Wine Spectator – The New Chile
This is no idle boast. Chile’s best red wines, whether based on Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah or the country’s distinctive Carmenère grape, are now worthy competitors on the world stage. It’s a staggering accomplishment given that a mere two decades ago, Chile was still known chiefly as a source of inexpensive bulk wines and serviceable fighting varietals.
According to the trade organization Wines of Chile, there are more than 250 wineries today, up from only a dozen or so in 1995, and Chile ranks as the seventh-largest producer of wine in the world. It’s the fourth-leading exporter of wine to the United States, with shipments totaling nearly $240 million worth of wine in 2013 (more than 6.5 million cases). With a small domestic market, exports are critical: Chile sends about 70 percent of its wines overseas, more than $1.2 billion worth.
From the air it’s easy to see that Santiago, Chile, is booming. Construction cranes appear like so many storks delivering the latest crop of skyscrapers. Latin America’s tallest building, the Gran Torre Santiago, soars to nearly 1,000 feet, its massive bulk reminiscent of a huge rocket ready for liftoff.
Yet beginning 10 or so miles south of the heart of this metropolis of 6 million lies another world. The towering front of the Andes rises abruptly to the east, and from the mountains flows the gravel-choked Maipo River. Just above its banks is the historic headquarters of Chile’s largest winery, Viña Concha y Toro, whose neighbors include some of the nation’s leading producers.
It makes for a startling juxtaposition, with verdant vineyards and beautiful wine estates amid the southern reaches of Santiago’s sprawl. A recent extension of the Santiago Metro is almost within walking distance of two of Chile’s greatest red wine vineyards: Don Melchor, Concha y Toro’s crown jewel, and Viña Almaviva. Both sites are located in the Puente Alto district of the Maipo appellation.
“This place is a very classic vineyard in the Maipo,” says Isabel Guilisasti, Concha y Toro’s marketing manager, whose family is a major shareholder in the publicly traded company.
Founded in 1883, Concha y Toro had worldwide sales of $928 million in 2012 and owns more than 22,500 acres of vineyards in Chile. “It is a very classic terroir,” she adds.
The Don Melchor bottling, which has been made since 1987, ranks as one of Chile’s flagship reds. The 2010 ($125 a bottle) scores a classic 95 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale.
Made from 97 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Cabernet Franc, this refined wine offers polished tannins and concentrated red fruit and spice flavors.
Part of what makes the terroir of Puente Alto special are rocky deposits left by the ancient Maipo that have washed down over the millennia from the Andes, stacked layer by layer in a mix of clay and sand. This is the geology shared by Don Melchor and its neighbor Almaviva, as well as by many other top Chilean reds.
Almaviva was founded in 1997, when the Guilisastis and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild of Bordeaux first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild sealed a 50-50 partnership deal. Since its debut release, the wine has consistently scored an outstanding 90 points or higher, a track record of quality that reflects well on its dual heritage. The latest version, from 2010 (94 points, $180), is a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend featuring 29 percent Carmenère and 9 percent Cabernet Franc.
The two bottlings put into relief the competing strains of Chilean wine. There’s no mistaking that the Don Melchor is a product of place; its sinewy, savory essence and appealing notes of underbrush are distinctive among the world’s top Cabernets. The Almaviva, in comparison, is geared for more international tastes with its open texture and ripe, fruity flavors; indeed, it is the only Chilean wine offered for sale in the Bordeaux futures market.
Their high prices too put them in a league of their own, joined by a handful of others: the Viña Santa Rita Casa Real, Viña Montes Alpha M, Viñedo Chadwick and Lapostolle Clos Apalta, this last a Carmenère blend whose 2005 bottling was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2008. These wines all sell for $85 or higher.
Yet there is an exciting new generation of well-priced wines waiting to be discovered, propelled by vibrant Sauvignon Blancs, crystalline Chardonnays and fresh, juicy Pinot Noirs, mostly from cool, coastal appellations. Meaty Syrahs and Zinfandel-like Carignans hold out potential as well. Even Malbec, which has rocketed to success in neighboring Argentina, is rising in quality. And in the high Andes, Grenache-based blends may gain a foothold.
These Chilean newcomers are fruit-driven and pure-tasting, with noticeably less oak influence than has been the country’s norm. They are being made not only by a younger generation of homegrown, hardworking winemakers, but also by forward-thinking old-line companies and ambitious foreign investors, all of whom share a striking commitment to organic grapegrowing practices. This amounts to a fascinating metamorphosis. Where once industrial winemaking and grapegrowing held sway, there’s now an unabashed pride in the natural gifts of the land. It’s all helping to reenergize—and redefine—this winemaking dynamo.
