How is it possible to make wines in an area that hasn't seen rain in the last 50 years? And who on earth would want to?

Viña Ventisquero Tara Atacama wines. Click on the second image to see winemaker Alejandro Galaz at the tasting in London.

The answers lie with Viña Ventisquero and their trio of avant-garde winemakers Alejandro Galaz, Felipe Tosso and Sergio Hormazabal who, since accepting the somewhat sizeable challenge back in 2007, are on a mission to bring the ‘extreme’ wines of Chile’s unchartered Atacama Desert to the top of the world stage.

Taking on the ‘Tara Atacama’ wine project was, as winemaker Galaz admitted during a recent tasting in London, ‘more difficult than ever imagined’.

‘We thought there was a nice potential to grow wine’ Galaz said, speaking about the area which was, and still is, being used to grow olives, ‘but it was very difficult in the first year and even after seven years we are still trying to manage the challenges’.

Making wine in Chile’s most northerly vineyards, and in one of the driest regions on earth, was never going to be easy. Situated 22km from the Pacific Ocean coast, and over 350km north of Santiago, vineyards experience warm days (averaging 24oC during the ripening season), cold nights and foggy mornings.  

Soils suffer from extreme salinity, are difficult to irrigate and the general hostility of the environment causes several and severe problems both for vineyard growth and wine production.

Salt in particular is a major issue for the six grape varieties used in the Tara range – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc – though Sauvignon has adapted the best according to Galaz.

Manual irrigation techniques have so far led to cases of salt build-up around roots causing nutrient deficiencies ultimately leading to vine death and stunted growth. This has required careful management of a limited water supply and adaptive methods of irrigation – namely the necessity for deeper water channels.  

But while Galaz laments that ‘the salt is the problem’ it’s an essential part of what gives the wines their distinctive and unrivalled uniqueness; ‘I’ve never tasted saltiness in any other wines in Chile’ he said, adding the wines show ‘a purity of fruit, complex minerality and a real sense of place’.

Ventisquero’s philosophy of ‘low impact and sustainable agriculture’ also adds to the appeal. The Tara wines are made using entirely artisanal processes, with grapes harvested 100% by hand, and in Chardonnay’s case foot-crushed. They have no filtration, use native yeasts only with no addition of bacteria for malolactic fermentation and apply just a small dose of SO2 post fermentation. These methods, Galaz believes, give the wines ‘the freedom to express their extreme origin’.

‘We’re not telling the terroir what to do, it is telling us. We know we have to be patient and there is still a lot to learn.’

But, according to Vina Ventisquero’s global key account director, Americo Hernandez, now is the time to put their long-term commercial strategy in place.

The company has already started to increase its vineyard holdings, expanding on the 6ha currently under vine (10ha were planted last year but are not yet ready for production), with an ultimate goal of increasing total plantings to 30ha – a size which could be problematic in the future given the need to transport grapes post-harvest in chilled vans almost 1000km to the winemaking facility in Maipo Valley.

Expansion aside, the Tara range can already be found on a handful of the world’s top restaurant wine lists including Noma, El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz, D.O.M. and Osteria Francescana, and this week will be on sale in the UK (through importers The Wine Treasury), albeit from a somewhat limited allocation of just 48 bottles.

With the monopoly of Atacama wine production (Ventisquero own the only available water rights in the region), the wines have guaranteed appeal. The only problem will be trying to get your hands on a bottle.

Written by Georgina Hindle