Eduardo Chadwick and the birth of Chile’s top wine

There are two realities in Chile as a wine country. The world of large wineries and their huge production, which has catapulted the nation to 6th place among wine-producing countries. And the world of ultra-premium wineries, whose most expensive products are among the icons of the wine world. Berlin, of all places, plays a central role in their history.

14 mins read

In February 2024, Eduardo Chadwick, President of Viñedos Familia Chadwick, came to Berlin to celebrate one of the most important moments in Chilean wine history – the tasting victory of one of his wines against a phalanx of French and Italian cult wines 20 years ago in Berlin. The anniversary of the so-called Berlin Tasting was the occasion for an interview with Eduardo Chadwick about the origins and prospects of fine wine in Chile.

SLP: How do you feel about coming back to Berlin after 20 years?
Caro Maurer and Eduardo Chadwick at the Masterclass 2024 in Berlin

EC: The Berlin Tasting in 2004 was an important event in my wine life. My wine life started back in 1983. Then came this year 2004, and now it’s 2024, so it was kind of the middle of my wine career. And it was one of the most important milestones in my life as far as wine is concerned. The first 20 years the challenge was to develop fine wine here in Chile. When I joined 1983, the wine industry in Chile was in a mess. The beginning was very difficult. Chile has gone through a communist period 1970. This was followed by the coup d’état 1973 and military government. We had a very negative image during those years. It was very difficult to export any porocuct with a “Chilean label”. As a result, the wine industry was in its worst state.

Yet viticulture in Chile has a long history …

Yes, the Spanish conquistadors brought the basic Criolla grapes, the so-called “Mission Grapes”, with them in the 16th century. But it was the Chileans in the1850s and 1860s, who came to Europe and Bordeaux in particular, and they brought cuttings home from there. This was the beginning of fine wine production in Chile, based on the Bordelais grapes. One of them was [my grandfather] Don Maximiano Errázuriz founded the Viña Errázuriz winery in 1870. The pioneers of the Chilean wine industry were my family and several others. In those early days, wine consumption in Chile was very high. Because wine was often the only drink available, annual consumption at the end of the 19th century was a good 80 liters per capita. This led to the problem of alcoholism, which is why several governments took strong action against wine consumption. Chile never had a prohibition of consumption, but we had a prohibition of new plantations and very high taxes. So the whole industry went slightly down until it collapsed in 1970s.

It was only a good ten years later that things started to look up?

Meanwhile, our family had lost Viña Errázuriz. In 1983, my father Alfonso Chadwick Errázuriz bought the winery back from the banks to reopen it and he invited me to work there. At that time, there were spiderwebs and only very old equipment like hundred-year-old Rauli tanks. At that time, wine was made as it was in the early 19th century. This was the first challenge of my career: to find the best places for vineyards, replant them and finally produce fine wine. My father had a vision, so he sent me to Bordeaux. I started short courses at the university there, which means I am not a fully trained winemaker today. But I met Émile Peynaud, the author of the standard work “Le Goût du vin” and visited the top châteaux. Then I came back to Chile and realized that there was a huge gap between Bordeaux and Chile in terms of fine wine.

I dedicated the next 20 years to closing this gap. Developing vineyards, finding nice terroirs, training a winemaking and vinicultural team … At that time, there was no more knowledge. The wine was only made for local consumption and the export rate in the 1980s – exclusively to South American countries – was 1 per cent. It was also challenging to present a second face of Chilean wine to the world and we tried to gain recognition. At the time, Chilean wine industry was quite dominated by big corporations that mainly produced cheap, affordable value wines. This made it difficult to get the message across that Chile can also produce fine wine. The Berlin Tasting was born out of the frustration that I was travelling the world to promote Fine Wine. But everyone was doubtful about the potential. At the time, no critics were coming to Chile and we had no ratings.

You then produced your first ultra-premium wine, Seña, in 1995. So you must have had a plan very early on.

Well, we had a tradition. We reopened the winery in 1983 to honour Don Maximiano, the founder. That was the first wine to present it in the fine wine market, from a vineyard surrounding the winery. This was my first flagship wine. It was well received. But there was a belief that Chile could compete with the very great wines. In 1989, Chile regained democracy. That was a very important step, a milestone towards being more welcome in Europe. That year saw the arrival of the first Masters of Wine, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and other critics in Chile. From then on, there was some kind of reporting every year about the progress in Chile.

