Colchagua thinks BIG
New coastal and high-altitude plantations, the introduction of Mediterranean varieties and even a state-of-the-art communal microvinification center are just some of the steps taken to solidify a fresher and innovative image for the valley.
Colchagua’s recent history has been one of success and golden achievements. For more than a decade, the valley’s wines have reaped the most gold medals in domestic and international competitions. At the same time, its wine tourism infrastructure receives thousands of visitors each year, making Colchagua the valley that is best prepared to provide a comprehensive wine experience where wineries, hotels and restaurants are seamlessly integrated.
“Over the last 28 years things have changed radically, from a type of agriculture based on traditional products to an era of considerable technological sophistication and investment backed by strong tourist and social development. Our valley has become a leading benchmark of Chilean wine: its people, climate and potential for tourism make it the perfect candidate to become the country’s leading center for agritourism,” says Miguel González, president of Viña Estampa.
Colchagua’s wines have always reflected the valley’s warm climate and idiosyncrasy: a mixture of aristocracy, deeply rooted countryside traditions, abandoned train stations, solitary dirt roads, fresh dairy products, and yummy homemade goodies. In 2005, Wine Enthusiast Magazine distinguished it with the Wine Region of the Year Award, but since then a lot of water has gone under the bridge. Far from sleeping on its laurels, Colchagua has expanded towards the Andes as well as the ocean, establishing new viticultural areas, testing new cultivars, and innovating wine production.
“Back in 1999, wineries were just emerging from the so-called “Technological Revolution” that contributed to the big leap in wine quality. More recently, new plantations were established in more extreme terroirs –like the hillsides of Ninquén– in search of greater intensity and/or new organoleptic attributes. Today we are witnessing a “Terroir Revolution”, which has changed the valley completely from what it was in 1999,” says Santiago Margozzini, winemaker of MontGras.
His colleague at Caliterra, Rodrigo Zamorano, points out that “Colchagua is as wide an appellation as the diversity of its wines’ styles and personalities. Stereotypes are a thing of the past. Gone are the days when its Cabernet Sauvignons were a series of ‘copy/paste’ replicas. And the transition was anything but smooth. Some wineries retained their traditional style, while others branched off quietly in an effort to rediscover hitherto neglected styles and terroirs. Today you can find ripe, broad-shouldered wines with a touch of wood side by side with unpretentious yet fresher and fruitier wines that add a new personality to the valley. With time, a whole range of regions and wines different from Cabernet Sauvignon have appeared, like Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Mediterranean blends and, quite obviously, Carmenère.”
For Felipe Tosso, chief winemaker of Ventisquero, it is precisely the Mediterranean varieties that are most surprising. “I believe there is great potential for Garnacha, Syrah and Monastrell. And even though Malbec is not very abundant, it performs quite well. These varieties are very adaptable; they thrive in the sun and Colchagua is a very sunny valley indeed,” he adds.
In recent years, new and important appellations have mushroomed all across the valley, from Los Lingues to Paredones to Bucalemu. Their differences depend mainly on the topography, the soil structure and the mesoclimate.
According to Rodrigo Zamorano, these appellations are characterized by three soil types: granite soil typical of gentle slopes that is largely associated with the wines of Apalta and Pumanque; rocky soil typical of steeper pre-Andean hillsides with sedimentary-clay schist like Los Lingues, Caliterra (El Huilque) and Puente Negro; and the more classic and deeper clay-loam to sandy soil rich in organic matter of most terroirs in the lower central zone of Colchagua.
But perhaps the greatest innovation of all has been the push towards coastal, more saline areas within the appellation. By declaring itself as a 100% Colchagua-based winery, Viña Casa Silva ruled out the possibility of searching outside the valley for new quality attributes for its cool-climate red and white wines. And this commitment to Colchagua has been key. “It is for this reason that we started planting in Lolol, an area that is cooler than the central zone of Colchagua. Then we decided to look for an area with maritime influence closer to the Pacific Ocean that was suitable for quality grape production and we found Paredones, a terroir of great quality that has given us great satisfaction,” says Mario Pablo Silva, managing director of Casa Silva.
Estampa has followed suit, going beyond its facilities in Palmilla in search of cooler air and more interesting soil types. According to the winery’s winemaker Johana Pereira, the soil in Palmilla is deep, fertile and rich in clay. In contrast, the soil in Marchigüe is less deep, with variable clay content and a strong maritime wind. In Paredones, temperatures very rarely exceed 25°C during the ripening period and in some sectors the soil is poor in clay, with just some quartz. “These are ver y interesting differences that result in different wine styles: In Palmilla, wines are tasty and with pleasant tannins; Marchigüe produces great character and power, with strong tannins and vibrant acidity; and the wines from Paredones are very fresh and expressive, delicate and intense,” Ms Pereira explains.
