Up in the Mountains

by | 9 Oct, 2011

Some Chilean wineries are climbing high up the Andes, striving to produce the most remarkable notes, excel in world markets, and reach the pinnacle of quality.

A few years Ago, while visiting Maule wineries, I asked a winegrower why most vineyards grew in the Central Valley, between mountain ranges, on both sides of the pan-American highway that runs all along our country. I asked him why wouldn’t they plant on the foothills, why wouldn’t they look for climates, say, a little more extreme, or why wouldn’t they give it a try to high-altitude vineyards. “Because it freezes up there,” he answered curtly. I asked him if he had any studies at hand. “Everybody knows it freezes up there,” he replied.

Truth be told, lack of guts was a signature trait of Chilean winegrowing for too long. the benign climate and the fertile soils of the central valleys made things easy. Wines were good and renowned for their sweet fruit and charming texture, so, why bother to find more outspoken notes? Why going against the generous Mother Nature? “Why going to such extremes?”

We do now have some answers to those questions.

“High-altitude vineyards need a lot more work on them,” Francois Massoc, winemaker at Calyptra, claims. “Out of ignorance –including myself– and lack of audacity,” Felipe Uribe, winemaker at William Fèvre Chile, explains. “Because by nature we’d rather go for something others are doing well, something that is foolproof,” says Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at De Martino.

This ‘playing safe’ approach is evidenced by the boom valleys like Casablanca and San Antonio-Leyda have experienced. By the mid 1980s, you’d have been called a nutcase if you had suggested to plant closer to the ocean. Such madness is nowadays responsible for thousands of hectares and dozens of wineries that have bet heavily in those valleys. Definitely, winegrowers started to look for “colder” weather next to the ocean, rather than in the Andes.

For example, Viña Errázuriz went after colder temperatures in the west, into what today is the promising Aconcagua Costa appellation. Their highest vineyards are located in Aconcagua –Max VII, 780 m.a.s.l.– and Viñedo Chadwick, 480 m.a.s.l. in Puente Alto, the very cradle of the signature Chilean Cabernet sauvignons. “Our Max V vineyards are at 530 m.a.s.l., but here temperature is milder because of the influence of river Aconcagua, rather than because of altitude. Conversely, Max VII vineyards are located into the valley, with a northeast exposure. In this case, altitude is not synonymous with lower temperatures, but increased sun exposure. This is why we chose warmer- climate cultivars, like Tempranillo, Mourvèdre, and Grenache,” Francisco Baettig, Errázuriz winemaker explains.

Consequently, altitude does not necessarily equal cooler temperatures. A number of variables are involved, including topography, exposure, and type of soil. the cold winds from Andes blow directly into Viñedo Chadwick thru the Maipo gorge. This vineyard is located on an alluvial terrace but it is definitely the most mountainous of Errázuriz’s plantations. “It is the most elegant, intense, vibrant and the finest of all our Cabernet sauvignons,” Baettig claims.


True, it freezes on the Maulean foothills, but a little more effort had to be put into finding the right spot, like Rafael Tirado did. His family-run project on the shores of Colbún Lake started timidly in 1994, while he was still the winemaker at wineries like Terranoble, Veramonte, and VIA Wines.

The breathtaking landscape and those lots shaping semi-circular, triangular, and maze-like patterns are nothing short of startling. In no time, their brand Laberinto (maze) and their Sauvignon blancs and Cabernet sauvignon/Merlot blend positioned Ribera del Lago at the top. The typicity of their fruit and their depth and fresh character delivered a new organoleptic dimension among Maulean wines and proved that Chile offers the ideal conditions for wines with excellent aging potential.

The influence of the mountains is pivotal. Colbún is blessed by a dry climate. There’s no room for fog or botrytis. The skies are open, with ample luminosity. the vines –that remain very active until the harvest– have adapted wonderfully to the gravel and clay colluvial hillsides and to the very black, cold and deep silt of the ravine where the sauvignon blanc grows.

“I have a lot more faith on the Andean foothills than on the coastal areas. The cold at night is critical because it makes wines more concentrated and fosters a wider range of aromas. In Colbún, temperature oscillation ranges from 10°c to 28°c in summer,” the winemaker explains.

Calyptra is another winery located at the foothills of the Andes, at Coya, in the Cachapoal, some 950 m.a.s.l. It is undoubtedly the highest winery in the Central

Valley. According to their winemaker, Francois Massoc, topography, exposure and soil are key when choosing grape varieties and shaping the personality of wine.

For instance, their praised Sauvignon blanc has a northeast exposure and grows in highly clayish colluvial soils. It then gets full morning sun and shaded exposure 

until sunset. Given the local topography, the duration of sun exposure is shorter, which stretches maturation and allows cultivars to keep all their freshness and punch.

It is Cabernet sauvignon, however, the variety that best conveys the various aspects of the vineyard. Without going into any depths, three different terroirs may be identified: the first one has an east-west orientation and vines grow in a colluvial terrace by definition. Its wines offer heaps of black fruit, freshness, and rather nervous; the second one, with a north-south orientation, corresponds to alluvial soils. Its wines are more mature, boast balance and roundness, but lack some liveliness; the third terroir has a northeast orientation and alluvial-colluvial soils. Zahir, one of the great Chilean Cabernet sauvignons, comes from grapes harvested in those lots, vinified and aged separately. “I have all the lots in different barrels. I only blend them for bottling,” Massoc explains.