“I think in Chile you have a new vision of the vineyard—to respect the typicity and respect the fruit, and to use fewer and fewer barrels,” says Benjamin Mei, winemaker at Viña Apaltagua, which has vineyards in the Maipo and other key regions.
“All over the country we have found wonderful terroirs,” says José Guilisasti, Isabel’s brother, who oversees one of the largest organic wineries in the world, Emiliana. “I believe the best of Chile will come from the coast, from Concepción to Valparaíso. A new generation is coming, and they are looking for new wines. People are going down south to recover old varieties, and they are taking good care of the environment.”
Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth and highly rated wines, there are undercurrents of anxiety when Chile’s vintners talk about the future. By South American standards, the country is socially conservative, and its singular geography—defined by the lofty Andes and the vast emptiness of the Pacific—has created a sense of isolation. There’s a longing for acceptance in the Chilean soul.
“We need to be recognized and respected,” says Aurelio Montes, one of Chile’s pioneering and most successful vintners, now vice president of Wines of Chile. (For more on Montes, see “Self-Made Man.”)
“Chile is lacking international image,” Montes adds. “We are too formal in some ways and too boring. There’s a saying that applies well: Have a date in Argentina and get married in Chile.”
The rousing success of Argentine Malbec since the turn of the century is a source of fascination—and some frustration—for many of Chile’s vintners.
“Chile has basically been selling value for money and is just beginning to understand the international market,” says Eduardo Chadwick, an industry leader whose holdings include Viña Errázuriz in the Aconcagua Valley north of Santiago. He’s the fifth generation to oversee the historic winery, which was founded in 1870.
Whether Chile can change its international profile on the global stage will depend on how well the country engages the outside world while forging its own path to a new winemaking identity.
Almost since the founding of Santiago in the mid-16th century, the city has been a winemaking center. The rising wealth of its upper classes in the 19th century spurred the founding of wineries such as Concha y Toro, Cousiño-Macul and Santa Rita on its agricultural fringe. Today, Santiago is not only Chile’s economic, political and cultural capital, but also the vibrant hub of Chilean wine culture. Most vintners and winemakers working within 100 miles of its center live inside its boundaries, their mobility spurred by a spreading network of multilane tollways built in the past two decades.
Chile’s winemaking heartland rests in the Central Valley, the plain that stretches 350 miles south from Santiago, between the Andes and the coastal range. The Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó and Maule valleys are its major subdivisions. The Maipo district is just one of central Chile’s many lower-altitude valleys and plains that are a paradise for grapegrowing; a beneficent climate and complex, nutrient-poor soils have resulted in a wealth of unique vineyards.
Phylloxera, the scourge of the winemaking world, is inexplicably absent from Chile. Most of the country’s vineyards are grown without the grafted rootstocks necessary elsewhere to defend against phylloxera, a root louse that is a death sentence for unprotected vines. Because they are grown on their own roots, Chile’s vines are stronger and can live much longer than grafted vineyards. Ninety-five percent of Chile’s 315,000 acres of vines are ungrafted, and vineyards up to a century old are common.
“If you’re not grafting, the vines have much better circulation,” says Grant Phelps, a New Zealand expatriate who is the winemaker for Casas del Bosque in Casablanca. “To my mind, one of the national treasures of Chile is the old vineyards that are still going.”
Ironically, it was phylloxera that first helped bring Chile to the world’s attention, as French vintners fleeing their devastated vineyards in the 1870s immigrated to Chile to start over. They brought with them a predilection for Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that remains strong among Central Valley vintners to this day. Another Bordeaux grape they planted was Carmenère, which many vintners see as a marquee red varietal. (See “The Challenge of Carmenère.”)
In the past decade, many Chilean vintners have launched impressive programs to convert their vineyards to organic viticulture and its more esoteric variant, biodynamics. Their effort is aided by Chile’s dry climate and relative lack of pests and vine disease.
“Now for the first time in 10 years, I’m starting to see terroir wines,” says Pedro Parra, one of Chile’s leading viticulture consultants. “It is important to know that much of Chile’s vineyard soils are volcanic, like Napa. Which means hydric stress and low root development. So in my opinion, if you don’t work in organic and biodynamic ways with the soils, you will always produce green-tasting wines.”