Then in 1991 Robert Mondavi visited us and in 1995 we started the Seña project. This was significant, not only for us, but also for Chile. Bob had in mind, that Opus One helped to elevate the image of Napa. So he wanted a joint venture wine in a similar fashion to improve the recognition of Chile. That’s why we create the name Seña, meaning signal. To tell the world that Chile was capable of producing world-class wines. But even though, that was still not enough. Robert Parker, for example, did not come to Chile; he did not even list Chile in his encyclopaedia “Wines of the World”. At tastings in Asia, my agents asked: What is your Parker rating? That was embarrassing, because we didn’t have any ratings.

And then came a tasting in Berlin…

The Berlin Tasting came as a response to this frustration. Chilean labels were either ranked down several points or not ranked. The idea came from PR agent Dorli Muhr and Lenz M. Moser, Head of Sales at Robert-Mondavi Europe. Let’s present our wines in a way that there is no negative preconception. That means: Chile together with top Bordeaux, top Italians … Our intention, our vision was to prove, that we are in the company of the best wines in the world. Originally, we asked ourselves: How do we get the attention of the audience in a very unbiased and humble way? By asking the audience to taste and make a judgment. We were unsure about European tastes, what would be the outcome? On in fact, we didn’t risk much. We were comparing ourselves against Lafite, Margaux or Latour …

I never thought that what happened would happen. [See the result here.] That was not the plan and it was not the marketing idea. It was just a destiny. And it created an eye-opener for the wine press. I spent the next ten years mainly expand this. message. And I travelled around the world for ten years and did 22 tastings in the key capitals. And surprisingly, that we had tremendous consistency. Not only the 2000/2001 vintages, we had chosen, because it was a 100-point Bordeaux vintage, that we wanted to benchmark. Then we chose 2005 as a benchmark. But the consistency was great. In more than 90 percent of the cases, we had one or two wines in the top 3. This consistency in the appreciation of fine Chilean wines was the message! Then we continued to fine-tune our winemaking. Not only with Cabernet-driven wines, but also with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. So it’s been a journey. And this Berlin tasting was a very important milestone on this journey.

But the Berlin tasting was led by Steven Spurrier. Surely, he must have known how strong the Chilean wines are? Just as he knew the strengths of California at the Paris Tasting in 1976.

Let me tell you a bit of a tale. Dorli [Muhr] had invited Steven. I only knew him as the head of Decanter. Of course, I had a tremendous respect, after all he came from a completely different world. Then I arrived in Berlin-Tegel from London and wanted to take a taxi, and he and his wife Bella had landed on the same flight. And I asked Steven: “Shall we share a taxi? ” And he said “Why not? ” So, we took the same taxi to the Ritz-Carlton. And I was sitting on the front seat, and he was sitting with Bella on the back seat. I turned around and asked: “How do you want to do the tasting? What is your format?” And he looked at me: “But Eduardo, what are you telling me? I was just invited to the tasting.” He didn’t know that he was the man who was going to host the tasting. But he was such a gentleman, and just said “fine”.

Who and what influenced your ideas of winemaking in your early years?

I would certainly have to mention Paul Pontallier. My first visit in Bordeaux was at Château Margaux. Pontallier had done his military service as a professor in Chile and so I had met him before. He was a friend of Chile, so he was my first choice in France. Paul was such a friendly personality and I visited him every time I was in Bordeaux. He became a close friend. In addition: I love Margaux, so pure, so elegant, so fresh. This is a style, I personally love.

But we try to make a wine with its own identity, not a Bordeaux, not a Napa, it’s a Chilean wine, with an Aconcagua identity. Don Maximiano was historically a blend of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, then we started to blend in some Carmenere to make it truly Chilean. It comes from Bordeaux, but it was never planted again after the phylloxera. Carmenere sufferd on Colliure and gives a low yield. Above all, it needs a constantly sunny environment. In France, the ripening window is to small. In Chile, it has a drier, longer season. Here it will ripen if you just wait some weeks. It is also part of the blend in Seña to make it truly Chilean. This is our spirit, to create this uniqueness and Chilean style.

