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Chile: Extreme viticulture

In partnership with Wines of Chile

Desert regions with salt-laden soil, snowy mountainsides and active volcanoes are among the unlikely locations where Chile’s winemakers are experimenting – and often succeeding. Chris Losh hails their spirit

Around the millennium, much of Chile’s wine production – and just about all the interest – was firmly centred within a 150km radius of Santiago. Well, not any more. Over the past 20 years, Chile’s grape-growing boundaries have not so much been pushed back as disappeared altogether. Producers are planting in areas that previous generations probably couldn’t even have found on a map, let alone considered for viticulture.

From the dust of the Atacama Desert in the north to the verdant hills of the Lake District in the south, from the breezy Pacific coast to the stony Andes slopes, vineyards are springing up everywhere. It’s a wholesale reimagining of what Chilean wine is, can be, and perhaps always should have been, all about.

Chile’s central plain – the area between the Andes and the Coastal Range – is a ridiculously easy place to grow, well, anything. But vines need to struggle. Marginality is where the good stuff is. So Chile’s wineries began to push the envelope, mostly heading west towards the sea and north towards the desert.

Given that the Atacama is one of the driest, most sun-drenched regions on earth, it might seem a strange place to look for a cooler climate, but in fact once you get to the Limarí Valley, 400km north of Santiago, the Coastal Range is far lower. Fog fills vineyards until lunchtime and there are cool breezes all the time.

With temperatures significantly lower, it’s no surprise that grapes in places such as Tabalí’s Talinay vineyard ripen much later than they do inland. In fact, it’s one of the particularities of Chile’s topography that moving 10km east or west can have a greater impact than moving hundreds of kilometres north or south.

Mountain influence

Of course, if you go far enough away from the coast other factors start to come into play. Factors such as the Andes. These mountains have some effect even on the Central Valley, with cool air from the peaks washing down over the vineyards at night. But over the past couple of decades, some pioneers have even taken to planting into the mountains themselves.

Tabalí’s Río Hurtado vineyard might (like Talinay) be in the Limarí Valley, but it could hardly be more different. Situated 100km from the coast, it’s 1,600m up into the Andes on the granitic east-facing slopes of a narrow river valley. It’s a place of endless sunshine and big diurnal temperature swings that make it possible to grow varieties such as Malbec and Viognier. Aresti, meanwhile, is going down a different route with its 1,200m-altitude estate located 130km from the sea in the Curicó Andes, bringing a more elegant spin to Merlot.

Chile’s king of high-altitude viticulture, however, is Marcelo Retamal of Viñedos de Alcohuaz. At 85km from the coast, his vineyards in Elqui are a (literally) dizzying 2,000m above sea level. The Andes here are famous for the purity of their light – one of the reasons they’re loved by astronomers (and if the local legends are true, aliens). The sun intensity and altitude here combine to give reds of rare tannic structure, ripeness and lift.

‘Elqui is one of the cleanest skies in the world,’ says Retamal. ‘The problem is the radiation. The temperature in summer is not really high, but light and the UV are very strong.’ He’s putting his money on the likes of Grenache, Syrah, Touriga Nacional, Carignan and Malbec – and foot-treading for gentle tannin extraction.

At these altitudes, it’s hardly risk-free. In 2016, springtime snow cost the winery more than 80% of its production. But Retamal is unfazed. ‘If you want to make a great wine, you must take a risk,’ he says. ‘Safe places [equal] boring wine.’

Marcelo Retamal

Marcelo Retamal

Northern challenge

Until fairly recently Elqui was as far north as Chilean wineries went. But in 2007, Viña Ventisquero started planting in Huasco, 800km north of Santiago in the Atacama Desert, a place where, as winemaker Alejandro Galaz points out, ‘it hasn’t rained in 50 years’.

Soberingly, this isn’t even the biggest challenge. After all, there’s always irrigation from the nearby river. No, the big issue here is stupendously poor soil that is, moreover, so salty you could probably sprinkle it on your chips.