Besides its natural riches, Chile has long had the most advanced economy in Latin America, which is helping to prime the pump for the country’s remarkable winemaking transformation. Since the turn of the century, the standard of living in Chile has risen steadily even with the global recession, spurring investments in infrastructure, such as the country’s roadways and power grid, that are critical to a modern wine economy.
The influence of foreign investment, especially from France, has been just as significant, infusing the industry with energy while providing capital and cutting-edge technology. Producers such as Almaviva and the French-owned Lapostolle have vaulted Chile into the limelight. Other long-term players include Château Lafite Rothschild, with its Los Vascos winery, and Spanish vintner Miguel Torres, from his base in the Curicó district.
The most impressive winery is Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, located about 100 miles south of Santiago in Colchagua’s Apalta district, one of Chile’s most beautiful wine regions. From the vantage point of the winery, an emerald tapestry of vineyards spreads across the horseshoeshaped valley. The peaks and ridges of the coastal range surround the lush vines. The mountains’ core is dominated by crumbling granite nearly 125 million years old—much older than the Andes. The climate, as in most of Chile’s winegrowing regions, is Mediterranean: warm and dry in summer, cool and wet in winter.
“I’m French,” says Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, the driving force behind the winery. “Yes, we have great terroir in France, but I wanted to show great terroir elsewhere and the personality of the place.”
Irrepressible and engaging, Marnier-Lapostolle cuts a trim figure and has a stylish air; she is known as Madame to those who work for her in Chile. Yet for all her glamour and charisma— her fortune stems from the Grand Marnier liqueur that her family owns—there’s a down-toearth aspect to Marnier-Lapostolle.
In the 1990s, the family began looking overseas for a new red wine venture, first to Argentina but finally to Chile because of the absence of phylloxera. In 1993, Marnier-Lapostolle and her husband, Cyril de Bournet, spotted a patch of old vineyards on a visit to the Apalta Valley. She knew immediately that this was the place, and the next year Lapostolle was founded with Chilean partners. Marnier-Lapostolle also engaged the services of famed wine consultant Michel Rolland, who continues to work for the estate.
Today, she farms 467 acres in Apalta and has taken over 100 percent control of the estate. With Clos Apalta’s gravelly voiced winemaker Jacques Begarie, a native of Bordeaux, we make a tour of the vineyards. One of our first stops is the compost mounds that are at the heart of the biodynamic regime governing viticulture at the estate. The philosophy extends to Clos Apalta’s winery, an imposing structure whose sleek, elliptical cellars are built into solid rock, driving seven levels down, in a Guggenheim-like spiral, into the granite.
“It is the perfect shape of nature and reflects the biodynamic ethic—to try and have very good proportions,” Marnier-Lapostolle says. “We pay attention to every detail in the winery and the vineyard. I think our wines have purity and density, but the tannins aren’t harsh.”
We drive by the plot of old vines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, some of them approaching a century in age. These vines, with thick, gnarled trunks, rest on a bench of land that slopes down, almost imperceptibly, to the bottom of the broad valley. Ahead, the dirt road abruptly ascends steep slopes where there are new plantings of Carmenère. Huge boulders dug up from the soil during the vineyard conversion have been carefully arranged in a creek bottom, with plantings of native scrub, to augment biodiversity. “Biodynamics is a lot of work,” says Marnier-Lapostolle. “It’s really a hand-crafted effort.”
There’s little doubt that the Apalta Valley is a special place. The ridges that rise above it may include some of the defensive southern rockworks of the Incan Empire.
Begarie, who is driving, stops the car and walks over to a bench overlooking the valley. He often comes to here to think—about the land, the climate and the grapes.
“If you don’t have good grapes, you can’t work magic in the cellar,” says Begarie, who has been at Apalta for a decade and whose home borders the vineyard. “You learn techniques at university, but once you are in the vineyard, you have to start to learn to adapt to the place.” He regularly walks through the vineyards, inspecting vines one by one to check on their health and vigor.
Back at the Clos Apalta cellar, we meet with Andrea León, who oversees the large Lapostolle winery a few miles down the valley. She has a wry sense of humor and a twinkle in her eyes. Clos Apalta is the flagship bottling of the Lapostolle group, but the Cuvée Alexandre and Casa bottlings represent its bread and butter, with concentrated, refined flavors that rate very good to outstanding for less than $30 a bottle. It’s a category that Marnier-Lapostolle considers critical to Chile’s future.
