Chile's foreign exchange

  • Friday 8 January 2010

Australian winemaking guru Brian Croser is the latest big name to be drawn to Chile. With the country now boasting a wealth of overseas influence, sarah jane evans MW asks what’s in it for both parties

We’re at a restaurant in Santiago for dinner with various winemakers. It’s a relaxed, informal evening. Then one of the guests observes: ‘Look at us. We’re all wearing blue shirts. Even when we’re not working, we dress the same.’ Despite the fact that the guests are clearly very different characters, he stresses: ‘Pinochet killed our mental freedom.’

He’s repeating a commonly held view (though not everyone makes the link to Pinochet). Despite the rapidly rising quality of its wines, and the ever-clearer regional variations, Chile and its winemakers lack self-confidence. Which may help to explain the continued arrival of international wine consultants.

Where once Chile relied on French and American expertise, Australians and Italians are now jetting in. Aussie luminary Brian Croser is the latest. For Chile’s winemakers, these consultants bring many benefits, notably in terms of their expertise. But what about for the consultants? Undoubtedly they like the snow, the sun, the pisco sours and the fees, but are the likes of Croser also genuinely attracted by what they find in the Chilean dirt?

Looking at things from a Chilean point of view, French consultants have always been important, and they continue to be attracted here (especially those, like Michel Rolland, who can tie in a trip to projects in Argentina at the same time).

VC Family Estates, formerly Corpora, has been loyal to the French. It began working with Burgundy’s Boisset on a joint venture in the Casablanca Valley. Subsequently it worked with fellow Burgundian Pascal Marchand, whose day-to-day representative in the extensive Pinot Noir vineyards of Bío-Bío is the young Louis Vallet, the next generation of Vallet Frères.

VC Family Estates’ CEO Jorge Goles looks to Burgundy for Pinot expertise: ‘You always have to go back to the place where the best Pinot comes from.’ He points out that négociant Nicolas Potel is also drawn to Bío-Bío, where he will be consulting with VC, and then developing his own estate in the region growing Chardonnay and Pinot. VC has made a major investment in Pinot, and Goles believes there is an opportunity for Chilean Pinot globally. Looking at the top New World Pinots, ‘New Zealand can compete [with us], Oregon doesn’t have the volume’.

If the French bring expertise in the classic varieties, other nationalities are engaged for their expertise per se. Australian consultants are now swelling the ranks. John Duval, former winemaker of Penfolds Grange, has been working with Felipe Tosso at Viña Ventisquero for several years, while Croser, Decanter Man of the Year in 2004, has just started a one-year consultancy with Santa Rita.

Also working in Chile is the muchtravelled Italian Alberto Antonini. His compatriot Giorgio Flessati from Alto Adige, meanwhile, has been working with great success in the Elqui Valley at his cousin’s Falernia Winery.

Expert advice

In terms of what these overseas consultants bring to the party, Goles recognises that an experienced, globally recognised winemaker from France or Australia – or Italy – is often better placed to convince a CEO to invest in wineries and vineyards, especially when, like VC, you rely on a young team.

It’s human nature to trust the external expert rather than the homegrown ones. The visitor speeds up change and investment if he has the confidence of the owner. They also give confidence to the younger brigade. Antonini believes Chile has been transformed over the past decade or so: ‘Back in 1995, it was a different industry.

Then the approach was more industrial and the goal was to please consumers by trying to make sound, good value, wines. Back then, I found most of the wines well made but a bit

boring, with a lack of personality and charm, and some greenness.

Today Chile has a fantastic new generation of young winemakers who are doing a great job exploring the wonderful potential of many different wine regions – Leyda, Apalta, Limarí, Maipo – and making wines which are positioning Chile at the top level in the wine world.’

Antonini defines his work as ‘sharing my knowledge and experience and trying to get the best from the vineyards I’m working with’. His goal is to progress towards wines with personality and identity. Duval is typically laid back about his role: ‘I said “let’s look for variability”.

I advised them to pick in small containers, to ferment in smaller tanks, use wild yeasts and to seek out variety.’ He also took the step of bringing in a guest viticulture expert for advice. Croser has a much shorter time to make changes during his one-year consultancy and is accordingly more intense: ‘My brief is broadly to look at all aspects of Santa Rita’s operations to see where and how quality can be improved, focusing on its fine wines and vineyards.

‘Its new vineyards at Pumanque are destined to open eyes with Cabernet, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc’, he says. ‘A new vineyard 5km from Leyda will make wonderful Pinot, and this site has already produced one of the best non-Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs I’ve seen. How best to manage those vineyards is my first challenge – yield, irrigation, canopy, maturation and harvest time – and then to tweak the winemaking is second.’

Croser finds himself in Chile ‘despite my vow in the mid ’80s never to consult again’. He hopes to bring ‘the perspective of a long career in the international fine wine business’ to Santa Rita, and believes in the winery’s potential for greatness. ‘They certainly have the raw materials in place – especially the vineyards, the people and the will to succeed.’

Croser acknowledges the secondary, public relations, role of the visiting expert – ‘to gain the appropriate gatekeeper recognition for [the winery’s] efforts’. This is exactly what motivates a CEO to pay for the airfares.

