Coastal Red Extreme Games

by | 5 Jun, 2011

Just a decade ago, growing Syrah near the ocean seemed totally out of place. Today, however, coastal Syrah has become a category in itself and perhaps one of the most valuable differentiating attributes of the Chilean industry. With this in mind, is there a coastal future for other red cultivars like Cabernet Franc, Malbec or Merlot? How far can we get? What are the limits of an industry in permanent reinvention?

The skeptical voices raised when San Antonio-based Matetic released the first version of its EQ Syrah are still echoing. Although the label mentioned the word ‘balance’, many colleagues of the winery’s then winemaker criticized the wine as being green. The ocean-filled notes played a peppery and floral tune, in deep contrast to the traditional Syrahs grown in warmer valleys like Aconcagua and Colchagua. This was not the full-bodied, ambitious wine that could be expected, but rather a graceful specimen that spoke a fresh and spicy language.

Today, no one, or almost, would argue that it is indeed possible to produce truly inspired Syrahs under cooler climatic conditions. And Matetic’s once widely attacked Syrah has become the emblem of a new generation of reds that have brought a welcome puff of fresh air to our traditional wine offer. And now Matetic is no longer alone in San Antonio. In Casablanca and Limarí new and more consistent Syrahs begin to appear, slowly creating an all-new category that Wines of Chile strongly promotes on every possible occasion.

The question is, can this category extend beyond Syrah and eventually include other red cultivars to widen the range of coastal red wines? Felipe Díaz, CEO of Loma Larga, has no doubts about it and to prove it he not only mentions
the classic varieties of Casablanca, but has pioneered the production of coastal Cabernet Franc and Malbec. “In the ocean of wine that has flooded the market, your only chance of survival is differentiation. And the only way to do this is
by looking for places that deliver quality and a truly special character,” he affirms.

True to his training as a commercial engineer and free of the prejudices of a wine specialist, he examined the literature available and picked some early-ripening red varietals that could easily adapt to the conditions prevailing in Casablanca. He reserved the valley floor for white cultivars and Pinot Noir, leaving the granite slopes for Cabernet Franc and Malbec, which need a more restrictive soil with better solar exposure. After three years of agro-climatic studies, Díaz came to the conclusion that a minimum of 3,400 hours-day above 10oC is required to achieve good technological and physiological ripeness. The result: spicier and floral reds with lighter structures and great natural acidity, though with riper tannins that are still restless.


According to Grant Phelps, winemaker of Casas del Bosque, Chile has been slow in determining the best spots for each variety, including Syrah. “In Casablanca, Syrah develops very attractive notes, but wineries have failed to use this to their advantage,” he says. Efforts have been geared towards Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, leaving aside a category that gains more and more adepts around the world, especially among the British public, who not only demand lower prices, but also fresh and delicate reds filled with character.

Syrah is without question the new star, though Malbec may have great results near the coast, where it can develop an entirely different personality than the typical notes of those Malbecs grown in Mendoza or in interior Chilean valleys. Probably not as structured a wine, but definitely an attractive alternative for a blend. This has motivated Casas del Bosque to use this winter season to plant some lots in well-protected areas of the valley as a way to escape the sea breeze and look for higher terrain with greater sun exposure.

Until a few years ago, Casablanca was still home to many hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Merlot. Today, most vines have been grafted or simply replaced by white varieties and Pinot Noir. “Just like in New Zealand –Phelps says– everyone wanted to grow Bordeaux-type wines but did not consider the environmental conditions. Luckily, the picture has changed and vintners are now using their common sense.”

It is indeed possible to produce some extraordinary Carmenères in coastal valleys –some have actually crafted true jewels without really meaning to– but such a feat is only possible every 5 or 7 years, under very exceptional conditions, making the business economically non-viable. “Producing consistent Carmenère near the ocean is impossible. That’s going a bit too far, totally against the characteristics of Casablanca,” says Felipe Díaz.

In the case of Cabernet Franc, however, Loma Larga has achieved, from the very beginning, a very natural balance in the vineyard, though not everywhere, just on north-facing slopes that offer good protection against coastal fog. Given the valley’s topography, morning fog gets stuck in certain areas, making red cultivar maturation very difficult. The aim is to identify well ventilated spots with good exposure to the afternoon sun.

