Nine Days in Chile

I returned Sunday from nine days traveling wine country in Chile. The trip was packed as my visits were spread from Concepcion up to two hours north of Santiago. Wines tasted included an even broader spread including essentially the entire length of wine country in Chile.

Perception of South American wine has suffered a sort of stasis in the United States. The US wine media and trade often treat the subject as if the Southern wine industry has undergone little change in fifteen or twenty years. In reality, Chilean wine is in the midst of a vibrant resurgence. Malleco Valley, Itata, Bio Bio, and Maule are all benefiting from a slew of smaller scale projects focused on a mix of finding distinctive new terroir, and re-envisioning Chile’s own old vine heritage. Well-established producers from the north are working to help preserve the sustainability of farmers in the south by funding projects with the vines of those areas as well. The boom of small production wines has had a huge impact on the larger production wineries as well. Excellent wine is coming out of the Atacama desert, Limari, and the San Antonio Valley, where little was happening previously. The longer known regions of Casablanca, Maipo, Colchagua and Lyeda have producers re-envisioning their sites and fine-tuning farming in ways that are transforming their wines. Many of the larger production wineries have given their winemakers the room to develop smaller label passion projects within the winery. Some of the most delicious wines of the country are being made in this way – under the umbrella of a winery with the resources to support experimentation and exploration, with the artisanal quality of a small scale hand’s on project. To put it succinctly, it’s time to pay attention to Chilean wine.

Raj Parr and I were asked to travel to Chile in order to present a seminar on North American Pinot Noir to a group of Chilean producers. It can be challenging to find international wines in Chile so the tasting was meant to offer a glimpse of Pinot from primarily California with a bit of Oregon, while also discussing market perception in the United States. A number of producers in Chile are taking Pinot quite seriously doing more intensive study of their site conditions than I have seen at such concentration elsewhere. They also asked us to be part of a producer tasting of Chilean pinot. Raj and I each selected what else we’d like to add to our time in Chile. Raj asked if Pedro Parra would show us his work with old vines in Itata, so we opened our trip in Concepcion with Parra. I asked to see as many vineyards across a range of producers types and regions as possible, so extended my time in Chile by a week in order to do so. The days were intensive as the driving required to get between visits often outpaced the length of the visits themselves. In the end it was totally worth it. I am excited to keep following what is happening in Chile.

As usual, I shared posts looking at parts of my trip – some of the visits, and some of the stand out wines, as well as other things found along the way – via Instagram while traveling. It’s silly but a few of my very favorite wines, and a couple of my very favorite stories I couldn’t bring myself to share. I feel the need to treasure them a bit before doing so. Even so, there’s a ton of information here, and if you’re interested in getting a hold of some Chilean wine, a number of good suggestions are in what follows. I’ll be writing more on Chile in time. Cheers!

Welcome to Chile. Give me some meat? Concepcion. #chiledog @drinkchile

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It ‘s hat Sunday! #chile @rajatparr @drinkchile

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Cactus blossom. Aconcagua Valley. #chile @errazurizwines @drinkchile

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Impressively rocky, and quite chilly, Pinot Noir blocks a mere 3 kilometers from the ocean in the Arboleda vineyards of Aconcagua Costa. Huge deposits of schist move in and out of the hillsides here though no one has yet been able to explain why they disappear in some sections. The schist shown here is far more green due to magnesium than that found in Central Otago where the schist appears far more gray and silver. Higher magnesium levels in soil lower the potassium level uptake into the fruit. Lower potassium levels mean higher acid levels in the wines (essentially). Notice the (still shallow) top soil here does have some clay, which helps the vines more readily capture needed nutrients. The roots reach here far into the fractured rock. The drainage architecture of the rock correlate with palate tingling sapidity. Thanks to a combination of the soil architecture, micro climate, and winemaking, the wines tasted from here have a ton of freshness and drive. #chile @arboledawines @drinkchile

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It was muddy. I slipped. #chile @drinkchile

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Tarantula tracks. Colchagua. #chile @drinkchile

