With Chile's main vineyard areas rapidly filling up, winemakers are searching for new places to produce their quality wines. Michael Schachner looks at three emerging Chilean regions.
Fresh on the heels of the emergence and success of regions and sub-regions such as the Casablanca Valley and Apalta in Colchagua, Chile’s wineries, winemakers and grape growers are now developing several new wine Chilean regions that could potentially blossom into the next big thing.
From the Valle de Leyda, a small coastal section of the northern Aconcagua Valley, to Traiguen, 650km south of Santiago in Mapuche Indian country, pioneering Chilean regions are beginning to make wines from land that until recently had never produced a viable wine grape, let alone fruit good enough for world-class wines. Whether these regions, along with Marchigue in coastal Colchagua, will mature sufficiently to compete with established regions like Maipo, Casablanca and Curicó is a question that has not yet been answered. These vineyards are less than four years old in most cases. However, preliminary results from wineries exploring some of these cool-weather regions give followers of Chilean wine hope that there could be some great new wines appearing.
Already there is excellent Chardonnay from the chilly Traiguen vineyard managed by Felipe de Solminihac, winemaker and partner in Viña Aquitania, co-owned by Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux and Bruno Prats, formerly of Cos d’Estournel. The inaugural 2000 wine, bottled under the Domaine Paul Bruno label and carrying the name SoldeSol, was anointed ‘Best Chilean Chardonnay’ in Descorchados, a publication edited by the respected Chilean wine writer Patricio Tapia. Others are just as sold on this wine.
‘The most delicious, fine Chardonnay in Chile is coming from Paul Bruno in Traiguen,’ says Hernan de la Cruz, export director for Viu Manent, a progressive winery based in Colchagua. ‘The early results there have been very positive,’ adds Hector Torres, export manager with Viña Carmen in the Maipo Valley. Felipe de Solminihac explains the impetus for heading so far south, to a region where little more than wheat has been grown until now. ‘After a 1994 trip to New Zealand, I had the idea of planting in southern Chile on my in-laws’ farm. It’s located at 38º latitude, 100km further south than where the vineyards stop.’
That far south one might think it too cold and wet for grapes, even for Chardonnay, which often suffers and goes flabby in the warmer northern regions of Chile’s sprawling Central Valley. ‘It does rain a lot,’ de Solminihac says. But he points out that the rainfall during the vegetative period is just over 300mm, which is not that different from New Zealand, Burgundy or Alsace. And a strong south wind ensures that there is no fungus or disease.
For SoldeSol, which comes from a vineyard spanning only 5ha (hectares), the grapes are picked in late April, trucked at night to the Aquitania winery on the outskirts of Santiago, and then pressed before barrel fermentation. ‘The wine is so rich in malic acid that malolactic fermentation is easy, giving high complexity,’ says de Sominihac. ‘I think the wine is more concentrated, fruity and with higher acidity than other Chilean Chardonnays.’
With such promising early results, de Solminihac and a few others with interest in further developing Traiguen (Adolfo Hurtado of Cono Sur, for example) have applied to have the region named Valle del Malleco-Traiguen Area. ‘Currently there are no other growers or bodegas down there, but I think soon there are going to be because of the good results we’ve had,’ says de Solminihac.
‘Not even Casablanca or Leyda are close to Traiguen’ in terms of producing crisp, racy Chardonnay, says Christian Sotomayor, export director at Valdivieso in Curicó. ‘Felipe’s Chardonnay is already well in advance of the other white wines in our country.’
Sotomayor, a former agronomist himself, has planted wine grapes some 400km south of Traiguen, in San Pablo. ‘We planted in late 2000 and expect to harvest a serious volume in 2004. It’s a small trial of about a hectare, planted on north-facing slopes. It will be the most southern vineyard in the Chilean regions, called Viña Los Castaños. As you can see, there are still some crazy guys out there.’
