Limarí Style: The Best is Yet to Come
With its internationally acclaimed wines, the valley has aroused the interest of large investors. However, it should be remembered that it is just taking its first winemaking steps. The tasks of finding the right place for each variety and fine tuning with the right vineyard management has only just started. Although some of its wines have left critics dumbstruck, Limarí still holds several aces up its sleeve.
Limarí is a valley of deep paradoxes. The Molle culture –one of the continent’s richest and most singular– extended its dominion from the Andes to the seashores of the Near North of our country for over 400 years. Still, little do we know about it. Only the surrealistic shapes of its petroglyphs and pictographs carved on rocks, and the pottery discovered in some funerary places throw some light on their existence, once again proving that Chile is a country one never ceases to discover.
The valley that pioneered Chilean viticulture also fertilizes its crops with a high dose of mysticism. Books state that Francisco de Aguirre, one of the men who accompanied conquistador Pedro de Valdivia in his conquest of the end of the world, planted the first vines in San Francisco de la Selva –today Copiapó– and La Serena towards the mid-16th century. Oddly enough, another 400 years had to pass before we could begin talking about the wines of Limarí.
While the Diaguita people, the successors of the Molles, were violently absorbed by the Incas and later by the Spaniards, the wine grapes fled the valley and regrouped in the central portion of the country. It was around the two main colonial cities, Santiago and Concepción, that the grapes from Spain began tracing the limits of the land owners’ properties and writing Chile’s wine tradition with red ink.
Vintners traditionally felt the climatic conditions of this northern valley were only suitable for table grapes and those destined to the production of Pisco, so plantation of the first fine varieties did not begin until the early 1990s. And again, a new paradox. Given that the valley is situated at 30º 29’ S, that is, along the green limit of the Atacama Desert, another mistake was made: today, red cultivars largely outnumber their white brethren, with Cabernet Sauvignon occupying more than 60% of the nearly 1,400 hectares under vine. Nevertheless, the wines produced along the coastal stretch –whose temperatures are incidentally very similar to those of Casablanca– have shone in international competitions and wine writers’ columns.
Just like the mysterious Molle cup stones –holes carved in stones that may have served the purpose of mixing food, dyes or even hallucinogens used in their magical rituals– that are still the subject of debate among archeologists, the wines from Limarí still represent a great enigma. Not in terms of quality, of course, but because of the unsuspected potential of a viticulture only recently rediscovered that has taken its first steps.
A MINERAL CHARM
Unlike the other cultures that succeeded them in the valley, the Molles sported a slender stone jewel called tembetá pierced under the corners of their mouths. This distinctive element, which clearly dwarfs today’s piercing fad, somehow reflected the character of a civilization that not only farmed corn, beans and pumpkins, but also knew seafood’s aphrodisiac properties and the ever more dynamic cult of pleasure.
Although they are believed to have built irrigation canals for their crops, the Molles were a nomadic people. The nearly 100 kilometers that separate the Andes from the Pacific Ocean were frequently traveled by the Indians and their herds of camelids. The Valle del Encanto, a stunning ravine that leads to the sea, constitutes a veritable pre-Columbian open pit art gallery that has served as inspiration for award-winning Viña Tabali’s corporate image.
The inclusion of a human figure with an extravagant hairdo –or perhaps a wig or a ceremonial hat– has publicized Tabalí’s label and the ancestral power of its Reserva Especial Chardonnay and Reserva Syrah. Both wines have donned medals around their necks and ended up convincing initially skeptic critics about Limarí’s fine winemaking aptitude.
The wines showcase a profoundly mineral character and a fruit and juiciness that accompany the drinking experience from beginning to end, as they slide along the palate like a water source fighting against the dryness of a vegetation dominated by cacti and xerophyte species. With floral and spicy notes resembling a green pepper rain shower, both wines achieve a perfect balance between ripeness, freshness, extroversion and elegance. A balance that British experts celebrate and reward; moreover, it has also captivated British consumers with its friendliness and expressive finesse.