Bisquertt is another winery with strong ties to Marchigüe. “My father was the first one to venture in this area in the year 2000,” says CEO Sebastián Bisquertt. We have had great success with red varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Syrah, Malbec and Merlot. “Cabernet has been a big surprise for me. Our advisor Alberto Antonini describes it as vibrant and powerful, with marked acidity and nice fruit expression. That is indeed a very good description, they are all very lively wines,” he adds.
The coastal zone of Pumanque stands out for its granitic and clayish soil of lower productive potential and balanced vigor. “The area is very apt for quality wines due to its moderate temperature accumulation of 1,690 Winkler degree days. Here the average highs in the hottest month are not extreme, reaching 28-29°C,” says Gerardo Leal, viticultural manager of Santa Rita. This zone has great potential for Cabernet Franc, Merlot and, to a lesser degree, Syrah.
For its part, Viña Luis Felipe Edwards has bet on the highlands of Colchagua, planting 130 hectares with 10 red varieties on the hills of Puquillay at an altitude of nearly 900 meters. “We are very pleasantly surprised by how well Tempranillo, Monastrell and Garnacha have adapted, quickly developing promising quality and character. Malbec has also adjusted wonderfully to the climate and soil of the hill. The freshness and power of these wines are simply spectacular,” says the chief winemaker Nicolás Bizzarri, adding that Colchagua Costa, especially Lolol and Pumanque, also produce quality grapes that create wines of great structure and freshness.
Mario Geisse, technical and enological director of Casa Silva, explains that the pre-Andean area of Los Lingues is particularly suitable for Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Each variety features intense colors and a nose full of fresh fruit. The wines are well-structured, with round, long and pleasant tannins. In Angostura (between the Andes and the central zone) and in Puente Negro (more towards the mountains) they have seen great results with Chardonnay and Merlot. More towards the coast, Lolol (18 km from the ocean) produces Syrah of intense red color, powerful fruity nose and fresh mouthfeel. “Viognier also thrives in the area. This white variety offers concentrated power and freshness, with salient notes of apricot and flowers. Further still, Paredones (just 8 km from the sea) produces Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Pinot Noir of fantastic acidity and high minerality due to the presence of quartz in the soil,” he points out.
For the winemaker of MontGras, the wines from the coastal vine- yard in Pumanque are brimming with red fruit, spices, freshness and juiciness. In contrast, those from the San José vineyard in Palmilla feature black fruit, great texture and roundness, while those from the Ninquén hill are more powerful, broad-shouldered and elegant. “They have a wilder side,” he concludes.
Colchagua not only has expanded its borders; it also has experimented with new and often original viticultural and enological proposals. And Viña Montes has led the pack. According to winemaker and founder Aurelio Montes, they were pioneers in planting Syrah on its slopes; developing icon projects like Montes Alpha M and Montes Folly; and, in recent years, integrating sustainable water management into their philosophy, thus leading to significant savings and grape quality improvement.
“There is no denying that rainfall has decreased dramatically over the last few years, and there are no signs that this trend is going to change. Therefore, I find it a bit risky to suddenly stop irrigating our grapevines. Grapevines are noble creatures, but that does not mean we should push them to the limit. So we decided to embrace sustainable dry farming. We start the season thinking that we will be able to cut irrigation altogether, but if we notice that precipitation is insufficient and that the plants are at risk of dying, then we irrigate. We are experimenting with zero irrigation in the areas dedicated to our icon wine Taita. But the vines have felt the blow, reducing production substantially and developing very few leaves during the entire season. On the other hand, we have reduced irrigation in our Alpha line by as much as 60% compared to what we used to do. The result is a big drop in yield but an outstanding increase in quality,” he explains.
Another of Montes’s innovations is the implementation of free or open canopy training, which means getting the light to reach clusters indirectly and gently, thus preventing the sunburns that usually result from training vines using a VSP system. “This technique has been successful, mainly because the fruit ripens more uniformly and without the risk of sunstroke. Ventilation has also improved, and with it grape health. Indirect light promotes gradual, slow maturation, allowing the plant to successfully com- bine sugar, acidity and phenolic ripeness. All this is conducive to better fruit expression and reduced vegetal characters in the grape,” he explains.
Ventisquero is also experimenting with a thinner VSP system as a way to promote uniform light throughout the vine and ensure homogeneous cluster ripening, says Felipe Tosso. Vineyard managers monitor moisture indicators to determine the right amount of irrigation required depending on the phenological stage, he adds.
