Electric and refreshing flavours are cropping up in unlikely pockets of Chile and Argentina, at altitude and near the sea. Patricio Tapia discovers the risks and rewards of viticulture in uncharted territory

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If in the past, most of Argentina’s viticulture was based on Andean altitude and, at the same time, that of Chile centred on the cold influence of the sea, nowadays those roles have flipped. Little by little, fascinating new vineyards are appearing in the Chilean Andes and other no-less-extraordinary projects are showing up on the Atlantic coast of Argentina. South American wine is taking new risks and gaining new flavours.

At 2,000m in the Alcohuaz sector of the Chilean Elqui Valley, it seems that nature has never been tamed. thorn trees dot the rocky soil and the silhouette of the mountains cuts across an intense blue sky. I am told there are foxes and hares here, and that it is common to see condors flying over the peaks; with a wingspan exceeding three metres, these are the flying giants of the Andes.

It was here, 400km north of Santiago, that Alvaro Flaño began to plant vineyards. there were vineyards down in the valley – especially of grapes destined for pisco (the Andean brandy) – but no one had planted so high, at the end of the valley, this close to the Argentinian border.

Flaño began to buy land in Elqui in the mid-1990s. But it wasn’t until 2005 that he decided to risk growing wine grapes. ‘Our logic was that if pisco grapes grew well and were so aromatic in this sunny, dry climate, wine varieties would probably show good results, too,’ says his son Patricio, who now runs the Viñedos de Alcohuaz project.

Of course, not all varieties grew well at altitude, on soils with extremely low fertility and in a climate that locals claim has 60 cloudy days, five rainy days, and 300 days of sun. ‘There was too much sun for Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and they dehydrated,’Patricio says.

However, other varieties more accustomed to sun, such as Syrah and Carignan, grew very well. In the beginning, in 2007, De Martino bought Syrah. A year later, those grapes went into the Alto Los Toros Single Vineyard, a Syrah planted nearly 2,000m up   RAPEL and one of the stars of the De Martino portfolio made by the winemaker Marcelo Retamal.

Syrah is also the main ingredient in the first wine from Viñedos Alcohuaz, a 2011 red that is nearly 100% from Alto Los Toros. It is delicious, with lively black fruit flavours, creamy on the palate, its ripeness in harmony with a marked acidity.

This Syrah was made by Retamal, who became a partner in the project in 2007, and took charge of making the wines. He expects it to hit the market in late 2014, though Patricio Flaño adds that they are in no hurry – if they feel the wine needs more time, they will wait.

They built the cellar – burrowed into a cave in the middle of the mountain – with the same sense of calm. ‘No rush, it will be ready when it’s ready,’ says Flaño as we venture inside. They also built lagares from local rocks to soften the grapes better during pressing by foot. Retamal says that because the grapes develop very thick skins to protect them from the sun, softening these tough skins is important. He says the sun is the key here. ‘My hypothesis is that in high-altitude zones, the soil is less important than the weather,’ he explains as he pours a sample of the 2012 Carignan from the property’s highest vineyard at 2,200m. ‘You need to protect the grapes from the sun. There is almost no disease because the air is so dry, but you still need a balanced vineyard so that the flavours don’t burn.’ Once again, there is that freshness adorned with spices and pure, ripe red fruit.

Sun was also a concern for Felipe Müller, the winemaker at Viña Tabalí, when they decided to climb to the heights of the Río Hurtado, 1,800m above sea level in the Limarí Valley.

After driving for several hours along the winding roads that follow the course of the Río Hurtado towards the Andes, we finally arrive at a spot where the river basin seems to widen. It is almost sunset, and a flock of parrots flies beside us, as if to welcome us. The gentle Andean hillsides dip down toward the river against a backdrop of the mountain with its snowy peak glowing in the sun’s last rays.

Tabalí bought this property, some 350km north of Santiago, in 2010, planning to plant walnuts. Müller and Tabalí’s viticulturist Hector Rojas, however, thought it would be a good opportunity to diversify their terroirs in Limarí. ‘At the time, we had vineyards very close to the coast in Talinay, as well as in the intermediate sector, such as in the Valle del Encanto, where the winery is located, but we still hadn’t climbed the mountain,’ says Müller.

So they climbed it. In 2011, they planted eight experimental hectares to 11 varieties, including Merlot, Carignan, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and even Carmenere. The first harvest was this year. ‘It’s too early to draw conclusions,’ says Müller. ‘My major concern was that the fruit would burn, leaving us with overripe flavours, but that wasn’t the case.’