Viña Tabalí’s 150 hectares were planted in 1993 in the valley’s coolest zone, some 20 km from the ocean. Despite the fact that it is a cool valley, 125 hectares are under red cultivars like Cabernet Sauvignon (57.8%). For this reason, the winery has implemented a project that will add another 30 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, alongside reds Syrah, Petit Verdot and Carignan. These last two varieties will enrich the premium blend of its Reserva Especial.
The construction of a spectacular 1 million liter bodega across a ravine and facing the briny breeze that cools its vats has enabled the boutique winery jointly owned by local mogul Guillermo Luksic and San Pedro to take the pulse of its vineyards, letting them range between citrus fruits, wheat fields and eucalyptuses. Thanks to the introduction of clonal material and rootstock in the new plantations and an ever-pickier vineyard management, Tabalí has permeated the ancestral winemaking tradition of the Limarí Valley with an overwhelming freshness.
According to the winery’s winemaker, Yanira Maldonado, the wines owe much of their character to the marine influence and the poor soils, which impart the distinctive seal that is common to all the varieties. The alluvial soil, the minimal amount of nutrients and the mere 100 yearly millimeters of rainfall make hi-tech irrigation an essential tool to allow the roots to dig deeper in their search for mineral treasures. In other words, the irrigation shut off valve becomes a sort of small deity that rules the development of the vineyards.
The moderate temperatures and the virtual absence of rains during the harvest period stand as proof of the valley’s ideal conditions for growing late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. However, these wines are still second to the extraordinary Chardonnays and Syrahs. Even Merlot, which much like its sister Syrah is not afraid of cool climates, still lacks in nerve and desired structure. Consequently, the 2003 Reserva Especial blend –whose proportions for the 2002 vintage were 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Syrah and 25% Merlot– was changed to include a larger percentage of Syrah at the expense of Merlot.
But still, we should not forget that in a magical valley like Limarí, where the geometrical remains of the pre-Columbian cultures merge with the modern lines of the bodega designed by Samuel Claro, reality and theory are in constant conflict. And although the last word has not been said yet –and perhaps never will–, the winery can still surprise us with a promising Pinot Noir still waiting for the right moment to make its debut.
“In the valley, there are still a number of issues that remain unresolved,” explains Casa Tamaya’s technical director Carlos Andrade. With 120 hectares under vine –75% of them planted in 1997 and the rest two years later–, the winemaker is faced with a true experimentation field. The vineyards straddle across two large adjoining patches planted to the same varieties, but despite being close neighbors, their soil is very different. While the north patch is sandy rocky, the south patch has a greater percentage of clay. This enables him to determine the best conditions for each cultivar and play in the cellar with the juice from each sector.
Located in the area called Quebrada Seca, just north of Tabalí but at the same distance from the sea, Casa Tamaya receives the influence of the Pacific in all its glory, which forces him to correct or adjust vineyard management to the prevailing cold conditions. Although his first wines surprised by the potency of their fruit and delicious minerality, which crafted an interesting and innovative line of varietal blends, Mr Andrade is now determined to get the maximum potential from the grapes, with special emphasis on the tannins of his reds.
Not only have the vines had to withstand springs and summers when the winds from the sea and the mountains have colluded to make the vines shiver, he explains, but also the deeply rooted ideas of Pisco and table grape producers who are used to large yields. “The premise was to produce kilograms, and we are still in the process of changing that,” he states.
For this winter, Mr Andrade is planning the plantation of 50 new hectares, opening up the angle of those rows with northerly exposure to capture more afternoon light. In more granitic soil and with more rigorous vineyard management techniques that debuted last year and are already apparent in the 2005 vintage, Casa Tamaya’s technical director hopes to go one further step up the quality ladder. In fact, he is already savoring his next premium line.
Although such varieties as Chardonnay and Viognier have proved their potential in the nose and in the mouth, the winery still has a couple of surprises hidden up its sleeve. Always maintaining a fresh, natural style, where the briny breath of the Pacific can be clearly appreciated, Sauvignon Blanc insinuates a deeper mouthfeel, while Merlot seems increasingly at ease, attacking since its time in the vat with a powerful combination of fruits and spices. With an average of 6,500 kg/ha for its base lines and 4,000 kg/ha for its reserve and premium lines, Casa Tamaya is patiently waiting for its reds to reach maturity, gain in body and smooth out any possible sharp edges.