Your entry in 1983 also coincides with the time when Robert Parker building his career as a critic. Not least due to his influence, wines around the world have changed since the 1990s at the latest.

A lot changed in the nineties. We were all infected by Parkerization. 100 percent new wood, the ripeness went up in the whole industry … That lasted until about 2010. I can still remember when consultant Michel Rolland came to Chile and declared to the press: “All Chilean Cabernets are green!” Wow! In the early days, there were indeed green tannins, but the problem lay elsewhere. In the vineyards, the grapes, which we assumed were Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, were interplanted. As usual, the Merlot was harvested two weeks earlier. But it was not ripe, because Carmere ripens later. It was not until 1994 that the French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot identified it as Carmenere. Since then, Carmenere has been selected separately and single-varietal Carmenere plots have been cultivated, which are then allowed to mature.

But of course, some winegrowers also went too much into high ripeness, towards the “Big Napa” style. We, on the other hand, try to go more and more towards finesse since 2010. Today, in Chile, there are two approaches. People which are very much in the camp of Michel Rollands’s style with hedonistic and powerful wines. And the other camp is looking for finesse, elegance and freshness. This is not so much appreciated by critics in the USA, more so in England and Japan. But today there is a greater diversity of palates. In short, we are more on the line of Château Cheval Blanc than that of Château Pavie.

Let’s come back to the collaboration with Robert Mondavi …

When he came to Chile for the first time in 1991, I was asked to be his wine guide through the country. So, he, his wife Margit and I travelled through Chile for a week. And he was very enthusiastic about the tremendous potential he saw. He then wanted to set up a joint venture in Chile, just as he had done with the Rothschild family in Napa. But then his company went public in 1993 and he had his own issues. It wasn’t until two years later that he came back to Chile and I travelled to Napa. That’s when we decided to create Seña. For me it was a dream project to join forces with this man and family. My actual partner then became his son Tim, who was in charge for winemaking and vineyard management. The other son, Michael, was more in the commercial side.

Tim and I discussed a lot about what we should do. We had in mind the two grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere, a Bordeaux blend. Secondly, we had to choose where to plant the vineyards? We tried many samples and Tim was very keen on developing the project in Aconcagua Valley because of its similarity to Oakville. Searching the right sites took us two or three years. Tim was already very focused on fine wine. But he was criticized by the wine press for not promoting the classic “Napa style”. In fact, we went to the coolest place in the Valley near the coast, on the limit of coolness. If you cross the mountain range, it’s already land for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was a place for finesse and silky tannins, never about power. It was the counterpart of the Colchagua Valley, for example, which is known for big powerful wines. The first vintage, 1995, was then launched very successfully. There were not too many high ratings, but nevertheless 91 points, the highest rating for a Chilean wine to date. But it was the Berlin Tasting that really got us awareness.

In 2004, the year of the Berlin Tasting, you bought the Mondavi shares. A new era also began at your winery with the arrival of new winemaker Francisco Baettig.

Ed Flaherty from California and Tim and Tony Coltrane on the Mondavi side, and later Genevieve Janssens worked on the Seña. Francisco was trained in Chile, then went to Bordeaux and worked for Michel Rolland at Bon Pasteur. He eventually joined Casa Lapostolle, where Rolland was a consultant, as an assistant winemaker. So, at the beginning he also had this “big mentality”. But we were already thinking about how to refine our wines back then. We travelled to Burgundy and had other consultants. For the past 15 years, our mentality was to go more in the pure terroir and produce wines with more delicacy and finesse. Last year, we offered Emily Faulconer the position of assistant winemaker alongside Francisco Baettig. She had already worked for us for a few years, then moved to a larger winery and came back to us. She was then trained to become Francisco’s successor.

Together with a strong team, we will continue on our path of sustainable, regenerative viticulture. In wine style, I think that the last five vintages reflect what we believe to be the best expression of our terroir. Between 2005 and 2010, we harvested at the end of April, beginning of May, the wines had around 14.5% alcohol and a lot of power. From 2010 onwards, we started scaling down. Not only new wood, also Stockinger big foudres, an earlier harvest. This has resulted in more balanced grapes and wines with more freshness, more intensity, more fruit. It doesn’t mean we have green tannins, we are reaching full phenolic maturity, but it’s a fine line. But within the Chilean landscape with the big wines on the one side, we are at the other end of the spectrum.