The sun is just as intense here as it is in Elqui, but the difference is that this small vineyard is entirely east-facing – the sun sets early and leaves the vineyard in the shade for much of the afternoon, refreshing the flavours of the grapes.

This may be the reason that the Malbec from these infant vines has such a level of fruit, such intensity and, perhaps, such freshness – qualities that I had never seen in Chilean Malbec, only in some Malbecs from the highest zones of Mendoza.

For now, Malbec is one of the stars of the vineyard, although Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere have also yielded good wines with concentration and strength. His dream is to make a wine from this vineyard, blending all the most successful varieties.

If that dream were to come true, we will be able to add a new face to the diversity of Chilean wine, a face that comes from the unthinkable heights of the Andes, a place that has barely been exploited so far in Chilean viticulture.

Maritime Argentina

Early autumn is a good time to visit Viedma, on the banks of the Río Negro in Argentinian Patagonia, nearly 1,000km south of Buenos Aires. It is at this time of year that the potbellied silversides come to spawn along the Atlantic coast, some 30km from where Bodega Océano, the only winery in this maritime zone, has its vineyards.

Bodega owner Juan Lascano describes the fish enthusiastically. He speaks of their oily texture and intense flavour, and the fact that they only need to be breaded and fried in very hot oil – before being served with one of his wines, of course.

Juan and his brother Jorge are sons of Italian and Spanish immigrants. Their father arrived in the region in the mid-1950s, building roads when Patagonia was even more desolate and uninhabited than it is nowadays. The brothers were born in Viedma, the capital of Río Negro Province and worked in their father’s bread factory until 1998, when they decided to try planting vines. They opted for land along the river, close to the sea.

‘The soils here are very uneven. Both the river and the winds drag matter toward the sea, leaving some spots rocky and others sandy. Both have worked very well with red varieties such as Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet, as well as with whites such as Sauvignon Blanc,’ says Lascano.

Despite being so far south, Viedma is not a rainy zone (360mm per year). Neither is it particularly cold (Lascano calculates that the harvest date for Malbec is more or less the same as in Mendoza), but it does stand out for its maritime influence, which gives rise to fog in the summer mornings and calms the hot winds that come from the east.

It is likely to be this influence that make the reds from Océano seem so fresh in the context of Argentina. ‘All the varieties we have, including Pinot Noir, yield well-balanced grapes and we never have to correct the acidity,’ says Lascano, referring to a practice common in drier and hotter zones such as Mendoza.

Their Gran Reserva 2008, a blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet, has a strong sense of place – pure crisp and lively fruit, freshness and zingy acidity. I’d happily drink this with those breaded silversides, watching the Río Negro glide toward the sea.

Some 700km north of Viedma, is Mar del Plata, and just 3km from the sea lie the Argentinian vineyards growing closest to the coast, a small, 4ha (hectare) block planted by the giant Trapiche and Jorge Estrada, a local landowner. The site is called Chapadmalal. Daniel Pi, head winemaker at Trapiche, tells me that Estrada also owns vineyards in Mendoza, and that Trapiche has managed them for years. But in 2009, they met in Chapadmalal and began to wonder what it would be like to make wines there, in what must be Argentina’s most extreme zone for wine.

‘It rains a lot, and the sea is very cold. I reckon the water temperature doesn’t rise above 16oC in the summer,’ says Pi. Taking these conditions into account, they decided to plant varieties that adapt well to cold, such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. If the grapes didn’t ripen enough for still wines, they calculated, they could be used for sparkling. But that wasn’t necessary.

The first harvest in 2012 proved that although the harvest was even later than in Mendoza’s highest zones, the wines could still reach excellent balance. The Chardonnay, for example, was picked two weeks later than those in the Los Árboles zone of the Uco Valley (1,200m above sea level), and yet the wine was nearly two degrees lower in alcohol.

That was the good news. The bad news was that because they had no winery, they had to transport the fruit nearly 1,500km to Trapiche in Mendoza, and many grapes were damaged. ‘So we decided to build a cellar here in Chapadmalal. We vinified here in 2013 and the results are amazing,’ Pi says.

I was able to taste the first vintage, and the 2012 Pinot Noir offered electric and refreshing flavours which I had never come across in Argentina. And they come precisely from an Argentina that nobody knows, one that is discovering itself in a territory so vast and varied that it may contain many other Viedmas, dozens of other Mar del Platas. Thanks to these and other projects, the up-and-coming Argentina will be quite different from today.