And talking about innovations, Casa Silva not only stands out for being a pioneer in unexplored coastal areas like Lolol and Paredones. In the pre-Andean area of Los Lingues it developed the successful Microterroir project, which sought to assign a new quality status to the distinctively Chilean variety. “At the beginning it scouted for the best locations to produce Carmenère but later it led to the discovery of the first two clones of this cultivar using the DNA method,” explains Mario Pablo Silva.
But the greatest efforts of Colchagua-based wineries are in improving vineyard management, looking for fresher and more elegant fruit expression. “We have worked in cooler areas with lower yields to ensure better overall plant balance, and at enological level we have reduced the use of wood in order not to mask wine fruit and terroir expression. Also, we have conducted micro-oxygenation and cold maceration operations to enhance the fruitiness of our wines,” says Alberto Siegel, sales director of Viña Siegel.
In this sense, Rodrigo Zamorano explains that they have spent the last 4 or 5 years analyzing the different soil types of Caliterra, which constitute a differentiating factor among the various micro-terroirs of the valley. In addition, since 2012 they are using a different approach to ripeness, trying to highlight fresh- ness and varietal fruitiness instead of focusing their hopes on achieving phenological ripeness. They have also reduced extraction levels during fermentation as a way to highlight elegance over power. “Lastly, we have modified our aging procedures by reducing the percentage of first-use barrels, eliminating American oak, extending pre-blending aging periods, aging some wines after the blend has been completed, and replacing the classic 225-liter barrels with larger barrels and casks,” he points out.
“Less is more”, adds Johana Pereira, while Patricio Celedón, winemaker of Viu Manent, explains their approach to vinification is as natural as can be, with very little intervention and trying to bring out the best attributes of each vineyard. “That is why in recent years we have cut down on first-use wood. We are also utilizing concrete eggs and 3,000 and 5,000-liter wood casks to avoid masking the wine with overpowering wood notes. We still look for greater complexity but now we strive to respect wine identity,” he points out.
At Bisquertt, the bet is also on wood casks and concrete tanks. “Five or six years ago, we used to buy 300 barrels each year. Now we buy none,” says the winery’s CEO. Finally, in the vineyard the emphasis is on vineyard balance. Wineries have gone to great lengths to detoxify the soil and eliminate the use of chemicals.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
In recent years, and perhaps unlike all other valleys, Colchagua-based producers have joined their efforts to boost their capacities and strengths. “Today there is greater specialization, and wineries are focusing on that: planting and producing in special places because we are convinced the valley possesses terroirs that are unique to produce some great wines,” says Mario Pablo Silva.
Along this line, Santiago Margozzini adds “to enhance and renew the image of Colchagua we need to singularize ourselves. Today, the valley produces all traditional red varieties very effectively, but someone might argue that there is nothing truly extraordinary to it. I believe we should become experts in those varieties that we know will produce wines with the charm of our zone, wines that cannot be replicated anywhere else.”
“Maybe we should increase the diversity of our vineyards and improve the material used,” says Alberto Siegel. “Clearly, Colchagua is widely recognized by wine writers and sommeliers. The great challenge is at consumer level. We are still working to build a strong country image and reinforce the Chile appellation. We need to double our efforts, deepen our knowledge of Colchagua and showcase it in all its glory, with its gorgeous wines, traditions, landscapes and culture. I am absolutely convinced that Colchagua has all it takes to be recognized as an exceptional appellation within our gifted country,” says Johana Pereira.
For his part, Patricio Celedón believes the valley’s image can only be enhanced by promoting tourism; improving hotel, restaurant and winery infrastructure; and adding new attractions to increase the number of visitors. It is also important to advertise the valley internationally. “We should singularize our wine production, concentrating on one or more varieties that really represent the valley or have interesting potential, like Garnacha,” he says.
For Rodrigo Zamorano, the greatest danger is that Colchagua-based producers cease to invest in the valley to look for new horizons and more fashionable locations elsewhere. He says the image of Chilean wine as something “classic” or even “boring” is largely associated to Colchagua’s traditional production. “That is why we are working quietly. Some wineries and projects believe in the potential of terroir and therefore are developing, reconverting and looking for a more authentic identity for this beautiful valley,” he points out.
For Aurelio Montes, Colchagua is present in the memory of international consumers, but when one tries to be more specific, the memory begins to blur. The recipe to boost the valley’s image and remain in the major leagues is to focus on quality. “Our human quality as a driver of the industry is simply phenomenal. We show great respect for our land and its traditions, and we must preserve that. We have a large diversity of climates and geological features that result in a great mix of options, even for the same variety. . . A Carmenère from Los Lingues is as good as one from Marchigüe, yet they can be totally different…,” he sentences.
“So, what are we lacking?” he wonders. “We lack what I have always advocated: greater freedom in all aspects of production. Freedom to be more creative and daring… Freedom to think big!”
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