RESPECT FOR THE TERROIR
Walking in the footsteps of the pioneers of Limarí, eight growers who used to sell their fruit to Francisco de Aguirre decided to become independent and establish their own winery in 2002. Ocho Tierras’ (Eight Lands) original plan was to build a 3 million liter bodega, but the plan was changed abruptly. Two of the founders dropped out and then the bodega opted for focusing on small great productions, bottling the fruit and selling cases for US$ 80 and US$ 150.
According to General Manager Rodrigo Rojas, construction of a gravitational flow winery is set to begin in September in a small ravine of Limarí. “The 200,000 liter cellaring facility is poised to be an eye-catcher. The ethnic style will follow the landscape lines; from afar, it will look like vines tended on a hillside,” he announces.
The two wines currently available in the market –in some of the area’s restaurants but also in Brazil and some European countries– were made with the 2002 and 2003 vintages of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon, and are marketed under the Pasaq Halpa label. Vinified at Viña Pérez Cruz and Vitis Elqui, both varieties stand out for their ripe fruit, medium body and franc yet gentle tannins. In fact, the vineyards of Ocho Tierras extend further up the valley, where the sea loses much of its influence and the sun becomes the only ruler.
Mendozan winemaker Rolando Lazzarotti arrived in the valley to vinify the Passito late harvest fruit owned by the Farr family. He was captivated by the valley’s magic, and very specially its amorous relationship with Carmenère. “The roasted red peppers are really fantastic,” he exclaims.
Unlike Cerrillos de Tamaya’s Cabernet Sauvignon vines, Carmenère is planted in an intermediate area called Campo Lindo, where the luminosity quite successfully manages to rid it of its traditional green notes. Having faced the initial confusion that initially dominated the valley head on, today things are crystal clear for him: the winery will focus on achieving consistency with a new line composed of Chardonnay, Syrah, Carmenère, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and later make it to the top with a premium coupage or a higher-end red wine.
Mr Lazzarotti affirms that vintners must be on a permanent look out to discover new and magical spots along the valley, hardly hiding his desire to climb the Andes like his fellow Argentine growers of Tizac and San Pedro de Yacachulla, who planted above the 3,000-meter line.
In the meantime, he manages lots that lie against the cordilleran foothills of Santa Catalina, where he expects the wider temperature oscillations to impart greater structure to his tended Syrah, and in Talhuén, 10 km south of Ovalle, where he has placed his bet on the future of Carmenère. “We have gotten used to reds that are both round and strong. That is why I am looking for a fatter wine that can pair well with young goat and other typical local dishes,” he explains, as he demonstrates an amazing loyalty to Limarí and its terroir, in the widest of senses.
THE SEARCH FOR DIFFERENTIATION
Following the road to Punitaqui –a compound name formed by the Quechua words puna (cold height) and thaqui (road)– the temperature is 5 degrees centigrade higher than in the rest of the valley. Just before reaching the town and between two hills that form a transversal valley lies organic winery Agua Tierra. US-born proprietor Jim Pryor owns a total of 35 hectares, 32 of which are used for winemaking purposes.
Although Mr Pryor is currently looking for investors to build a gravitational flow bodega, he has already bottled 3,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenère, which he vinified at Falernia’s cellars in the Elqui Valley. His tendone-trained vines, and a few experimentally trained in VSP, have drawn the interest of a major Casablanca winery that has bought some of his grapes to enrich its red blends.
Agua Tierra’s bet of combining winemaking with tourism has infused visitors with its organic philosophy, as herds of sheep –goats are way too harmful– roam the interrows, eating weeds and fertilizing the soil.
This same philosophy is applied at Viña Soler. Practically forming a row with the last house of Punitaqui, where summer temperatures can even exceed 40ºC, the 20 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon provide shade for the visitors and produce two lines of wine currently exported to Canada: Viña Soler and Sol y Luna.
According to General Manager Luis Soler, the winery traditionally sold grapes –“which is not bad”, he hastens to say– but today it wants to give the business a twist. Thanks to the Fontec project “Biodynamic wine rich in polyphenols”, they have embarked on a one-way conversion road in hopes to bring more value to a project that covers three new hectares trained in VSP on the hillside, as a way to add more complexity to its Cabernet Sauvignon.
