Southernmost Wines: The One and Only New World
It’s no longer a crazy venture. Some of these wines are already in the market and boast exceptional depth, elegance and a pristine character. The wines from the far south are today both a reality and a valuable and refreshing signature for the traditional Chilean wine offer.
Nothing is a no-can-do for Chilean viticulture. Just a few decades ago, growing vines in coastal areas or in the far south of Chile was seen as an outrageous and pointless endeavor, or at least an unreasonable venture that today has turned into close to a necessity. Global warming and the quest for wines with increasing fineness and rounder mouthfeel have encouraged winegrowers to stretch the traditional wine map as far as unimaginable places.
Pioneers are no longer regarded as eccentric or pure nutcases, as it happened to Pablo Morandé in Casablanca or María Luz Marín in Lo Abarca. Many wineries have ventured in regions with more extreme agroclimatic conditions in an attempt to flee that inescapable sun that produces sweet fruit, yet also, a lack of character and balance between sugar and acidity.
Fresh fruit is today a must among vintners, as it not only leaves behind those dull and standard jam notes so characteristic among most Australian Shiraz and Chilean Merlot, but it also boosts the unique characteristics of a particular terroir. Put differently, fresh fruit allows vignerons to stand out in the overpopulated international markets.
Felipe de Solminihac, a winemaker and partner at Viña Aquitania, was the first one to accept this challenge when in 1995 he planted his first 5 hectares of Chardonnay in Traiguén, Designation of Origin Valle de Malleco, 650 km South of Santiago, Latitude 38.25o South. Amid wheat fields and with the volcanic ranges of the Andes as a backdrop, this vineyard grew into a spot of green, a rarity and an attraction for the locals, so used to the unexciting landscape of wheat fields favored by Van Gogh. Sol de Sol, its precious wine, turned into one of the best –if not THE best– Chardonnay in Chile.
“Harvest time is a celebration for us. Kids don’t go to school, but spend their days harvesting those golden, sweet grapes,” the winemaker explains.
De Solminihac is rather indifferent to the fateful forecast related to climate change. He assures that it’s nothing but a cyclical phenomenon and that harvests are not consistent year after year. He obeys a different calling. He wanted to find a place where he could produce a more elegant, excelling wine. And he did. An intense Chardonnay, ripe on the nose, with firm and well- integrated acidity that boasts depth, nerve and life.
WHERE THE COWS GRAZE
In 2000, the entrepreneur Luis Momberg dared to go even farther south and he had a little over 2 hectares planted in Quilacahuín, district of Osorno, close to river Rahue, some 35 km from the seaside. Facing a plunge of milk prices, his business needed to be rethought, so he switched from cows to vines. Trained using VSP techniques and planted on clayish soil, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Merlot cultivars made latitude 40o South their home.
These trial wines were made at the Cauquenes Experimental Center of Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (Institute for Agricultural and Livestock Research – INIA) by the renowned winemaker and researcher Juan Pedro Sotomayor. I had the chance to taste them a few years ago and I recall very interesting notes, a few rustic edges, bursting and captivating acidity. “Winemaking problems aside –musts were fermented in plastic sanitary drums–, the Sauvignon Gris showed great character and round mouthfeel.
Based on the number of hectares under vine and the particular characteristics of its terroir, it would be interesting to explore what kind of niches are available for this variety. Pinot Noir, in turn, is a pleasant wine on the palate and is aimed at improving. It may be a raw diamond, but there is much work ahead: To look for the right moment to harvest so that fresh fruit is favored, greater extraction of its skins and the perfect freshness and creaminess,” I wrote at that time.
The Momberg project failed, mostly due to financing problems. “I’m in the cattle and milk business. This is far from being my thing,” he would say, showing his good sense of humor. Only two years later, however, Christian Sotomayor, Viña Valdivieso’s export director for Asia, and his cousin, agricultural engineer Alejandro Herbach, partnered in another vineyard close by. This time, vines were planted in the rolling slopes of Los Castaños estate, on the banks of river Pilmaiquén. One more time, the goal was turning milk into wine to make land more profitable.
“Sir, grapes look a bit dark to me, you know?” warned one of the vineyard workers in 2006. “Well, what the heck! Just put the black berries in the garbage,” Sotomayor replied. “But, sir, they are all black!” Powdery mildew was brutal and devastated that first production. To make matter worse, the price of milk –as if it were mocking those pioneers– was hitting record high prices.
This first stage of the project consisted of 1.4 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and even a few stakes of Pinot Meunier. “It’s been very hard to work out this project, basically because of a lack of skilled labor. People have to be explained that vines equal mother cows and clusters equal calves,” explains with a great sense of humor Alfredo Pizarro, agricultural manager of Viña Valdivieso and partner of Sotomayor, who oversees vineyard management.