‘If you read the research about what a vine can hold in salinity levels, we are over 10 times that amount,’ says Galaz cheerfully of his poor struggling plants. ‘It’s an extreme place that produces extreme wines, [but] nature finds a way!’

Unsurprisingly, given the costs, effort and unpredictability of planting up in the Andes or on the fringes of the world’s driest desert, the north and the east of Chile are only for the seriously committed.

Coastal effect

But there has been no shortage of growers prepared to look for sites with maritime influence. In fact, this boundary has been steadily moving seawards ever since the Casablanca Valley was planted in the 1980s. The Leyda Valley has been the most obvious success story, but nearby Lo Abarca, just 4km from the sea, is even cooler. Casa Marin and Matetic make excellent wines here with the likes of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir on the more exposed slopes, and bright, elegant Syrah and (experimental) Grenache on warmer folds in the hills.

‘We are sheltered from the ocean by just one small hill,’ says winemaker Felipe Marin of the area that received its own DO in 2018. ‘We have less than 1,000 growing degree days – similar to the coolest regions of France. The difference is that we have a lot of sun intensity and no rainfall,’ he adds.

Incredibly, some producers are planting even closer to the ocean than this. Viña Luis Felipe Edwards has an experimental vineyard of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay a couple of kilometres from the Pacific in what it believes is the most coastal site in Chile. The country’s wineries will be awaiting the results with interest.

Vina Ventisquero

Viña Ventisquero, Atacama. Credit: Estanis Nuñez

Southern success

Chile’s southern renaissance has perhaps been the big story of the past 20 years. The shift from growers selling grapes to bottling their own wine has re-energised the Maule and Itata Valleys. Old vines are part of the attraction, but don’t underestimate the lower temperatures and regular rainfall, both of which are seen as a long-term counterpoint to climate change.

Rebecca Palmer, associate director and buyer at merchant Corney & Barrow, has taken on a number of the country’s southern producers. ‘There’s no doubt that there’s a lot going on,’ she says. ‘The south of Chile has always been very vibrant and there’s a real sense of fomenting energy and spirit.’ She cites the more savoury Pinot Noirs from places such as Bío-Bío as being particularly worth a look – especially with Burgundy prices soaring.

Wine producers, however, are moving on even from what used to be seen as the far south – so much so that in 2012 the country’s wine body announced the designation of a new region, Austral, with two DOs below Malleco.

De Martino has just planted in Pucón, on the foothills of Villarrica – one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. With winter snow, high rainfall and lava soils, Sebastian De Martino describes it as ‘an extreme continental climate… a cool-climate version of Etna’ and can’t wait to see how his ungrafted Pinot, Chardonnay and Riesling perform. ‘We expect the wines to be mineral,’ he says.

Casa Silva is even further south down the Pan-American Highway, planting Champagne grapes in Osorno. ‘I think it is becoming the region for espumantes (sparkling wines) in Chile,’ says Mario Pablo Silva. Similar thinking lies behind Aurelio Montes’ decision to plant on the eastern side of the Chiloé archipelago, at a similar latitude to New Zealand’s Marlborough, but in the full glare of the Pacific’s mighty cooling influence. It’s a gamble, yes, but it’s also hugely exciting.

The past 20 years have seen unparalleled exploration and experimentation in Chile. Traditional varieties are being made in different styles and new grapes are coming to the party. There will be a few failures along with the successes for sure, but it’s going to be one heck of a ride.

And the best bit of all is that it’s only just begun.