“But to do that you need to conduct research and no one seems willing to do so. At a minimum, you will need 5 years of studies and trials to get the first results, and even the tiniest mistake can throw you back to square one,” says Loma Larga’s CEO.


Experience shows that our viticultural past is plagued with mistakes like planting in places that were not suitable for certain varieties. Merlot is perhaps the variety that has suffered the most, because it still has not found the right conditions to express its best attributes. In general, it grows in warm locations in heavily clayish soil. Its roots are thus physically unable to dig for water and nutrients, while its fruit is left at the mercy of the elements, which end up dehydrating it and burning its aromas.

Even in coastal valleys like Casablanca and Limarí, its adaptation has been anything but easy. Its vineyards were mostly established in the coldest locations with the heaviest soil. Today, Viña Tabalí has resurfaced the issue with a
new Merlot project that seeks to pull away from ravines with clayish soil and move to poorer, better drained soil. “Merlot needs to be stressed a little –not too much– and grown on slopes, with extra caution regarding streams and groundwater,” warns viticulturist Héctor Rojas.

In total, Tabalí has 3 new hectares of Cabernet Franc and 3 of Merlot. According to Rojas, the key question here is to establish our vineyards at just the right distance from the river bed. The math is really simple, as the case of Syrah shows. If the clay horizon does not exceed 20 cm, roots can penetrate it and reach the calcareous bottom to extend further. This is when results are extraordinary. But when the 

clay layer is thicker, then the quality is greatly affected. Phelps is not willing to give up this variety, either, so this winter he plans to grow in hectarage but pull out
of valley floors and frost-prone areas.

“Merlot performs poorly because it is grown in the wrong places. However, the problem is not replanting somewhere else. Actually, where in the world can you find good Merlots outside of Pomerol? Frankly, I have no interest in producing Merlot just for the sake of having it. Instead, I prefer to plant it in a prime location, in a sort of basin with little ocean breeze and slightly higher temperatures than the rest of the vineyard,” he concludes.


Viviana Navarrete, winemaker of Viña Leyda, believes the homonymous valley’s most interesting variety is pinot noir. No doubt about it. The cultivar has found a home here but, unlike Syrah, its bunches need to be protected in order to obtain a more floral and more acidic red-fruit-driven profile. With Syrah, the situation is different. It needs to be planted on slopes with greater sun exposure and use good clonal selection: plants that are less vigorous with a shorter maturation cycle.

“In Leyda, this variety plays at the limit, but it can have outstanding results, unlike Merlot and Cabernet Franc that fail to adapt to such an overwhelming ocean influence,” she affirms.

The search for cultivars suitable for coastal conditions is a long-term one and not many wineries are willing to take the plunge. For Samuel Barros, viticulturist of Santa Carolina and Casablanca, Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon stand no chance at all, since they require a greater temperature differential between day and night impossible to find in coastal areas.

But the potential exists for other varieties already found in Chile, like Malbec, Grenache or Carignan. “Under these conditions you can achieve wines on the more floral and feminine side, just like in some areas of California. There you find lots of ripe and cloying Zinfandel, but in Anderson Valley, a more northerly and coastal area, wines are noticeably fresher and easier to drink. They have a different aromatic profile and a structure that makes them particularly interesting,” he says.

For Grant phelps, the prospects for some cultivars are excellent. “We could introduce other interesting varieties, like Hungarian Kekfrancos or Italian Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. But some of them, especially the Italians, are reluctant to travel. They just don’t adapt to other latitudes. and, on the other hand, they are not easy to sell. For me, a safer bet is to focus on Pinot Noir and Syrah. I hope one day we can seriously work with clonal selections for cooler climates,” he states.

For Héctor Rojas, it is important to remember that in coastal projects yields tend to be 30 to 40% lower than further inland, so they should aim to specific niches where value is more important than volume. But it is not a question of picking up all your stuff and relocate to the seaside. You need to look for the right type of soil, slate or chalky, where vines can set their roots deeper, achieve good natural balance and develop an attractive personality.

“We are more open now, and we need to add value to the acidity you find in coastal or pre-Andean climates. I open the door to Merlot, Malbec or Carignan. We need to continue trying. We need to rethink what we believe good wine is and start all over again. Speeches on the media always sound nice, but how many are really able to walk the talk? How many have actually got the plants? Our wine industry is still barely proactive. I hope this search for fresher wines is not just a fad, but becomes a reality in a few years time,” he sentences.




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