The winery still buys a large percentage of its fruit from independent producers, but the idea in the future is to bottle only those lots in biodynamic transition. Nevertheless, Limarí seems to never run out of surprises. “Our plans are to give up the bulk production and concentrate on the VSP-trained biodynamic grove with yields between 6,000 and 8,000 kg/ha. When I first arrived, I did not have much faith in the tendones for their tendency towards large volumes, but some of the vats have yielded better results than the VSP wines,” says winemaker Fernando Espina.
According to him, the marine influence in Punitaqui is close to nil, so it becomes necessary to conduct meticulous canopy management to keep alcohol low. Unlike Maipo, where thermometers can reach similar readings, in this area temperatures do not drop during the harvest season, when it is possible to pick between March 20 and April 13 with ripeness parameters between 24º and 26º Brix.
Mr Espina does not have great hopes for the area’s Carmenère. “It is very complicated to eliminate those green notes,” he states; instead, he makes his bet on extraordinary Syrahs and some blends. “As in Apalta, our soils are organically very poor. In my opinion, the potential here for this variety is unlimited. Unfortunately, here in Limarí you irrigate when you can, not when you want to. Given the quotas allocated by the interconnected system of reservoir La Paloma, sometimes there’s a lot of water for everyone, but sometimes you need to irrigate like mad and all you can do is light a few candles and pray.”
Like Gen. McArthur to the Japanese, Viña Francisco de Aguirre threatens to be back. According to the winery’s chief of production, Jaime Camposano, selling their assets to Concha y Toro only translated into a change of domicile that will enable them to reorganize their forces and re-focus on this market. “We sold our cellars, the vineyards and the brands, but we retained all the contracts with third parties. We downsized only to explode later,” he affirms.
Having relocated to the bodega in La Chimba, which used to crush 50 million kilograms mostly destined to the tetra lines, the winery has 660 hectares with long-term contracts. In an area extending from the foothills of El Pachón in the Cordillera to El Romero, just 20 km from the sea, these hectares allow the winery to play with the different topographical and atmospheric conditions in order to take the maximum advantage of Limarí’s competitive edge.
By controlling plant vigor through drip irrigation and canopy management, which virtually strips the plant of its leaves three weeks before harvest, the new Francisco de Aguirre is working on three lines it expects to launch in March 2006 to shake the dust off its image: a fine varietal line, a wood-treated varietal plus line and a reserve line.
Mr Camposano was born in Ovalle, an area he has never left that now he knows like the palm of his hand. He is convinced there is no other valley with the conditions to grow practically the entire spectrum of wine varieties: “In 20 years, I have only seen two frost episodes, and only in some areas of the valley.” The soil is practically virgin, and despite the fact that the scarce organic matter results in some microbiological disorders, it is ideal for growing wine grapes.
The winemaker affirms the combination of bright skies, poor soil, little rain and the absence of spring frosts are all conditions still under exploited today. Unlike Maipo, temperature oscillations in the valley are less marked; therefore Limarí wineries can highlight the fruity intensity of their wines and the balance that confers their natural acidity. “We look for lighter, perhaps more balanced, wines. But, who knows, maybe in higher sectors like Río Hurtado we will produce much fatter and concentrated wines. The valley still hasn’t shown its true potential,” he says.
The truth is that the special touch of Limarí wines does not reside in a heavy structure. Instead, they have medium yet firm backbones, like a camelid that travels hundreds of kilometers from the cordillera to the ocean. If worked well, the vineyards produce vines packed with fruit, heaps of fresh fruit, spices and flowers, and an elegance that seems to have come down to us from ancestral times.
With mineral and crisp whites along the coastal stretch and expressive reds with good pH-acidity ratio near the cordillera, the valley is well on the road to consolidation. Although there’s still a lot to be done, like finding the pulse of Cabernet Sauvignon, or vinifying a Merlot that finally wakes the variety from its dormancy, nothing in the valley seems definitive. Under the pristine skies, where constellations magically match the geometrical shapes of the Molle cup stones, the wines from Limarí still hide numerous surprises.
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