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Adolfo Hurtado: Wonder Boy

There’s a considered approach behind Adolfo Hurtado’s meteoric rise in Chilean winemaking. He and tim atkin MW talk Pinot and progress

Relaxed, friendly and unfazed, Adolfo Hurtado is equanimity made flesh. There may be moments when he loses his rag mid-harvest – berating a hapless cellarhand or smashing his knuckles against a barrel in frustration – but they are hard to imagine. If he ever gives up winemaking, Hurtado could find employment as a diplomat. Some winemakers practically interview themselves, filling your notebook with quotable quotes, but Hurtado is more considered. Getting him to say something controversial is like extracting oil from the ocean floor.

Talk to anyone in the Chilean wine industry about Hurtado and they mention his kindness, patience, honesty and charm. But they also highlight other characteristics, too: talent, meticulous attention to detail, passion for innovation and a drive to make Chile’s best wines. He is certainly one focused hombre. And a successful one, too. For someone who is still in his thirties, Hurtado has achieved an enormous amount: gold medals and winemaker of the year awards galore. Most commentators regard him as one of the leading commercial winemakers, not just in Chile, but in the whole of the southern hemisphere.

Not for the young Hurtado dreams of being a fireman, film star or astronaut. ‘From the time I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an agricultural guy,’ he says in his slightly Americanised English. ‘All my family worked on farms and I grew up on one in Casablanca from the age of five.’ His father wasn’t a grape grower – his business was milk and cheese – but Hurtado’s maternal grandfather was a winemaker who owned a vineyard in Apalta.

When he arrived at Chile’s prestigious Universidad Católica it was to study general agriculture, not wine. It wasn’t until the third year of a five-year course that he decided to specialise in viticulture and oenology. As part of his degree, he spent a month at Viña Montes cleaning tanks and washing floors and was impressed by what winemaker and owner Aurelio Montes was doing in Chile in the early 1990s. ‘Aurelio was trying to achieve something absolutely different: to add value and make premium wines. Many people thought it was crazy.’

After university, Hurtado got a job at Viña La Rosa as a junior winemaker under a French boss and two consultants, Goetz von Gersdorff and Ignacio Recabarren, both key figures in establishing the modern Chilean wine industry. When the Frenchman left five months later, he got the top job. In November 1994, he was a fully fledged winemaker.

Three years later, he got his career-making break when Eduardo Guilisasti of Concha y Toro offered him the winemaking post at its off-the-wall (by Chile standards) Cono Sur winery. The business had been run by two Americans, Art Masolo and winemaker Ed Flaherty since its inception in 1993 and was starting to create waves with its plain and simple approach. ‘No family trees, no dusty bottles, just quality wines’, a statement which remains the company’s marketing mantra, was a revolutionary approach in ultra-conservative Chile.

From the start, Concha y Toro’s deep pockets enabled it to invest in the Cono Sur winery in Chimbarongo (Colchagua) as well as to buy the best fruit from all over the country. Just as important for Hurtado was that he was given ‘the freedom to develop something interesting and different’. working with little-known (for Chile) varieties such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, as well as synthetic corks.

Hurtado was also given a budget to plant vineyards in new, cool-climate areas such as Casablanca and Bío Bío. ‘Most wineries had all their grapes in one place,’ he says. ‘We were one of the first to plant different varieties in different places, depending on what worked best. There were very few plantings on hillside sites in those days and very little drip irrigation. Even Casabalanca was only just starting to make a name for itself. There were no vines there when I was growing up.’

Chile’s wine-growing areas are still developing, but Hurtado thinks certain regions have proved their suitability for particular varieties: Limarí (Syrah), Casablanca (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir), Maipo (Cabernet Sauvignon), Colchagua (Carmenere), San Antonio (Pinot Noir), Bío Bío (Riesling and Gewurztraminer), Cachapoal (Carmenere) and Maule (Carignan and Grenache). ‘Who knows, there may be undiscovered spots further north or south, by the coast or in the Andes,’ he adds.

In 1997, Cono Sur was already becoming a successful winery, but it only made 30,000 cases. Today, there’s 4 million cases between its two labels: Cono Sur and its price-fighting Isla Negra brand. Most wines are varietals: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Viognier, Syrah, Carmenere, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon – with an emphasis on sourcing fruit from its own 3,200ha of vineyards and on long-term contracts with growers.

Pinots with personality

The grape Hurtado loves most is not Chile’s USP, Carmenere, or even Cabernet Sauvignon, but Pinot Noir. Cono Sur started making Pinot in 1993, using a block that was planted in Chimbarongo in 1966, but Hurtado has taken the wines to new levels. Today he makes six different Pinots (in descending order: Ocio, 20 Barrels, Visión, Reserva, Organic and its entry-point varietal line). All that adds up to 350,000 cases of Pinot.

‘Pinot Noir is the most challenging variety there is,’ says Hurtado, ‘but we’re getting better at it every year. The 2007 Ocio [which won Chile’s Over £10 Pinot Trophy at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards] is the best wine I’ve made.’ He admits that he’s benefited from the consultancy of Burgundian winemaker Martin Prieur from Domaine Jacques Prieur, but says that he’s followed his own ideas, too. ‘Geographically, Chile is an isolated country, and that means that we’ve had to create our own personality. Maybe that’s reflected in my Pinots.’

Hurtado is not given to tooting his own trumpet, but he thinks his Pinots are up there with the best in the New World. In fact, the only remotely controversial thing he says in the two hours we spend together is that ‘Chilean Pinot Noirs are more interesting than those from New Zealand, which I find a little dilute’. For a man who measures his words, it’s quite a statement. I don’t agree with him about New Zealand, but the 2007 Ocio is certainly an impressive wine. But then so are his 20 Barrels Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and his Visión Riesling and Gewurztraminer. You could make a strong case for describing Hurtado as Chile’s most accomplished white winemaker.

Since 2000, Hurtado has been general manager as well as chief winemaker at Cono Sur, equally adept at running the company and cellar. Innovation is a recurring theme: the move towards organic viticulture, starting with the first 40ha in 2000; ISO certification in 2002 for its environmental practices; carbon neutral status in 2007; and, in 2008, the construction of a new winery. He has also overseen the purchase of premium vineyards in Colchagua and San Antonio and, in 2009, the acquisition of the Los Robles co-operative and its Fairtrade brand.

Hurtado has undoubtedly benefited from the changes in Chilean society over the past 20 years. ‘The country has opened up,’ he says, ‘and that has helped the wine industry a lot.’ But that shouldn’t play down his contribution. He’s part of a generation of Chilean winemakers in their late 30s (Enrique Tirado, Marcelo Papa and Marcelo Retamal are contemporaries) who have built on the work of the likes of Ignacio Recabarren, Pablo Morandé, Aurelio Montes, Irene Pavia and Alvaro Espinoza, travelling more, tasting more and pushing the boundaries of the country’s wine styles.

What next for a man who thrives on a challenge? Will he stay at Cono Sur, which he has done so much to transform over the past 12 years? ‘I can’t think of a better place to be,’ he says. ‘I work hard, I have great grapes to work with and I have a great team around me.’ The diplomatic corps can wait.

Written by Tim Atkin MW

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