Plants, however, have managed to thrive and the outcome is on the table: a Blanc de Blancs made according to the traditional process that will certainly awe wine lovers with its strength and deep mouthfeel. The project keeps adding hectares, so, sit back and wait, still wines are about to come. According to Sotomayor, their goal is to follow the steps of New Zealand, particularly with Sauvignon Blanc, but to give shape to unique character and identity.
Over 1,000 km South of Santiago, 6 km far from Ancud, and only 300 meters from the ocean, we find the 500 hectares of Fundo Lechagua, to date the southernmost frontier of Chilean viticulture (Latitude 41o South). Juan Ignacio Fogliatti chose the slopes of the Chiloé island to start an agritourism project to produce exotic meats, blueberries and organic wines, mostly whites.
Lechagua is 80% native woods filled with wild boars, deer, ducks, pheasants and woodpeckers. The winegrowing project currently consists of one thousand vines and the medium-term plan is to expand the area under vine and produce 40K bottles of Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc.
“Having a winery in Chiloé is an incredible differentiation factor,” says the young agricultural engineer, explaining that his project is still at a learning stage but with a specific focus: aiming at a niche of collectors and buyers who are looking for unique wines with a strong sense of origin.
That is precisely the main goal for these pioneers of winegrowing in the far South. For José Ignacio Maturana, winemaker of Casa Silva, the project of the Colchagua- based winery in Futrono, on the shore of the scenic lake Ranco, is a true jewel. A total of 6 hectares of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir were planted on those smooth slopes in 2007.
if it works out –and they bet it will– the next step in their plan is to build a small winery and develop an ecotourism project in that paradisiacal region. Grapes will be vinified for the first time in 2009-2010 but they already show appealing potential. The vineyard, located on the shore closest to the andes, grows under rather extreme conditions; hence, the resulting wines will be unique.
“We can see that ripening this year is very late. It’s still a mystery. We’re learning…,” the winemaker says.
On average, highest temperatures in January, usually the hottest month, do not exceed 20oC, so it’s a risky move. Yet, if good ripeness indices are attained, wines will certainly be one-of-a-kind: Vibrant and looooong in the mouth.
A UNIVERSE OF ITS OWN
There’s more. William Fèvre also has his own project in the far South, in the cold and windy Perquenco, Malleco Valley, some 50 km far from Traiguén. His 11 hectares could be a true spearhead for this winery that seemed anchored in the Maipo Valley. The local know-how already exists. There’s only some fine- tuning missing regarding management for berries to deploy amazing character and acidity.
Another project in the Perquenco area is Alto Las Gredas by María Victoria Petermann: 1.5 hectares of Chardonnay that produced 1,000 bottles in 2005, but suffered from the impact of weather in 2006 and 2007 and most of the grapes were lost. The 2008 vintage is elegant, fresh, and mineral. Somehow more frugal than Sol de Sol, but showing the moving young defiance of this terroir.
Felipe de Solminihac, Alto Las Gredas advisor, says that temperatures are never higher than 20oC after February 20, in full veraison season. The harvest is considerably longer than in the central region and milder temperatures prevent malic acid from turning into carbohydrates. Consequently, unlike Central Valley’s wines, these ones are crispier and longer in the mouth.
“Alcohol is necessary but it can kill a wine. The low pHs we get in Traiguén allow us to keep a more integrated and natural acidity, while ensuring ideal development in the bottle,” Sol de Sol’s winemaker explains.
For De Solminihac, who has just launched his Sol de Sol Pinot Noir –in our opinion, the best among the latest generation of Pinot Noirs–, winegrowing in the far South raises challenges the large players specialized in mass- produced wines are not willing to face, like distance from processing hubs, heavy annual rainfall over 1,000 mm (300 mm of which fall during the grapevine vegetative cycle) and frost late in the Spring that can cut down yields, and wear down vintners’ patience and resources.
“We anticipate we’ll harvest only 1,000 kilos of Chardonnay in 2010, which is not really encouraging,” he asserts. one of his French partners in Viña Aquitania, Ghislain de Montgolfier, and current president of the Champagne Association of Wine and Grape Growers, rushes to say: “Why taking so much risk? Making terroir wines is a very serious matter. Felipe’s project is only for artists.”
Although the climatic conditions of the South of Chile can be a true headache for winemakers some years, they also offer major comparative advantages. The
strong winds prevailing in the south curb botrytis; low temperatures foster the development of a new universe of aromas and streamline sugar-acidity balance; and there’s a whole world of opportunities to be tapped in wine tourism in a breathtaking setting of woods, lakes and volcanoes.
These are risky, and in some cases, simply sublime wines. They bring a whole new world of aromas and flavors no one would have thought possible in these wine areas. They are fresh, they are attractive and they are wide open for discovery. They are the true expression of purity, the uncontaminated purity of the one and only New World.
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