“I’ve been telling my friends for 10 years that I think there’s a huge future for Chile for wines that cost $15 to $30,” she says. “Little by little, we have more and more trials. I hope that will be the goal of all the wineries—to show what they can produce between $15 and $30.”
For León, a native Chilean trained at the prestigious Catholic University in Santiago, working beside Marnier-Lapostolle and Begarie has been revelatory, as have her stints at wineries in California and France. Her evolution mirrors that of Chile as a whole.
“Twenty years ago, you were taught to make wine as another agricultural product. I was taught that it was all in the winery, and nobody went to the vineyard,” León says. “But that’s all changed now. I learned from being in France, working with Jacques and Alexandra, the value of the site. And we’ve realized the value of letting the grapes express themselves. It’s all the little things that make great wines, part of the eternal search for improvement and a vision of
Chile’s vineyard regions feature remarkably mild and consistent weather during the growing season. It’s rare for temperatures to top 90° F, and as cool breezes descend from the heights of the Andes, a sweater is often needed on a summer night. But the biggest influence is the Humboldt current, which delivers cold ocean waters off the coast. This helps trigger the fog that surges from the Pacific to the inland valleys, much the same way as in Northern California, moderating temperatures and sunlight.
A goal for many Chilean vintners over the past few years has been to get as close as possible to the coast, with cool-climate grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even Syrah in mind. The leading coastal appellations—San Antonio, which includes the subvalley of Leyda, and Casablanca—are located less than an hour’s drive west of Santiago. These areas are magnets for wine producers both large and small.
One of the cool-climate pioneers is Veramonte, in Casablanca. The winery represents a unique fusion of Chilean and Californian influences. Agustín Huneeus, who helped build Concha y Toro in the 1960s, fled Chile for the United States in the 1970s amid political instability in his native country. He returned to Chile following the re-establishment of democracy in the 1990s, and later in the decade founded Veramonte. Today, his San Francisco-based son, Agustín Huneeus Jr., oversees the estate.
Veramonte’s 1,000 acres of vineyards in Casablanca encapsulate many of the changes sweeping through Chile. The winery has honed its Pinot Noir, delivering crisp, pure and fruitytasting wines that exhibit red fruit and spice flavors. Overoaked Chardonnays and overripe Sauvignon Blancs have also been replaced by fresher and fruitier versions.
Veramonte’s Rodrigo Soto is an articulate spokesperson for the region. “We are not trying to compare ourselves with Burgundy, but with other places in the New World. I think we can be an aggressive competitor to them,” says Soto, who worked from 2006 to 2011 at Benziger in Sonoma County, a leader in organic viticulture.
Veramonte features a California-style tasting room and is located in a bucolic valley where the soils are a mix of decomposed granite and clay, with poor fertility. Since 2006, Veramonte has progressively shifted to organic farming methods.
“We are trying to make wines more soft, smooth and delicious, which has been a big change over the last couple of years,” Agustín Jr. says. “It’s key to me to create a new polish and balance in the wine,” Soto adds.
Irrigation is a necessity for most Chilean vineyards, yet unlike other major regions, where the rivers that bisect the country flow with meltwater from Andean snows, Casablanca has no major river. Instead, its producers must sink wells to tap groundwater. Because of this limited water supply, there will probably be little future vineyard expansion beyond Casablanca’s current 15,000 acres. The region’s varietal breakdown—about 5,700 acres of Chardonnay, 5,400 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, 2,500 acres of Pinot Noir and 1,000 acres of Syrah—also stands in marked contrast to the nation’s overall plantings, which are 72 percent red and 28 percent white.
In neighboring San Antonio, Viña Casa Marín lies less than 3 miles from the Pacific, the closest to the ocean of any Chilean winery. The owner is the gracious María Luz Marín, who founded the winery in 2000 in the vale surrounding the small, tidy village of Lo Abarca. She was drawn by the cool breezes and the quality of the region’s tomatoes, showing their natural acidity. “I was convinced that something good was going to come here,” she says. “It came from the depths of my soul.”
Casa Marín’s existence is a tribute to the persistence of María Luz. Today, the winery specializes in crisp Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. Yields are low. Because of the maritime climate and the steep, sloping hillsides, almost all of the vineyard work is done by hand. It’s a marginal climate even for Chile, but the results are worth it; Casa Marín’s
Sauvignon Blancs are among Chile’s best.
