It’s Party Time for Pinot Noir!
Everything is ready for a big party: the hosts, the guests, the balloons and the confetti, the thrill, the anxiety and the will to have the greatest party ever. Yet, are the wines ready? Chile is working tirelessly on this variety that certainly doesn’t want to be left out of the celebration.
It’s one of my favorIte varieties because it’s whimsical, difficult, sometimes impossible. Pretty much like my wife. No matter how much I pamper her, she’s never satisfied. Pinot noir is an ongoing challenge. It may be acidic and indolent, like Bukowski. Or sweet and cloying like Jane Austin. Yet, when she feel at ease, when she finds her place in the world, it can touch the finest fibers, as if it were playing the most moving and delicate melody, one that goes beyond the notes in a wine.
When Pablo Morandé first introduced this cultivar in Casablanca, many would crack an ironic grin. “He’ll grow rich,” they’d say sarcastically. They didn’t understand what was the edge of planting a variety so meager in yields, so whimsical in the field and troublesome in the cellar. Most of all, it was a variety with shallow sales in world markets, with the exception, of course of the great and unmatchable Burgundy wines.
Yet, there was a fiesta.
I don’t know if it was triggered by Alexander Payne’s film “Sideways”, or by the natural market cycles. Perhaps both, but Pinot noir moved in the spotlight. Too bad for Pinot noir. A good thing for the millions of consumers who could have access to good wines at affordable prices. As if by magic, the market was flooded by Oregon, Margaret River, Tasmania, Malborough, Otago, and Pfalz versions, to name a few. And Chile is did not lag behind. The area under vine between the border of the Atacama Desert and the Bío-Bío region and even farther south features as many as 1,500 hectares. There, Pinot noirs strive and sometimes succeed in finding an appealing although somehow blurry personality.
THE NORTHERN GATEWAY
The advent of viticulture in the North of Chile only occurred by the late 1990s. In the case of Pinot noir, its dawn is even more recent. These wines still haven’t reached
the success Chardonnay or Syrah have for a number of reasons: because the vineyards were planted in warmer lots with deeper soils but mostly due to the quality of the vegetative material. Only a few years ago the Pinot noir available in Chile was the one known as the Valdivieso clone, used as a base for sparklers. Most of those selections put the vigneron’s talent to the test with their recurrent millerandage problems, while they also cause wines to have an animal side that blurs aromas.
Yet, not long ago, northern wineries and particularly those in the Limarí valley introduced clones free of viruses that have adapted dramatically well to the valley’s edaphic and climatic conditions. For Héctor Rojas, vintner at Viña Tabalí, this will cause a major change in wine quality. For instance, the Pinot noir in the Fray Jorge area –just 12 km far from the ocean– is unveiling great potential. The more moderate highest temperatures and the complexity granted by those ancient soils with traces of chalk deposits promise fuller and more balanced wines in terms of aromas, with a deeper mouthfeel.
The last word is yet to be said in Limarí and why not, also in Elqui. Although we do find fruity wines with an enormous varietal character in the market, the best is yet to come.
THE CRIB OF THE VARIETY
The saga started in Casablanca. Here, Pinot noir looks content, so much that it has grown into a true signature variety along with Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay. Despite the dramatic differences in temperature observed in Alto and Bajo Casablanca, you can certainly start talking about a distinct valley style. Wines with deep red fruit notes, like raspberry and strawberry, herbal tones and in some cases mild earthy or fungi hints. As compared to wines from Maipo, Colchagua, or Curicó, they are more intense in the nose, with a fresher and deeper mouthfeel.
In the San Antonio valley, particularly in Leyda, Pinot noir is gradually measuring up to the great Sauvignon blancs of this region. Owing to the direct influence of the ocean, which faces no natural barriers to reach the vineyards, wines feature increased freshness and persistence in the mouth and, depending on the soils where vines grow, they develop an elegant mineral touch that complements the crunchy red fruit component.
Farther north, in what we now call Aconcagua Costa (or Coastal Aconcagua), we find some hefty bets. This is a new, barely tapped valley that boasts great potential. “Our goal is to make wines that are fresher and more vibrant than those of Casablanca. our lots in Chilhué and Manzanar are rather cold, and we have fog quite often, which protects the vineyards from the sun. I believe that, as vines will grow older, we’ll be able to make very interesting wines, lower in alcohol, with greater aging potential,” says Francisco Baettig, winemaker at Errázuriz.
Although the valleys in the central region are not renowned for consistency among its Pinot noirs, it’s still very early to cross them out from the guest list for the big party. Like Viña Valdivieso’s winemaker Brett Jackson has mentioned, there are hundreds of places waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, most wineries have focused on the Central Valley or between mountain ranges, where temperatures are too high for a delicate cultivar like Pinot noir to show its best attributes. But, just a few kilometers to the West, things are dramatically different. A Pinot noir from the
coast of Cauquenes proved it. Although its notes feature black fruit rather than red, and greater aromatic intensity and ripeness, this wine keeps some acidity that boosts its character and persistence.
Other good representatives of the potential in this area come from vineyards planted in Itata, Bío-Bío or even farther South. Interestingly, this area used to be dominated by more rustic cultivars, like Italia, País or Torontel. Here, provided that vineyards are not planted in excessively deep soils, wines swagger tons of fresh fruit, mineral character and exuberant acidity.
Perhaps due to the so-called climatic change, Chilean winegrowing can stretch even farther south, where average temperatures are lower. It remains, however, a rather virgin territory. Thus, the slate slopes of the Coastal mountain range are likely render more than one unexpected treasure. It’s just a matter of finding them.
LOOKING FOR AN IDENTITY
Although the local Pinot noir has successfully penetrated the market, bottles below USD 8.00 and boasting simplicity and consistency are hard to find. Much is yet to be done before joining the major leagues. The dominant international style is overwhelming, even confusing sometimes. Given the global boom of Pinot noir, demand greatly exceeded supply. Some producers overdid their yields per hectare, and the result was diluted wines lacking personality. Others, emulating the style of the full-bodied Californian wines, concealed shortcomings with excessive use of wood. The problem was that anything labeled as Pinot noir would sell like hotcakes.
Nowadays and for the sake of Pinot noir, things have changed and the consumers who fell in love with this variety while watching Sideways are becoming increasingly demanding. Accordingly, over the past years Chilean wineries have devoted to renewing their clonal material and searching for the most suitable spots for this variety. Today, Pinot noir is ‘in the making’ and the forthcoming years
Will be key to find out if our Pinots are anywhere close to their Burgundy cousins, and to ascertain the true identity of Chilean Pinot noirs.
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