Casas Del Bosque
A country producing wine since the 14th century
While the Chilean wine industry can trace its roots back nearly five hundred years, it can also be argued that, at the present time, high quality Chilean wines should be considered as virtual newcomers on the expansive international wine vista.
The country’s initial plantings can be traced back to the mid 1500’s, when Catholic missionaries following the Spanish Conquistadores planted vines to alleviate their lack of sacramental wine to celebrate religious rites, an important facet of their work in colonizing Chile. The missionaries called these initial plants “país” and they were similar to the mission vines found in early California. An area known as the Maipo Valley, located close to the Chilean capitol of Santiago, was deemed an excellent growing area and the infantile Chilean wine industry took its first roots. Similar attempts were made in other South American countries around this time, but only Chile proved to be a good enough climate for the vines to prosper, the first such location in what was then called the New World. Plantings were not limited to just the Maipo Valley, but extended all the way from Elqui in the North to the Bio Bio Valley in the south, a distance of over 930 miles. The initial results were moderate at best and eventually the country began producing a good deal of modest wine for local use.
French varietals, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, were introduced during the 1800’s and higher quality wines were soon forthcoming. Most of the new growers came from families that had made fortunes in the mining industry. They soon surrounded their lavish homes with acres of vineyards. However, after Chile’s emancipation from Spain in 1818, over a century of political instability ensued, hampering major advances in the fledgling country’s wine industry and even preventing any new vineyard plantings between 1937 and 1974.
Notable during this time was the fact that Chile (along with Argentina) was untouched by phylloxera epidemics that ravaged all of Europe and California, news that sent many French winemakers to Chile to work the vines while their own country’s problems were being solved. Thanks to a wonderful growing climate that combined unique features from both France and California, and a country free of the major disease of the era, the Chilean wine industry was able to survive despite the political turmoil.
Chile’s modern wine renaissance began as late as the 1970’s when political restrictions were relaxed and a number of outside wine forces came to Chile. Among them was noted Spanish winemaker Miguel Torres who chose Curico in Chile’s Central Valley as the place to establish his new winery that was complete with modern innovation, equipment and techniques. Following Torres’ lead, a number of other prominent international vintners sought out locations in Chile, including Californian Robert Mondavi. The presence of these internationally noted wine figures brought Chile the prestige necessary to begin competing at the highest international levels.
In the relatively short time of a little over twenty-five years, Chilean wines have excelled in international competitions and garnered an unusually large number of medals and awards. Today, Chilean wines are exported to more than 90 different countries and are still considered as wonderful values by many consumers worldwide.
From a handful of small wineries in the early 1980’s, sprouted more than sixty creditable wineries producing superior quality wines. In 1994, French ampelographer Jean Michel Boursiquot identified a forgotten French varietal called Carmenere that had been exported to Chile prior to France’s phylloxera problems and never replanted in France. The varietal has become the flagship of Chile’s new wave of winemaking and is now responsible for some of Chile’s finest wines. Though stunning, the varietal does have its drawbacks and is probably the slowest ripening of any varietal, including Cabernet Sauvignon.
Recently, Chilean wineries have surged forward and now rank fourth in sales to the United Sates, having replaced Spain in that position. An ever-increasing amount of superior quality wines have found their way to American shelves and restaurant lists and it is easy to concede that Chile has become one of the darlings of the international wine press. A recent agreement has made Chile’s Casablanca Valley a sister valley to Napa in California.
This is quite an accomplishment for a country that has overcome basic political inertia and trade isolation. It is interesting to speculate what the future holds for Chilean wines. Some industry experts predict an even greater future as the country’s burgeoning wine interests continue to expand.
This month’s featured Chilean winery, Casas del Bosque
At first glimpse, it would be easy to say that this month’s featured Chilean winery, Casas del Bosque, is emblematic of the new wave of Chilean wineries that have swept the tiny South American country into international wine prominence over the past two decades.
Begun in 1993 by Juan Cuneo Solari, Casas del Bosque (Houses of the Forest) started its initial production with a smallish 5,000 cases. Solari was the son of Italian immigrants who had come to Chile from a small village near Genoa in the Italian region of Liguria at the turn of the 20th Century.
When he began his business career nearly fifty years ago, Solari ventured into a number of varied areas that included retail clothing, retail hardware and other venues. He prospered and ultimately became the Sam Walton (Walmart) of Chile, gaining massive recognition within his country for his efforts.
In the early 1990’s, he fulfilled a childhood dream of his father’s and planted a small farm with a number of items including artichokes, lettuce and a tiny vineyard. The place he had chosen was a completely unknown pastoral valley in Chile’s northern region that was but a stone’s throw from the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean. Called the Casablanca Valley (it is located on the same latitude as Casablanca in Morocco), the area enjoyed warm, sunny days and extremely cool, windy evenings. After it became apparent that the location favored the small plot of grapes that had been planted, the entire property was replaced by top quality vineyards and the Casas del Bosque became a reality.
Unknown to Solari was the fact that Chile had just entered into a period of development that would propel its wine industry into the class of top wine producing regions of the world.
‘It seems we were in the right place at the right time,” offered Solari’s daughter, Giorgianna Cuneo, 36, who serves as Casas del Bosque’s marketing director. ‘My father originally built his home and developed the property in this valley that was close to his business interests in Santiago, but was also able to serve as a country estate. When the grapes took to its microclimate, he simply took advantage of that fact.”
From its initial beginnings and first release in 1997, Juan Cuneo Solari’s Casas del Bosque developed rapidly and today produces around 60,000 cases. By the year 2010, additional plantings will increase production to just over the 100,000 case mark.
Needless to say, Juan Cuneo Solari has remained active in Casas del Bosque’s rapid rise to international stardom. Now an energetic 73, Solari visits the winery a minimum of 4 to 6 times a month and meets with the company’s staff and winemakers to hand guide Casas del Bosque’s continued growth.
In 2006, Solari’s pet project accomplished a feat no other Chilean winery had ever accomplished when Casas del Bosque’s Sauvignon Blanc was named the best overall wine in Chile by an international panel that included wine writers and experts from the United States. Up to that point, the selection as best wine was an honor formerly accorded to only red wines of the country.
With all the success and popularity, Casas del Bosque has itself gown into a featured stop for anyone interested in fine Chilean wine. The winery now boasts an award winning restaurant and visitor’s center and will feature an expanded commercial center in the near future.
Juan Cuneo Solari is content in the knowledge that Casas del Bosque’s future is in excellent hands. In addition to his daughter Giorgianna, another daughter, Paula, 44, is the company’s Chief Financial Officer.
Juan Cuneo Solari also feels that his company’s wines will continue the trend of developing new world wines as opposed to the more classic French and Italian wines. He has seen the enlargement of his new growing region (the Casablanca Valley) that now ranks high among Chile’s finest wine production areas, with his Casas del Bosque as its top producer.
It is truly a fitting climax to a wonderful and fulfilling business career.