Farther inland at Matetic Vineyards, about 10 miles from the Pacific, Syrah is the star. Talented California-based consultant Ann Kraemer worked on the development of the vineyards in the late 1990s and advised its owners to plant Syrah—then unknown in the region. Matetic is a showplace estate, built to host visiting wine tourists, and a fervent adherent to biodynamics. Its cellars are housed partially in glass, providing a view of the serene, rolling vineyards and allowing natural light to shine on the fermenting tanks.
“We were the first to grow Syrah so close to the ocean,” says Arturo Larraín, general manager of Matetic. “We really believe it is our flagship variety. When we first planted Syrah in this area in ’99, the industry thought we were crazy.” Today, the Matetic lineup includes the impressive Syrah San Antonio Corralillo 2011 (91, $28), which features rich flavors of dark fruit, roasted meat and Asian spices, with well-defined minerality.
In the Matetic vineyards, head winemaker Julio Bastías stands in a pit dug 5 feet deep into the soil, tracing the roots of a vine. (An inspection of similar pits is a ritual at many Chilean vineyards.) “We believe the biodynamic and organic styles are the best way to capture terroir, to capture the water and fertility of the soils,” Bastías says. “Everything is connected, and this is our philosophy in grapegrowing.”
Two hundred miles south of Santiago lies Chile’s largest wine district in terms of production, Maule, with more than 75,000 acres under vine. Mostly overlooked today—and derided for its history of mediocre wines targeted largely at the domestic market—Maule is worlds away from the trim and tidy vineyards of Apalta.
But change is stirring here as well. Miguel Torres, among others, is trying to fashion high quality reds from the maligned País grape, the original variety brought to the Americas by the Spanish (it’s known as Mission in California). And a group of vintners in the region has banded together to trumpet Maule’s heritage by forming an organization called Vignadores de Carignan, or Vigno, seeking to preserve and market 1,200 acres of old-vine Carignan.
Carignan was first planted here in the 1940s, with government support, to help the region recover from a devastating earthquake. With its acidity and color, Carignan was seen as a way to bolster the thin-tasting reds made from País, but it was never produced on its own because of its rustic profile. Long forgotten, the treasure trove of Carignan vines has been rediscovered, and the flavors they offer have matured with the passage of time.
“It’s all dry farming, because no water is available,” says Andrés Sánchez of Gillmore Winery & Vineyards, a Vigno member. “Four years ago, we talked and talked and decided to make an appellation just for Carignan.” Vigno’s goal is to establish an appellation along the lines of a European D.O.C., where variety and style trump a mere geographic criterion, as in Chile and throughout New World wine regions. Gillmore’s varietal Carignan from 2010 is an elegant
version, with floral and minty notes to its concentrated red fruit flavors.
The Loncomilla Valley, in the western part of Maule, is located in the heart of old Carignan country. Forested slopes and ridges surround this lush, wild countryside. Yet the pastoral nature can be deceiving. The epicenter of the powerful 2010 earthquake was located only a couple of miles off the coast south of here, and many of the older adobe structures in the Loncomilla area are now damaged beyond repair.
The locals typically prefer horses to cars when crossing the region’s rugged terrain, and the men wear the wide-brimmed hat of the Chilean huaso, or cowboy. The campos are filled with old, bush-trained Carignan vines that provide juicy, briary flavors reminiscent of California Zinfandel.
“This is patrimony, living patrimony, and a card that should have been played earlier,” says Derek Mossman, a Canadian expatriate who makes wine with his wife, Pilar Miranda, from Loncomilla at their 3,000-case boutique enterprise called The Garage Wine Co. “This is kind of revolutionary for Chile,” Mossman adds, referring to big wineries such as Torres and Undurraga that are members of Vigno.
“Older Carignan is another animal,” says Sánchez. “It’s a wine of soul, which is very important.” But, he adds, Carignan can make quality wines only when dry farmed. “When you give Carignan deep soil and water—it explodes,” resulting in thin-tasting wines. Old vines are critical to quality as well, Sánchez explains, producing thick skins that protect the seeds. Then the grapes can be crafted into velvety reds.
These vineyards are also under threat from lumber companies that have planted rows of pine trees in the hills and would like to plant even more in the plains and valleys where the old Carignan vines grow. “It’s a different way for Chile to have a D.O.C.—a real one,” says veteran Chilean winemaker Pablo Morandé. “But we have to move fast in this area, because the forest companies are moving in fast as well.”
Morandé, who owns 115 acres of old-vine vineyards in Loncomilla that were first planted in 1950, is a true believer that these vines will be important in the future, if they are recognized and protected. His 2009 blend of 69 percent Carignan with 26 percent Syrah is pure, ripe and minerally.
