, and not just Chile but for any ‘deep sea’ export regions
I think the challenges that Chile faces are no different to quite a few other generics and countries. The UK is a difficult market, our margins are so much lower than in other countries and yet the UK remains the market to be seen in. My colleagues in Chile review the UK as a mature market but it is positive for image and trends and what happens here in the UK is amplified to the rest of the world.