Chilean regions with Sea Breezes
Moving north, another cooler area that has people talking is the Leyda Valley, 15km inland from the coastal town of San Antonio and 40km south of Casablanca. Now still part of the Aconcagua Valley appellation, this area has much in common with Casablanca, although it is much smaller and even closer to the Pacific Ocean.
Currently Leyda is home to about half a dozen growers, but no actual producing wineries. One major winery taking a big interest in the area is Concha y Toro, which has been getting grapes from Leyda for two years. Marcelo Papa, winemaker for Concha’s excellent new Terrunyo line, says Leyda is similar to Casablanca’s coolest, most western sections. The first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were planted in Leyda in 1998, with the first commercial grapes coming in just two years ago.
‘The Chardonnay from Leyda is less tropical than Casablanca and more mineral. The natural acidity is fantastic,’ says Papa. He points out that virtually all Leyda vineyards are planted on hillsides that run parallel to the ocean, something that makes the fruit more consistent than in Casablanca, which runs west to east and therefore has differing coastal influences. ‘The vines here are very young,’ says Sotomayor. ‘But so far the results are amazing, especially the Pinot Noir.’
One of the names to watch in Leyda could be Viña Casa Marín, co-owned by six women with varying backgrounds in the wine industry. Profiled on the MujeresChile (Women of Chile) website, Casa Marín has 20ha of Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc a mere 6km from the Pacific. Group leader Maria de la Luz Marín is hoping to produce Pinot Noir on a par with what is coming out of New Zealand and California. a few concerns
Although hopes for the region are high, Hector Torres of Carmen, a keen observer of Chile’s wine industry, isn’t entirely sold on Leyda. He fears that Leyda’s emergence may have more to do with the fact that there is no more irrigated vineyard land to develop in Casablanca, thus people are looking for the next best thing. ‘Five thousand hectares are already planted in Casablanca. I would suggest moderate expectations for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Leyda. For us, the early results have not been that good. At Carmen we bought grapes this year from Leyda and the quality was not good. It isn’t clear if this is because of poor terroir or lack of experience among growers. It could be a bit of both,’ says Torres.
Finally, if you have been following Chilean regions over the past five years, no doubt you have heard plenty about the Colchagua Valley and just as much if not more about the Apalta vineyard, of which Casa Lapostolle, Montes and Santa Rita own portions. This valley is now arguably Chile’s premier red-wine region, excellent for Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and, increasingly, Syrah.
But the heart of Colchagua is about 50km inland from the Pacific, and it tends to get warm there during the peak of the growing season. As a result, growers and wineries have been experimenting with land and vineyards situated closer to the coastline, specifically a fairly large and somewhat undefined area called Marchigue.
One of the leaders in the Marchigue movement is Montes, which is now developing its own 250ha property, of which 65ha are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and recently Merlot. Co-owner Douglas Murray says Montes’ El Arcángel estate, just 15km from the sea, was discovered by winemaker and partner Aurelio Montes after Montes took several flights over the property.
‘We use slopes for Cabernet and Syrah, and flat ground for Merlot. We have very high expectations for our estate, which will start producing a wine in 2003.’ Marchigue is not as new a vineyard area as Leyda or Traiguen, evidenced by the fact that Concha y Toro and Montes, among others, have been buying grapes from the region since the mid 1990s. But only recently have better producers invested in land and planted their own vineyards. Marcelo Papa says Concha bought property in Marchigue just this year, and it was only a year or so ago that Viu Manent planted on the hills at El Olivar, near Peralillo just inland from Marchigue. Meanwhile, others that are still buying fruit from Marchigue vineyards include Canepa, Santa Rita and Santa Ines. If this seems like a lot of smoke but not much fire, recall that only five years ago Apalta, Colchagua and Casablanca entered our Chilean wine vocabulary. Don’t be shocked if over the next five years we add Traiguen, Leyda and Marchigue to the list.
Michael Schachner is a freelance wine, food and travel writer based in New York City.
Written by MICHAEL SCHACHNER