At least at the outset, a famous name can work wonders in raising the global profile of a winery. (Though in the end the wine will build the reputation.) Undoubtedly Duval has had this halo effect with Viña Ventisquero. When the maker of an iconic Shiraz from Australia chooses to turn up in Chile, the rest of the world takes notice.

Alto Adige to Elqui

Flessati slipped into the northerly Elqui Valley a little more quietly. An established winemaker in Alto Adige, he came to visit his cousin Aldo Olivier Gramola, who ran a fruit-growing and pisco production firm in isolated Elqui, and ended up consultant at what became Falernia Winery.

The terroir couldn’t be more different from northern Italy – arid, pre-desert soils, with vineyards rising to well over 2,000m. Not all his knowledge was transferable. ‘In Europe, grapes ripen on the lower ground.

Here, it’s the other way round – they ripen faster on the higher ground; the UV radiation is much stronger; by law, we have to give our workers sunscreen.’ What makes Flessati’s consultancy different to the norm is that he is related to the winery’s owner, but this has not compromised his work.

He loves the Rhône, so perhaps it was no wonder his 2002 Alta Tierra Syrah won Best in Show at the 2005 Chile Wine Awards, on its first appearance. The reaction of most observers at the time was, ‘Falernia? Who?’

Flessati brought plenty of experience to a business where grapes were grown for pisco. In this respect it’s a perfect case study of the value of a consultant in speeding up the acquisition of knowledge. As Tosso puts it, advice from a wise visitor is ‘like polishing your spectacles – you see more clearly’.

The producers to whose specs Antonini gives a gleam include Concha y Toro (working with Marques de Casa Concha and its Ribera (River)series); Viña Leyda; the Intriga label for MontGras; LFE; William Fevre and Calbuco.

He highlights the value of a European consultant to New World producers: ‘Complementing a New World approach with a European one can achieve important results. It’s not about teaching, more about sharing experiences and thoughts.’

Not every winery turns to a foreign consultant for the far-sighted vision. The indefatigable Aurelio Montes remains hard at work consulting across Chile, as well as creating extensive new vineyards near the coast in Marchihue.

Viticultural consultant Pedro Parra (see page 42) is one of several taking the study of vineyard planting much further by digging trenches or calicatas all over the country. Soil analysis has caught on in a big way. Wineries proudly boast of digging as many as 500 calicatas in the study of a new vineyard.

But just as the mole-like work of a soil scientist can wreak havoc in a tidy vineyard, so the presence of a visiting winemaker brings risks. There’s the possibility of cultural misunderstanding, for one thing. Fortunately, Antonini sympathises with the differences among his international clients. Comparing Chile with his work over the Andes in Argentina, he says: ‘I spend a lot of time in and enjoy both countries.

In my early days I found the Chileans better organised, harder workers and more serious about business, while the Argentinians were more creative and easy-going. The two countries are now getting closer in their working culture.’

Cultural ignorance is a risk with the wrong choice of variety or style. Duval is emphatic that he did not bring ‘recipes from the Barossa’. ‘When you have an excellent terroir, the task is to express it.’ Ventisquero’s Vertice is a Tosso-Duval production, an uncommon blend of Carmenere and Syrah, and a happy result of the discussion and blending experiences of winemakers of different origins. Just how different is mirrored in the way the two pronounce the wine.

The Spanish language is one of many things that can make Chile challenging for an Anglophone. Nevertheless, the people, the food and the geography have a strong attraction. So too do the terroirs and wines. Duval: ‘I did not know the soils or the area. I tasted the wine, and then science later confirmed what I had found in the glass.’

Croser draws out Chile’s similarities to and differences from other wine-producing countries: ‘Some of the traditional terroirs are very similar in cold desert climate to some terroirs of Washington State, and the wines are similar.’ As for Australia, ‘Chile has a similar diversity of terroirs, and they are rapidly becoming aware of the opportunities. They, too, are protected from the worst of climate change by the Great Southern Ocean influence.’

Winning ways

Croser goes on to highlight an important difference between Chile and other wine-producing countries: ‘Their soils are not as old or diverse as Australia’s, but they are using labour-intensive viticulture on closer spacing, which few can afford in Australia – $2.50 an hour in Chile, versus $25 an hour in Australia.’ Just as appealing to Europeans is the lack of restrictions, and appellation rules.

This freedom helps to explain why Flessati is now at Falernia full time, enjoying the company of llamas and the occasional prowling puma. He may still be an outsider but he has the confidence to like it that way, choosing to make his Carmenere in a very successful Amarone style, for instance. ‘We’re the only wine company in Chile without an office in Santiago,’ he says. ‘But once we get customers here to the winery to discover the valley, we can be sure of an order.’

Chile is an old country with a wine history dating back to the conquistadors. Yet today its winemakers are in a hurry. ‘The Chileans with whom I have contact do not lack confidence in their natural opportunities or their own skills to convert them,’ says Croser.

‘They are very inquisitive and open, and want to take the shortest but safest route to success.’ So, while the snow, sun and pisco sours are a definite draw (‘I’m not trying to earn a packet,’ says Duval), what is clear is that consultants are flocking to Chile because of the potential for real quality. Flessati believes in it so much he’s become a resident. Once other consultants experience the Chilean magic, how many more will follow suit?

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