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Incredible. Rodrigo Soto walking almost 130-year old Cabernet vines planted from cuttings taken from Bordeaux before phylloxera, then established on their own roots in the 1890s here in this very spot snugged into a rare intersection of the Coastal Mountains with an outcrop of the Andes on the eastern side of the Colchagua Valley. Thanks to Soto the site is farmed organically, currently being converted to biodynamics, and is full of life. We stopped the truck to watch a tarantula so large we could see it walking along a trail we were passing. There are so many different types of birds Rodrigo does not recognize some of their songs. Wildlife corridors, native vegetation, and indigenous forest are maintained or given space all throughout the property. And everywhere the canopy of the vines look happy. Having seen old vines all over the world it is rare to see Cabernet especially of this age, but also it is unusual to see any vines of this age so clearly healthy in their environment. There is something about a site like this that makes me so excited I start to feel as if I will buzz out of my skin. Neyen. Colchagua Valley. #chile @drinkchile

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Here we see how to propagate almost 130-year old vines, an old school method still used in some older own root vineyards as a way of respecting the vines and increasing the likelihood of new vine success. The vine on the far right of this photo was planted in the 1890s. When it ‘s sister plant beside it died an arm from the vine on the right was pulled down (the cross arm seen here in the middle) and buried then bent upright. Over time the cross arm turned upright grows into a new vine, a sort of spider plant-like offspring of the mother vine with not only identical genetic material but for its first several years also interconnected nutrient supply. Now that the younger vine here on the left is well-established the crossarm connection will be cut to allow both vines to use their own roots. This method is an advantage of own root vineyards as it cannot be done of course with those established on rootstock. Neyen. Colchagua Valley. #chile @drinkchile

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Incredible complexity of granite parent material in the Maipo subsoils. Here the top soil through the slopes of the region is quite shallow with just enough clay to help establish the vines but the roots then push through granite breaks where in some places it is already highly fractured and full of iron and along others where it is rock hard (is it still a pun if the cliche reference really is about rock?! Trying to sort that out) and charcoal black. Mixed through are flashes of quartz. Granite is so hard usually because it is formed slowly as underground magma cools without exposure to oxygen. A complex of minerals serve as part of the granite from the magmas movement and contact with other elements, and differing rates of cooling. The various colors of granite from white to pink to red to gray reflect the differing mineral types included. The incredible range of colors of granite in some growing regions in Chile, like here shown in Maipo, come from the Coastal Mountain range intersecting with the Andes. The two ranges were formed at vastly different times and so also having differing ages, and differing mineral compositions of rock, even when both granite. Once pushed to the surface, the elements, and flora and fauna, including human activity, help change the architecture of the rock creating surface soil. The soil then gives home to plants, as well as micro flora and microfauna that help the plants grow. As plants take hold, the roots reach down and change the composition of the rock even more. The earth is cool. #chile @drinkchile

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One of the challenges the Chilean wine industry faces is the ability to get quality vine material. In an ongoing effort to preserve the health and native diversity of Chile’s unique landscape the government has strictly controlled what plants can enter the country, and also how quickly. This has limited the clonal selections available to producers. Additionally some of the material to come in early on was full of problematic viruses. It is not that virus must be completely eradicated as much as that those that do create genuine damage to quality be curbed. Here workers establish replants where vines planted in September this year did not take. The site is being established to newer selections of Pinot Noir that have done well in the original blocks of this area and farmed biodynamically by the Matetic family near the coast in mica rich granite. The mica content correlates with an incredible buzzing-in-the-palate minerality in the wines from this area. The vineyard is known as Valle Hermoso and is home to the top Matetic Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. It is part of a beautiful and unique property very close to the Pacific that is focused on multi focus farming and extensive preservation of native plants and forests as well. The far southwestern side of Casablanca. #chile @mateticvineyards @drinkchile

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Hanging out at Matetic. San Antonio Valley. #chile @mateticvineyards @drinkchile

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Exploring the biodynamic preps at Matetic and investigating how they have made the system work for them. Biodynamic preps are largely added to compost to enrich the nutrient profile, then the compost is added to the soil between vine rows, thus increasing the microbial health and activity. The idea behind compost in general is that rather than adding elements like nitrogen, which the vines need, to the soil, the compost helps increase the microbial life of the soil. Microbes, micro flora, and microfauna act as a sort of intermediary between the plant and the soil, breaking down mineral compounds into nutrients accessible to the plant. Mineral compounds of the soil cannot be absorbed by the plant. Instead mineral ions made as the soil breaks down through soil activity is what is used. Compost encourages the soil biology that helps generate this process, thus making nutrients in the soil already available to the vine. in this way compost is part of the alternative to chemical farming. #chile @mateticvineyards @drinkchile