Losh selects his top 12 wines from Chile’s extreme vineyards

chile wines

De Martino, Tres Volcanes Chardonnay, Malleco 2017 95


De Martino is consistently at the forefront of new thinking in Chile, and when its Quebrada Seca vineyard in Limarí keeled over due to drought, it headed 650km south of Santiago in search of rainfall and coolness. This is the result – a wonderful expression of cool-climate Chardonnay, all white pear and apple fruit, with a lovely crunchy minerality giving the palate stretch and length. Drink 2020-2024 Alcohol 13.5%

Concha y Toro, Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, Limarí 2017 92


Concha is a big believer in the potential of northern Limarí for Chardonnay – and this wine shows why. It’s a hugely beguiling mix of classic oaked Chardonnay flavours – white peach, melon and creamy hazelnut – with inherent lift and lovely structural integration. The 2015 picked up a DWWA Trophy, so it has pedigree. Drink 2020-2022 Alc 14%

J Bouchon, Batuco Estate Granito Semillon, Maule 2018 90


There’s not a lot of Semillon in Chile, but on this evidence perhaps there should be. Dry-farmed from old vines in Maule, there’s plenty of vibrant fruit character here – lemon balm, orange peel, citrus leaves – but the most striking aspect is the salty, mineral note coming from the granitic soil. Drink 2020-2025 Alc 13.5%

Casa Silva, Lago Ranco Riesling, Futrono, Austral 2017 89


A Riesling for the purists from one of Chile’s coolest vineyards, looking out over mighty Lake Ranco. This wine is all about cool apples and lemon edges. Zesty and fresh with bright, mouthwatering acidity. Drink 2020-2022 Alc 11.5%

Massoc Frères, La Gringa Moscatel, Itata 2017 89


This shows the potential of old-vine Moscatel in Itata. La Gringa translates as ‘American Girl’, and there’s something feminine, but also coolly assured, about this. Orchard fruit, almond blossom and a gently smoky, mineral palate. Hugely drinkable. Drink 2020-2020 Alc 13.5%

Falernia, Riesling, Elqui 2018 87


Elqui is a very particular place to grow grapes – and this is an interesting expression of Riesling. Fresh lime and tropical flavours; while the acidity is gentler than you’d expect in the variety. Drink 2020-2021 Alc 12.5%

Maturana Wines, Naranjo Torontel, Maule 2018 90


An orange wine with an intriguing nose of honey, blood oranges, white peach, thyme and white pepper. The exotic attack tapers to a dry, spicy palate with gentle tannic grip that makes it great for food. Drink 2020-2022 Alc 13.5%

Clos des Fous, Arenaria Aconcagua Costa Pinot Noir, Aconcagua 2014 95


Two of the three ‘fous’ (crazies) worked in Burgundy and sought to bring Burgundian, terroir-driven winemaking to Chile. This pale, perfumed coastal Pinot is a classy example of what Chile can do with the grape. Its raspberry core is overlaid with spice and gentle earthy notes. Drink 2020-2028 Alc 15%

Tabalí, Talinay Pinot Noir, Calcareo Costero, Limarí 2015 93


Tabalí’s Talinay vineyard is one of the closest to the sea in Limarí and you can see the influence of the cooling fog and sea breezes here. The charming black cherry fruit is topped off with violets and a dusting of five spice. And though the palate is juicily succulent, the fruit is held in check by a gentle salinity on the finish. Drink 2020-2024 Alc 13.5%

Carmen, Loma Seca Cinsault, Itata 2019 92


Carignan has become something of A Thing in Chile’s southern valleys, but another C-grape worth looking out for is Cinsault. With its delicate raspberry and strawberry fruit, a flick of spice and bright acidity, this out-Pinots many of the country’s Pinots. One to pair with salt marsh lamb or monkfish in pancetta. Drink 2020-2022 Alc 14%

La Ronciere, Idahue Estate Malbec, Curicó 2017 89


Chilean Malbec is quite different from versions on the other side of the Andes. With 8% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc, this has plush plum fruits, but also bitter chocolate. Oak adds a coffee note, so it’s more savoury and textural than you’d expect. Drink 2020-2025 Alc 14%

Laurent, Polemico País, Itata 2018 87


País has seen a big turnaround in fortunes over the last 10 years. Integrated redcurrant and red cherry fruit, with a comforting kiss of almonds and red leather on the finish. Drink 2020-2021 Alc 13%

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