The Next 30 Years of Casablanca
Even though Casablanca is still paying some sins of youth, the future of this valley stricken by the sea breeze is bright, with the consolidation of its clonal material, the development of short-cycled reds and Pablo Morandé’s newest dream: the creation of a new, self-regulated appellation for sparkling wines.
“Are you serious there are frost problems here, just 18 kilometers from the ocean?” were the words a skeptical Pablo Morandé asked to a local grower who warned him of the risks of planting grapevines in Casablanca. And he did not have to wait long to find out. Those first hectares of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc died out, frostbitten to the roots. Once again, the valley seemed to confirm its darker rather than brighter fate: progress would always pass the valley by, leaving its inhabitants stuck in their cereal growing and cattle breeding activities.
This wild and winding valley that connects Santiago with the port of Valparaiso seemed bound to remain a mere transit area forever. According to British chronicler George Vancouver, towards the end of the 18th century Casablanca was “a small village with a beautiful church, some fifty houses and a few enclosed cultivated lands in contrast with the arid region we had just crossed.”
The town was named Santa Bárbara de Casablanca in 1753, in honor of the wife of Ferdinand VII and a white manor house whose exact location and owner historians have been unable to identify. Its square corners and one-storey white adobe houses with red tile of straw roofs offered little hope to this a village where barouches lifted the road dust as they broke the seemingly eternal quiet.
The scarcity of water, which until our days represents a headache for many viticulturists, prevented Casablanca from flourishing. But that is not all. The violent frosts that took Morandé by surprise were also a drawback in Casablanca’s agricultural development. The archives of the Real Audiencia (administrative district of the Spanish Crown) at the end of the 18th century state the following: in the Hacienda Lo Ovalle there is a vineyard that “has never produced any wine grapes because the frosts prevent them from ripening…”.
But this surrealistic tranquility that persisted among the hills also seduced aristocratic families, politicians, revolutionaries and artists. So, it is no surprise that this was the land chosen by Venezuelan-born Luis López Méndez, considered by Simón Bolívar himself the real liberator of Spanish America, to spend his final days. or that this was the birthplace of Chilean presidents Manuel and Jorge Montt, whose heirs still cultivate the land. or that it served as inspiration for poets and artists like Arturo Gordon. or that it forged the spirit of saint Alberto Hurtado in the fields of Tapihue, where the mud walls of his childhood house and a wooden cross he planted while on a mission still survive.
That is why i am not surprised that Pablo Morandé insisted on his dream of transforming Casablanca into a winegrowing valley, trying to conquer a whimsical climate that did nothing to help the pioneering wineries like Viña de Zapata, La Vinilla and La Merced, which, in the early years of the 20th century, treated their customers to their astringent País wines.
That is, until 1985, when the Association of Agricultural Engineers-Enologists were dumbstruck during the presentation of the first Casablanca wines at Cousiño Macul. “These wines seem from another country”, was the general comment among attendees, more used to the slow-paced and oxidized whites from the Central Valley. Ignacio Recabarren, then winemaker of Santa Rita, took on the challenge of fermenting these grapes that clearly defied common sense. And wineries like Emiliana, Veramonte, Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and Casablanca arrived soon thereafter. “The valley became an aspirational phenomenon. Everybody just had to be here. I went from dreamer to winner, from crazy to acclaimed,” Morandé later told me.
JUST 5 SECONDS AWAY
30 years on, the valley of Casablanca has 5,680 hectares planted, mainly to Chardonnay (2,269), Sauvignon Blanc (1,931), Pinot Noir (710) and Syrah (107). Everything has been very quick, like an eyeblink, somehow reminiscing the first telegraphic transmission of 1852, when Valparaiso headlines read: “Casablanca is now just 5 seconds away from Valparaiso”. Back then, the operator would ask: “What’s the weather like over there?”. “it’s overcast,…” was the reply from Casablanca.
Everything has happened so quickly that Casablanca is already showing the first signs of age. Some of its current ailments include the unstable grape prices, the increasing energy and labor costs, the multi-million investments in instruments to prevent or mitigate the effects of frost, the persistent inefficiency of its water sources and the loss of productivity of its oldest vineyards, which are affected by viral diseases and nematodes.