The highlands of the Maipo Valley (called Maipo Alto) have traditionally been considered one of the coldest growing spots in Chile. The huge mountains and the winds that funnel through the canyon and ravines give life to wines that exude a fresh and elegant personality. Haras de Pirque is one such example. The horseshoe-shaped vineyard sits amid the mountains, playing with different elevations and exposures while harboring a wide range of varieties that go from Sauvignon blanc to Carmenère.

Andrés Aparicio, assistant to winemaker Cecilia Guzmán, explains that the highest vineyards sit above 750 meters and include Carmenère, Syrah, Cabernet franc and Cabernet sauvignon. Interestingly, the vegetative cycle runs at different speeds on the valley and on the hillsides, a feature that becomes particularly evident in Spring. While on the more exposed hillsides new shoots are already 20 cm in length, the plants on the flatland are barely opening their buds. And although at harvest time ripeness becomes more homogeneous, the actual harvest date can take place with up 10 days difference.

“The Cabernet that grows higher up develops more red fruit, whereas the lower vineyards produce more spicy notes, eucalyptol or mint. The same is true for Carmenère. For example, in 2010 the absolutely best grapes in the vineyard came from a lot on the hillside. Without doubt, this is a cooler zone within Maipo Alto. Even the climate conditions differ from those in the traditional terraces of Pirque. Spring frosts give us a hard time, but at the end of the growing season the results are just incredible,” Mr Aparicio says.

Slowly but surely, a new category is emerging, that of Muy Alto Maipo (Very High Maipo). William Fevre Chile, for example, established its new plantations on steeper, rockier yet much more exciting ground. the winery has three different vineyards in

full production: San Luis de Pirque at 650 meters, Las Majadas at 720 meters and San Juan de Pirque at 950 meters, in addition to the 20 hectares of Cabernet sauvignon and Malbec planted at the heart of the Maipo canyon over 1,000 meters above sea level.

Chief winemaker Felipe Uribe explains that high-altitude wines feature a very unique type of finesse. Tannins are very round and friendly in the mouth and the plant’s physiological development is much slower. The sugar and phenolic maturation curves go together, permitting to harvest with very low alcohol levels.

Soil differences are also important. in the lower area of San Luis, the vineyard grows on alluvium formed by an arm of the Clarillo river. In the Summer, the rock and silt soil cracks up, allowing the roots to explore for water and making irrigation chores redundant. On the other hand, in Las Majadas the soil consists of decomposed rock with a small percentage of clay that corresponds to the first terrace of the Maipo river. This is where the character of high-altitude wines makes its appearance: Notes of flowers, red berries and round yet ripe tannins that feature a very fresh and vertical mouth.

“When the pinto family decided to plant up there, many just could not believe it.
But time proved the family right: great wines are always born in extreme areas, really extreme ones. Can you really call Leyda or Casablanca cold valleys when their Chardonnays develop 15o of alcohol? The highlands of the Andes have much colder conditions than most of the coastal valleys. The color and mouth structure of these
wines are really incredible,” he affirms.


But if we are to talk about high-altitude, the Elqui Valley is the place to be. There we find the highest vineyards in Chile, green patches of poetry that cling to the rock under the world’s most pristine skies. In Huanta, at approximately 2,000 meters, we find some Pedro Ximénez vineyards that Viña Falernia bottles as a tranquil, dry wine. In Monte Grande, home to Nobel Literature laureate Gabriela Mistral, the beautiful Cavas del Valle winery produces voluptuous Syrah and a sweet wine made from Muscat of Alexandria.

But the mountains have more hidden treasures. In the mystical and breathtaking area of Alcohuaz lies a vineyard planted by viticulturalist Eduardo Silva. The undertaking is part of a partnership between Mr Silva, winemaker Marcelo Retamal, resident winemaker Juan Luis Huerta and his wife Helia, and Viñedos de Alcohuaz. These plantations that grow between 1,700 and 2,200 meters give life to the impressive Syrah that Viña De Martino bottles under the label Alto Los Toros.

UV radiation in Alcohuaz is very intense, so the partners decided to give up vertical training in favor of the Elqui trellis, a traditional training system that keeps bunches more shaded and protected from the sunrays. The high temperature average between October and April is 28oC, but the low temperature average is also very dramatic. An extreme climate indeed. For example, last winter the vineyard was covered under more than 20 cm or snow. “Planting here is more difficult that near the coast. This is a whole new dimension,” says Marcelo Retamal.

Grape varieties adapt to the climate and protect themselves by developing thicker skins that produce a multiplicity of deep aromas and flavors. But, despite the relentless summer sun, grapes are harvested with fairly low pH readings. The reason? Mr Retamal does not know exactly.

Maybe it is the temperature differential or the fewer daylight hours. “The mountains here are almost on top of each other. In March, the time of maturation, the first sun rays begin to appear around 9:50 in the morning. Also, we have found that differences in ripeness are a function of the altitude: the same Grenache planted 400 meters higher can be harvested with one month’s difference, and that is really amazing,” he adds.

In his opinion, the varieties produced in this terroir are more rustic and resistant, like Syrah, Petite Syrah, Grenache and Touriga Nacional. While Alto Los Toros continues along its successful path, Viñedos de Alcohuaz is set to release a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Petite Syrah co-fermented in concrete eggs, and a Carignan vinified in old barrels. A true rarity compared to what the country has got us used to.





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