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South American Pinot Noir: 20 to try

Stepping out of the shadow of Burgundy, winemakers in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay have championed styles of Pinot Noir that express their own unique terroirs. Alejandro Iglesias finds out more and recommends 20 top bottles to buy.

The world of Pinot Noir is a complex one. It’s well known that Pinot is a variety that’s as demanding as its consumers are. With the reds of Burgundy leading the way, you wouldn’t have thought there was much leeway for Pinot Noirs from other regions in the world to impress.

But California and Oregon have already shown that it’s possible to make good Pinot Noirs in the New World. While in South America today, producers in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay are making varietal wines that demand attention.

The winemakers of South America are respectfully looking beyond Burgundy, exploring new profiles for Pinot Noir in their own unique terroirs. The resulting wines are eminently capable of intriguing even the most die-hard Burgundians.

Vineyards and hills in Chile with a blue sky

Viña Errazuriz vineyards in cool Aconcagua Costa, which is well suited to growing Pinot Noir grapes

Chile

At the turn of the century, producers in Chile began to plant Pinot Noir in different regions of its viticultural landscape. The method they adopted was to replace the existing old vines with quality healthy clones such as 777, 667, 115 and massal selections from Burgundy.

But the key ingredient to the success of these ventures was time. In the early stages, the majority of wines produced from these new plantings were concentrated; quite different from what one might expect from a Pinot Noir.

‘In Chile, we’ve always followed the Bordelais tradition and we initially handled Pinot Noir in the same way as we did Cabernet,’ remembers Francisco Baettig, winemaker at Viña Errazuriz. ‘It took us time to understand how to exploit the potential of our new vineyards but today we’re confident we’re on the right path.’

And so, with focus and dedication, Pinot Noir became a serious business in Chile. In addition to the increased surface area, which now stands at 4,144ha under vine (compared to 1,434 in 2001), there is the work in different regions and, especially, research into soils.

‘Between 1995 and 1998 we expanded into coastal terroirs with cooler climates where varieties such as Pinot Noir produce better results,’ says Viviana Navarrete, the oenologist at Viña Leyda, a leading producer of Pinot Noirs in Chile. ‘Today Pinot Noir is grown from Elqui to Osorno – a distance of about a thousand miles – and that results in different styles.’

However this diversity of terroir required greater research and study. ‘Pinot Noir needs a lot of attention,’ says Felipe Muller, the winemaker at Tabalí. ‘We’ve learned that it’s not just a cool climate variety, but also very demanding in terms of the soils it needs. Planting in calcareous soils was key to achieving better expressions.’

Today, some of the best New World Pinot Noirs are to be found in Chile. While areas closer to the sea are producing styles similar to Oregon and sunnier vineyards make wines more like those in Sonoma, the greatest work is being done to produce a refined style of Pinot Noir with its own identity. A Pinot Noir which reflects both its place of origin and the vision of its winemakers.

Vineyards in front of a hill with blue sky

Viña Leyda’s El Maiten Pinot Noir Vineyard is 12km from the ocean

Argentina

The history of Pinot Noir in Argentina is fairly brief. Until the early 2000s, the variety didn’t attract much attention. All the focus was on Malbec. Eventually, from an old vineyard in Patagonia, Piero Incisa della Rochetta began to put the country on the Pinot Noir map with his Bodega Chacra wines.

This inspired several other producers to seek out old vineyards of their own or find clones better suited to Argentinian terroirs. There was also a move to identify regions where they would truly thrive.

Surprisingly, Pinot Noir is grown in more regions of Argentina than Malbec. Not just in Mendoza and Patagonia, but also in the highest vineyards of the country at 3,100m above sea level in Salta, and near the Atlantic Ocean in Buenos Aires.

‘Back in 1992, we started to plant Pinot Noir in high altitude vineyards in the Uco Valley,’ remembers Laura Catena, who founded Domaine Nico, a project in which she makes Pinot Noir from five different vineyards at altitudes of between 1,000m and 1,500m above sea level in Tupungato. ‘Our work with cool mountain areas convinced us that there was great potential.’

About 1,450km to the south of the Uco Valley in the province of Chubut, the team at Bodega Otronia was thinking similarly. ‘We decided to bet on an extreme, virgin terroir where the temperatures are extremely low and the Pinot Noir is very rewarding,’ says Juan Pablo Murgia, the project’s winemaker. ‘We feel that we have a unique style.’

The same enthusiasm can be observed in each of the producers who have set themselves the goal of making Pinot Noir to satisfy the most demanding palates in the world. Among them – with the exception of the old vineyards of Río Negro such as Chacra or Humberto Canale, who achieve a classical European style – the majority of Pinot Noirs from Argentina take on profiles similar to either Sonoma or Martinborough in New Zealand. These wines are concentrated and lively with vivid flavours of cherry and other red fruit.

Small vineyards on a hillside with a blue sky

Bodega Garzón’s winery and Pinot Noir vines

Uruguay

Today, Uruguay has 60ha of Pinot Noir under vine where the vineyards are influenced by the Atlantic Ocean or the Río de la Plata, depending on the region. In both cases, the result is a mild, relatively cloudy climate which results in benefits and challenges.

‘Pinot Noir has great potential in Uruguay although the climate presents difficulties in the field,’ says Germán Bruzzone, winemaker at Bodega Garzón. ‘However, with care and precise winemaking we’re producing refined wines that we’re getting excited about.’

There are at least two discernible styles developing, each related to its region’s history. On the one hand, there are the older vineyards located in the historic Department of Canelones by the Río de la Plata, which present a traditional profile with tertiary evoltion.

Meanwhile the younger vineyards, clustered in the Department of Maldonado – which is influenced by the ocean and has poor, rocky soils – produce wines that are more modern and intense in the classical New World vein.

However, in addition to the age of the vines, it’s important to note that in both terroirs, when Pinot Noir is tended to diligently, the results can be very interesting as works in progress. These include wines from wineries such as Garzón, Deicas and Viña Edén in Maldonado or Cerro del Toro in Piriápolis. Or, in the more traditional region of Canelones: Familia Pisano, Marichal and Pizzorno.

Top 20 South American Pinot Noirs to try


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