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A total honor to meet and spend part of the day with the Marin family of Casa Marin. Of all the vineyards in Chile, those of Casa Marin are closest to the ocean, a mere 4 km. Here from left in the first photo: Felipe, Maria Luz, Nicolas, Jamie. Maria Luz is the first woman winery founder and winemaker in all of Chile. She remains the only one. She now also works with her family. Nicolas works on viticulture. Felipe leads the cellar. Jamie sales. In starting the vineyards and winery Maria Luz returned to the village where she was raised. Casa Marin now employs people from the village year round in their vineyards, cellar, restaurant, and business. Lo Abarca Village, San Antonio Valley. #chile @casamarinwinery @drinkchile

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Baby tanks sticking close to their mommas… San Antonio Valley. #chile @drinkchile

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As their vines in the Leyda Valley have gotten at least ten years of age, the Viña Leyda team has shifted its focus to in depth research on the soils throughout their sites in an effort to deepen the transparency of their wines to site. As the vines were being established they focused on getting to know climate conditions and the peculiar farming needs in the area. Now that the roots have deepened they have done extensive soil mapping beginning with measuring soil conductivity variation, then using those charts to identify key sites for soil pits. What they have found is significant soil variation through their vineyards. The parent material is granite, in some places rich in mica and silt, in others quartz, in others iron. But in sections there is material carried in from hundreds of miles away and layered into the soils. In focusing on soil conditions they have identified soil-based blocks that are then vinified separately so that their vinous character can be understood. This work is intricate and at times tedious but it is part of the key to understanding their unique terroir and honing work in the cellar to amplify quality and site expression where possible. Here viticulturist Tomas Riviera describes the character of one of the soil pits we explored. This one is unusual as it includes pockets of limestone not native to the Leyda Valley. #chile @leydawines @drinkchile

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The last time I was in Chile four years ago I stood in this same spot shivering cold and could not see the Maipo River below, let alone more than a few meters in front of me thanks to intense fog. In the *V* of these hills (here on the right) is the ocean and the cold Patagonia current coming up from Antarctica. It brings a lot of cold maritime influence into the Leyda Valley but today it is warm and clear and the ocean breeze feels glorious. View from the Viña Leyda vineyard. Viña Leyda was the first to plant in Leyda Valley. They also established the infrastructure needed for planting, and successfully petitioned the DO Leyda. The soils through here are granite mixed with alluvial stones. This particular vineyard (newer for Leyda) sits around 4 km from the ocean. #chile @leydawines @drinkchile

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Cono Sur is the largest producer of Pinot Noir in Chile with the first Pinot Noir vineyard in the country, established in 1969, and the first to bring attention to the variety for the country internationally. They work with the grape across five tiers plus sparkling wine with the goal of over-delivering on quality and showcasing freshness at each price level. To maintain that in the cellar, they put work into designing a Pinot Noir focused winery that could deliver quality even at a larger scale. It was fascinating to see how they designed the space. As shown here they rely on open top fermenters, just at a larger size, and designed a pneumatic punchdown device that gently lowers the cap to reduce extraction while also retaining freshness. For aging the wine is delivered to mainly older barrels with the goal of reducing the overall oak signature. They have also been experimenting with other methods like concrete, and foudre in an ongoing effort to fine tune the wines. In our wine world today larger producers are often overlooked under the assumption that only small production wines have higher quality. In reality producers with greater volume are the drivers of the market that make it possible for others to exist. The question comes down to how do they direct their energies and resources in the larger context. Cono Sur opened the door for others to now focus on making site expressive Pinot Noir from Chile. They’ve also been holding that door open and continuing to carefully evolve. Producers with larger volumes also usually have the resources to put into the site, the farming, and the infrastructure needed to grow a market, or conversely to also develop smaller focused projects in the midst of their larger brands. Some of the most intriguing and distinctive small volume projects coming out of Chile are being made by larger wineries giving winemakers the freedom to develop passion projects. Cono Sur focuses on integrative farming introducing plants and animals that help balance the vineyard without pesticides. Chimbarongo. #chile @drinkchile