The morning after the tasting, a thunderclap breaks the quiet. There are a few drops of rain, offering a welcome reprieve from the strong Chilean sun. But the thunderhead quickly dissipates as I ride on horseback through the wild tangle of old-vine vineyards, their canes climbing up olive trees that line the dirt track.
To preserve the genetic heritage of the vines, they are propagated directly. One cane of the mother vine is bent downward into the soil and allowed to take root. After a few years, its connection is cut and a new, ungrafted vine flourishes. It’s a piece of living history that’s almost impossible to replicate in any other winemaking country
Far to the north of Santiago is some of Chile’s most extreme vineyard terrain. In the Limarí district, rows of green vines thrive in a landscape dominated by tall, columnar cactus. Yet here, as elsewhere on the coast, the morning fog provides a cooling blanket of air.
Seven miles from the ocean lies the Talinay vineyard, which is rooted in an ancient marine terrace filled with limestone, a rarity in Chile. Average rainfall is about 4 inches a year; the vines are irrigated with water pumped straight uphill from the Limarí River. The vineyard is owned by Viña Tabalí, located about another 7 miles inland, and was founded in 1993 by businessman Guillermo Luksic, whose family’s fortune from the mining business is reputedly Chile’s largest, at an estimated $17 billion.
“His advisors told him not to plant here,” says Felipe Müller, Tabalí’s winemaker. “But it is such a unique place, and the wines taste so different.”
Luksic died last year at age 57, from cancer. Today, the Tabalí winery stands as a testament to his vision, a modernistic oasis in the desert, mostly hidden from view in a sheltering ravine. It is a stunning architectural monument, featuring an open-air complex of fermenting tanks topped by an undulating roof built of burnished native hardwood. Underneath is a warren of aging cellars, filled with wall paintings and stone sculptures evocative of the native tribes who once inhabited this land.
Tabalí’s wines are some of the most revelatory I’ve yet tasted from Chile, led by a flagship Syrah called Payen along with bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, all priced from $20 to $40 a bottle. In non-blind tastings of the wines, I rated them all outstanding, including the Talinay Pinot Noir at 92 points ($30), a rich, ripe and luscious red with plenty of minerality and smoky notes.
“My father always had the crazy idea that you could make great wine in the north of Chile. He always had an interest in soils, hills and valleys,” says Luksic’s son, Nicolás, who now runs the estate, which draws from 450 acres of vineyards in Limarí. Other leading players in the region include Viña Maycas del Limarí, Viña Falernia and Viña Casa Tamaya del Limarí.
If there is a final frontier for Chile, it may lie in the heights of the Andes. “We haven’t yet conquered the Andes, and I think we should explore what is possible,” says Aurelio Montes. “But the mountain vineyard will be very small.” Montes is already familiar with high-altitude viticulture, but on the Argentine side of the border, with his Kaiken label.
The Chilean heights are a virtual terra incognita for vintners. But there are experiments taking place. One of the most fascinating and highest sites is in the Elquí Valley, inland from the northern resort of La Serena.
Elquí is a historic grapegrowing region, but its Muscat grapes have been used to make the potent Chilean spirit pisco rather than wine. Avocado orchards climb up the sides of the valley, and citrus trees are also common, even a mile high in the mountains. But once out of range of the irrigation ditches, the desert takes hold.
Deep in the heart of the Elquí, Marcelo Retamal, winemaker of De Martino in the Maipo, and his local partner, Juan Luis Huerta, are showing me the highest vineyard yet planted in Chile, at 7,150 feet above sea level. The pavement is long gone. The air is crystalline, and the sunshine is intense. The vineyard is planted mostly to Grenache and other red varieties, including Petite Sirah, Malbec, Syrah and Carignan.
At this high altitude, there’s plenty of heat during the day, but the shadows of the peaks fall early, providing relief to the vines planted in granitic soils. Back down the valley, the pair is building a winery for their Viñedos de Alcohuaz project. It’s a multilevel affair that features stone basins for foot-treading the grapes and amphorae for fermenting. I taste their red blend called Rhu from the 2011 vintage; the wine is dense and rich with dark plum and chocolate flavors. Rhu is just for home consumption for now; the first commercial release will be from 2012.
Viñedos de Alcohuaz may be a remote outpost of Chilean winemaking, yet it is as much a window onto the future as any current project. Throughout the country, vintners such as Retamal are striving to make a new Chile as they draw on what their bounteous land has to offer and push the peaks of winemaking to new heights.