Written by Patricio Tapia

Chilean & Argentinian terroir: accepted wisdom

Traditionally, the influence of terroir on Chilean wines has focused on the cooling effect of the Pacific or the proximity of the Andes and their breezes. It is, then, a division from east to west, from the mountains to the sea. Now this is reflected in the law, which since 2012 has allowed the use of the terms ‘Andes’ for wines that are born nearby, ‘Entre Valles’ for wines from Central Valley, between the Andes and the Coastal Range; and ‘Costa’, for wines located near the sea. Although latitude is important in Chile (consider the rainy south or the dry deserts to the north), much more so is the influence of the Pacific or the fresh breezes coming down from the Andes.

In Argentina the action is based on altitude, hence almost all the vineyards define the personality of their grapes in relation to how high up they are into the Andes. The higher altitude vineyards are in the Valles Calchaquies, to the north, reaching 2,600 meters above sea level. The Uco Valley, south of Mendoza, is the most popular high-altitude area with Gualtallary as its peak, at around 1,600m. Patagonia is the exception in the hunt for altitude, with some 3,000ha (hectares) planted along the Río Negro River, of a total 217,000ha in Argentina.

Argentina: principal wine regions

Total hectares planted: 154,214
Terroir defined mainly by: altitude, ranging from 600 metres to 1,600 metres
Best wines made with: Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay
Star producers: 55 wines, Achaval Ferrer, Alta Vista, Altos Las Hormigas, Bressia, Carmelo Patti, Casarena, Catena, Dominio del Plata, Doña Paula, Lagarde, López, Luigi Bosca, Rutini, Trapiche, Weinert, Zorzal, Zuccardi

San Juan
Total hectares planted: 47,227
Terroir defined mainly by: altitude, from 780 metres to 1,330 meters
Best wine made with: Malbec and Syrah
Star producers: Finca Las Moras, Graffigna

Valles Calchaquíes
Total hectares planted: 5,100
Terroir defined mainly by: altitude, from 1,600 metres to 2,600 meters
Best wines made with: Malbec, Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Torrontés
Star producers: Colomé, El Porvenir, Etchart, Finca Las Nubes, Lavaque, San Pedro de Yacochuya, Tacuil

Río Negro
Total hectares planted:
Terroir defined mainly by: the wind. A very windy zone, refreshing the arid and hot climate.
Best wine made with: Malbec, Pinot Noir, Semillón
Star producers: Canale, Chacra, Infinitus, Marcelo Miras, Noemía

Chile: principal wine regions

Total hectares planted: 45,850
Terroir defined by: proximity to the sea and altitude up to 1,000 metres
Best wines made with: Carignan, Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenere, Syrah
Star producers: Clos de Fous, Gillmore, J Bouchone, Louis Antoine Luyt, Miguel Torres, San Pedro, Valdivieso, Via Wines

Total hectares planted: 23,368
Terroir defined mainly by: proximity to the sea and altitude up to 700 meters
Best wines made with: Carmenere, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon
Star producers: Casa Lapostolle, Casa Silva, Cono Sur, Koyle, Luis Felipe Edwards, Montes, Viu Manent

Total hectares planted: 12,432
Terroir defined mainly by: altitude up to 1,100 meters
Best wines made with: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Carmenere, Syrah
Star producers: Aquitania, Concha y Toro, Cousiño Macul, Domus, De Martino, Santa Rita-Carmen

Total hectares planted: 4,605
Terroir defined by: proximity to the sea
Best wines made with: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah
Star producers: Casas del Bosque, Morandé, Montsecano, Quintay, Veramonte, Villard

Limarí and Elqui
Total hectares planted: 2,766
Terroir defined mainly by: altitude (up to 2,200 meters) and proximity to the sea
Best wines made with: Syrah, Carignan, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay
Star producers: Falernia, Maycas del Limarí, Tabalí, Tamaya, Viñedos de Alcohuaz

San Antonio/Leyda
Total hectares planted:
Terroir defined mainly by: proximity to the sea
Best wines made with: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Syrah
Star producers: Amayna, Casa Marín, Matetic, Viña Leyda

Total hectares planted: 1,098
Terroir defined mainly by: proximity to the sea and the winds coming down from the Aconcagua river, born in the Andes
Best wines made with: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc
Star producers: Errázuriz, San Esteban, Von Siebenthal