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It ‘s late in their season so only a few of these bright colored flowers still remain in between rows in the vineyards at Cono Sur but earlier in Spring the vineyards are full of them. Cono Sur encourages their growth as the bright flowers attract bugs that would otherwise become pests to the vines during flowering. By providing another food source for the bugs they can be just another aspect of the vineyard ecology instead of a pest to be eradicated. In Chile there is a saying, a bug is not a pest till it gets in your pocket. The goal in integrative farming, like that done at Cono Sur, is to support a complex environment within the vineyard so that the flora and fauna can be in balance with each other, thereby eliminating or reducing the need for spray interventions. These flowers are one such example. Chimbarongo. #chile @drinkchile

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J Bouchon winemaker Christian Sepúlveda nestled between 120 year old, own root Pais vines dry farmed in granitic soils in Maule. Through his work at Bouchon Christian wants to explore what it means to make distinctly Chilean wines, but also what it means to make wine distinctly from their site in Maule. For him turning to the heritage, the deep history of winemaking in the region reveals the answer. The first varieties to enter Chile were Pais and Muscat in the 16th century. J Bouchon makes three different red Pais wines, a white Pais, and also a sparkling. As he points out, the only way to preserve these historic vineyards, and their part of the heritage of Chile, is for people to drink the wines made from them. The vines are dry farmed, which helps deepen the site expression within the wines, and they are treated gently in the cellar relying on soil character of the vineyard to reveal smart choices in the cellar. These J Bouchon wines are among the most exciting wines being made in Chile. As Christian points out, they start here in the vineyard. Maule. #chile @drinkchile

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Part of the focus of Christian Sepúlveda in his winemaking at J Bouchon is reducing the impact of vessels used in the cellar on the final wine to allow great site transparency. He has also (as have several other producers in Chile) been working on better understanding the very specific soil character within the vineyard in order to better recognize how that shows up in the structure and fruit character of the wines, and then better respect that in the cellar. As part of this Christian has returned to using the wineries historic concrete fermentation vessels as were readily used well into the early part of the last century. The concrete tanks shown here more readily maintain an even fermentation temperature arc without temperature control than, for example, stainless steel, while also allowing some oxygen exchange, as well as a different chemical interaction (essentially) with the concrete than the steel. The result is found in profound textural difference to the wines, and in many cases a differing sense of completeness and consistency across the palate. Historically producers turned away from concrete to steel in favor of temperature control and easiness of cleaning. Steel can Also more readily harness the linearity of some varieties. Stainless steel tanks though also mean an essentially oxygen free environment. All of these aspects change the dynamics of fermentation as well as how aging happens and producers choose the vessel partially based on desired effect. In this case, after experimenting in the cellar, Christian feels that in the case of heritage vines, especially those grown in granitic soils, a greater sense of purity is delivered through these old tanks. As he describes it the work J Bouchon is doing in both vineyard and cellar is about innovation through a return to their roots. Maule. #chile @drinkchile

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Thing 1, Thing 2. J Bouchon winery. Maule. #chile @drinkchile

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Awesome. If you haven’t had Pais you are seriously missing out. Here tasting three different styles of Pais with Christian Sepúlveda, winemaker of J Bouchon. Christian works with 120-year old, dry farmed and head trained Pais vines to make concrete fermented wines with a focus on purity. The Pais Viejo is a fresh and friendly quaffable wine perfect for picnics or poolside with carbonic lift and pure fruits. The Pais Salvage delivers the wildness of the variety with a touch more edgy structure, depth and palate stimulation. The Les Mercedes brings an elegant side to the variety with a bit more age-ability while also offering the balance perfect for a meal. Really awesome discussion on Chilean heritage, vineyard expression, and freshness. Fantastic tasting. Maule. #chile @drinkchile

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Chilean bbq. Maule. #chile @drinkchile

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Listening for love on the road … #chile

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1 COMMENT

  1. I’m so glad you include Derek’s Garage Wine Co and Bouchon. I’m a big fan of both, some very exciting things going on in Chile, but it does seem difficult to overcome the existing reputation of the super-big producers.

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