Today, Chilean viticulture suffers mainly from drought. Many wineries are moving to the cooler south of the country. Will there still be Seña in 50 years’ time?
Berlin also saw the premiere of the Las Pizarras single-vineyard chardonnay from the DO Aconcagua Costa

Water supply is a key issue in climate change. We have created water reservoirs and storage wells. 20 years ago, the water came via canals, from the same season. Today, we collect the water in the wintertime in the reservoirs and can pump it throughout the season. But we have also moved. In Chile, there are two ways to get to regions with lower temperatures. You can go south, where there is also more rain, or towards the Pacific coast. Seña is already very cool. The Aconcagua peak [the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, SLP] is almost 7,000 meters high, but then there are the coastal mountains. We have placed Seña on the east side of these mountains, with morning sun and water flowing in from the mountains. Our Aconcagua Costa vineyard is even cooler, ten kilometres from the sea, and here we have a water reservoir so we can irrigate the full season.

I think we will have enough water for the next 20, 30 and even 50 years from now. The other option is to go really further south. For time being, we have developed more elements at the coast and developing infrastructure for storing the water. For example, we have built a huge dam with a 15 hectares surface. Another step is to farm organically in order to save water. But I see a point to go south eventually. It’s up to my daughters one day. But it’s also about the unique terroir. We won’t find gravel soils like those in Maipo Alto in Patagonia. In Aconcagua Costa, our Chardonnay grows on schist soils. We have selected out properties because of really interesting soil profiles, weather and the infrastructure to have enough water supply. You cannot simply transfer this elsewhere.

Chilean viticulture is currently facing many challenges. How do you experience the situation?

We are currently facing many changes. In viticulture, in cellar technology. Twenty years ago, we were lucky for more sun. Today, we minimise sun exposure and work with canopy management. Commercially, it was a very tough year. In my 40 years, I never experienced the whole world being in recession or in difficulties. Today, the key is to be very clear of where you want to go as a winery. There is not much room for people who want to do everything, you have to be focussed. We are a family winery and estate only. We export more than 85 per cent of our production. The four big groups that dominate the Chilean wine sector live on efficiency and volume. I see our role and our future being specialised into fine wine. We want to produce wines that are recognised among the world’s top wines.

We enter Place de Bordeaux a good ten years ago to position ourselves in the right place. At that time, there was still a debate as to whether the trade in non-Bordeaux wines was even allowed here. Happily, the négociants won out over the château owners. Ten years ago, I started with one merchant. Today we have more than 20, and they distribute our wines to fine wine shops all over the world. We have had great success in China, Japan and Great Britain. Unfortunately, not so much in Germany, where the trade for new world wines is difficult. We have to focus more and more on the key markets of the world and address the key retailers and collectors with tastings and masterclasses. It is a challenging environment, but we have unique wines and a unique story to tell. Last year we sold the 12,000 bottles of Viñedo Chadwick, the most expensive wine in Chile, within 24 hours.

The political situation in Chile is also unstable at the moment. Do you fear new trade restrictions, such as those threatening Argentina?

Happily, Chile is much more stable than Argentina. After the experiences of the past, I think we are coming to understand politically that there is not one or the other. The country will find its way between right and left extremes. We have strong political institutions such as the house of parliament. Chile has become the most stable country in South America, with a per capita income of the equivalent of a good 20,000 US dollars. Of course, many things need to be improved – education, healthcare, social welfare – but we don’t need to change the constitution for that. I am optimistic that there will be no dramatic changes like in Argentina. I hope, we continue to build a social economy, that will take care of the country’s most important issues. This includes exports. Unlike Argentina, exports are essential for Chile. Exports, whether fruit, salmon or wine, drive our economy.

Today, all four of your daughters work in your company?
Eduardo Chadwick with his daughters Magui (left) and Pepa (right)

Three of them … Magui has been in charge for ten years, she is now head of marketing & communication. Pepa is working on the commercial side. She is based in London and is working with the fine wine merchants. Alexandra, the youngest, has just joined us in the communications department. My fourth daughter works in fashion. We now have a very professional team in all areas. Now that everything has been organised with my succession, I can retire.

[The interview took place in English and was edited before publication].

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All photos: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images

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