This new wave of pessimism has been intensified by the emergence of new coastal valleys that have stolen some of its preeminence, like neighboring San Antonio, Limarí and Elqui further north, and, more recently, the coast of Colchagua in the central zone. “In years of high yields such as 2009, prices plummeted and we were forced to give out, so to speak, the fruit,” a local producer tells me.
However, the Casablanca Winegrowers association has not kept their arms crossed. Unlike other trade sectors where conflicts of interest end up diluting
any great ideas, wineries have invested in research and development. Not only have they vehemently supported legislative changes to base appellations of origin on strictly technical criteria, but have pioneered the deployment of a network of modern meteorological stations that has permitted to identify the valley’s climatic subzones: La Vinilla (818 degree days on the Winkler scale), Tapihue Bajo (893), Tapihue Alto (890), Mundo Nuevo (893), Casablanca Centro (821), Lo Ovalle (852), Lo Orozco (823), Las Dichas (751) and Lo Orrego (769).
These climatic data, which other valleys would be very reluctant to disclose, help understand the characteristics of its grapes and also open the window to potential future appellations far beyond the new though insufficient denominations of Andes, Entre Cordilleras and Costa.
The association has commissioned a number of studies aiming at the aromatic characterization of their emblem varieties, like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, which have provided systematized information for members and the specialized press. “A new Casablanca is on the way, not based on olfactory sensations, but on scientific experiences. Once soil and climate studies are completed and the new clonal plantations begin their production, Casablanca will live a spectacular rediscovery. Remember what I say,” announces Morandé.
A FUTURE SPLENDOR
The rediscovery of Casablanca coincided with the boom of Chardonnay exports. No wonder it is still the most planted variety in the valley. But the choice of the vines was not the most fortunate and today producers are paying the consequences. Most vineyards are planted to the so-called Mendoza clone, a variety of rather obscure origin that is evidencing signs of fatigue due to viral diseases and nematode infestation in the sandy soils of the lower areas.
In recent years, many hectares have been replanted with French clones and nematode-resistant rootstock, opening a new window of potential for this variety that has been somewhat shadowed by the minerality of Limarí Chardonnays and, very especially, by the advent of Sauvignon Blanc. But little by little Chardonnay from Casablanca is regaining its course. A better interpretation of the different vintages and harvest points, plus vinification techniques that are more respectful of the fruit are the highlights of a new generation of fresher and shinier wines that seek to win back their lost loves.
But Sauvignon Blanc has become the undisputed hottest star of the valley. By combining various clones and playing with different exposures, heights and harvest times, winemakers not only have managed to maintain great varietal consistency but also impress with more ambitious wines –some of them stored in barrels or wooden casks– that are reaching new and sometimes amazing quality thresholds.
Despite the introduction of new white varieties like Viognier, Gewürztraminer and Riesling, which add to the flavor palette, reds retain a firm presence in the valley. Slowly though not always surely, Pinot Noir is coming to terms with its true nature, parting from candied tones and moving towards the pure, fresh and complex aromas of the variety. particularly important are the importation of French clones, which today outnumber the traditional Valdivieso clone that once inundated the fields, and the much needed change of winemaking mindset that no longer avoids acidic fruit, but rather looks for and traps it in the bottle.
For its part, cool climate Syrah –which is a world apart from those Barossa bodybuilders– begins to adapt to the granite hills of the Coastal Mountain range, where it has developed a characteristic and very seducing character. Its floral, spicy notes and the slender yet firm body have earned it a place in the valley despite the low popularity of this variety worldwide. The number of wineries that dare to produce Casablanca blends is on the rise. They look for new aromatic levels while deepening their bond with the terroir instead of taking the tempting shortcut of imitating the style of other valleys.
Casablanca producers do not want to lag behind and therefore have made the decision to show themselves to the world with a fresh, restless and innovative personality. So why not go further and launch a sparkler that distinguishes the valley as a whole, with standards that regulate production and guarantee the quality of its wines, as the Vignadores de Carignan did in Maule’s secano lands? Morandé wonders.
And why not? 30 years ago Casablanca marked a before and after in the history of Chilean wines. Today, the valley is reinventing itself with renewed vigor to transition, as its discoverer puts it, from youth to wisdom… to an oasis of happiness.
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