Patricio Tapia’s top extreme wines

El Porvenir de Los Andes, Laborum Torrontés, Valles Calchaquíes, Argentina 2011
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
From 45-year-old vines, this is a voluptuous Torrontés, with white peaches and flowers, and a creamy texture. A great way in to
the variety, this comes from vines grown at almost 1,800m.
Price: £12.52–£15 Good Wine Online, Highbury Vintners, Hispa Merchants, Philglas & Swiggot, Ruta 40
Drink 2013–2015
Alc 13.5%

Catena, Adrianna Vineyard Malbec, Gualtallary, Mendoza, Argentina 2010
19/20pts (96/100pts)
Packed with generous flavours of ripe red fruit and spices, this is a vibrant, full-bodied, tense Malbec; the vineyard (1,600m, one of the highest in the Uco Valley) delivers intense freshness and crisp acidity in a wine to cellar.
Price: £58–£60 Define Food & Wines, Harrods, Noel Young, Raisin Fine Wine, The Vineyard, Wimbledon Wine Cellars
Drink 2013–2020
Alc 14%

Zorzal, Terroir Unico Malbec, Gualtallary, Mendoza, Argentina 2011
17.75/20pts (92/100pts)
One of the best and purest examples of Malbec from high- altitude vineyards (1,500m), this refreshing, super- juicy red is so easy to drink that you may quickly find yourself asking for a second bottle.
Price: £11 Barwell & Jones, Coe Vintners
Drink 2013–2014
Alc 14%

De Martino, Alto Los Toros Syrah, Elqui Valley, Chile 2010
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
At 2,000m, the sunlight is intense and you may feel that sunny side in this red, filled with black fruit flavours and dense, monumental structure.
Price: £20–£25 Berry Bros & Rudd, Les Caves de Pyrène, Oddbins, Virgin Wines
Drink 2013–2018
Alc 14%

Tacuil, 33 D Dávalos Malbec Cabernet Sauvignon, Valles Calchaquíes, Argentina 2011
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
Grown at the impressive altitude of 2,600m, this is monumental. A blend of 80% Malbec and 20% Cabernet, this is concentrated and rustic, but with layers of fruit. Profound and deliciously
Price: N/A UK tacuil.com.ar
Drink 2013–2020
Alc 15.5%

Casa Marín, Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, San Antonio, Chile 2011
18.5/20pts (95/100pts)
Just 4km from the sea, the cold wind gives flavours of lime and peaches in this electric yet very unctuous Sauvignon; the kind of white to lay down for a decade.
Price: £13–£16 Hedonism Wines, ND John, Noel Young, The Drink Shop
Drink 2013–2020
Alc 13%

Koyle, Costa Sauvignon Blanc, Colchagua, Chile 2012
18/20pts (93/100pts)
Recently planted, the coast of Colchagua Valley can offer whites as refreshing as any other coastal site in Chile, proved here. Rich in limey and flinty flavours, its citric acidity gives a delicious tension and grip. A white for summer nights.
Price: POA Genesis Wines
Drink 2013–2015
Alc 12.5%

Ramirana, Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc, Huasco, Chile 2012
18/20pts (93/100pts)
In the arid Huasco Valley, 800km north of Santiago, and hugging the coast, this is almost saline; its strong mineral flavours, chalk and lime notes meld well in this extra-refreshing Sauvignon for oysters.
Price: £9.99 Gap Wines
Drink 2013–2016
Alc 13%

Matetic, EQ Syrah, San Antonio, Chile 2010
17.5/20pts (91/100pts)
This was the first coastal, cool-climate red in Chile. The new vintage is a mix of ripe red fruit, exotic spices, round, voluptuous body and crunchy acidity. Ideal with lamb.
Price: £18–£22 Armit, Cambridge Wine Merchants, Harvey Nichols, Hic Wines, Noel Young
Drink 2013–2017
Alc 14%

Bodega Océano, Mar Malbec, Viedma Patagonia, Argentina 2011
17/20pts (90/100pts)
Just 30km from the Atlantic, along the Río Negro river, young and older vines deliver a pure, approachable expression of coastal Malbec; a slightly spicy character framed by flowers and cherry notes in a light-to- medium body.
Price: N/A UK bodegaoceano.com
Drink 2013–2015
Alc 14.5%

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Chilean & Argentinian terroir: accepted wisdom
  3. 3. Patricio Tapia's top extreme wines
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