There’s a race on in Chile—a race to develop new vineyard areas that are on the edge, climate-wise. Chilean vintners have turned their full attention to their long coastline, looking for various terroirs where cool-climate varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah might thrive. Many big players are involved, buying up large tracts of land at once, while smaller wineries are trying to elbow their way in. One of those, Viña Tabali, might just have a leg up on the rest though.
Last week I sat down with Felipe Müller, winemaker at Viña Tabali, to talk about the winery’s latest developments in the Limarí Valley, which was a mostly undeveloped northern viticultural outpost until recently, when wineries such as Viña Maycas del Limarí (owned by Concha y Toro) and De Martino arrived. Now Viña Cono Sur, Sur Andino, Viña Peñalolén and others are sourcing fruit from there. Viña Tabali was in on the ground floor though, planting in the area in the early 1990s, before other producers had it on their radar. (For details on Chile's winegrowing regions, you can reference our ABC's of Chile.)
Viña Tabali is owned by Guillermo Luksic, who also owns the large Viña San Pedro. But in 2006, he broke Tabali out of that large company’s holdings and set it up independently. Today Viña Tabali has 255 hectares under vine and is producing 65,000 cases annually, all of it Limarí Valley fruit. The winery’s latest vineyard development, called Talinay (tah-lee-NI) is located just 12 kilometers from the coast. It has Müller especially excited, and he admits he was lucky to even find the place.
Tucked in the foothills of the narrow, small coastal range of mountains that runs along the coast, the vineyard is obscured from the main road through the valley. With water in the area always in short supply, Müller never figured anyone was growing anything so close to the coast. But then he got a phone call from a grower inviting him to come see his vines.
“I had to ask him a few times where he was, because I couldn’t believe anything was there,” said Müller.
When he got there, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Gentle rolling hillsides of weathered, porous limestone formed from an old marine terrace.
“I had the owner dig some holes to make sure of what I thought I was seeing,” said Müller. “After working in Sancerre and Burgundy, it was exactly the kind of soil I was looking for, but better. It’s an extreme vineyard.”
Not only are the soils extreme, but also the area is as well, constantly buffeted by cool ocean-fed breezes that keep vine vigor extremely low and the vineyard cooler than others planted further inland. Müller convinced Luksic to buy the 75-hectare vineyard in 2009 and now it will form the basis for a new line of wines to be released soon, bottlings of 2009 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir labeled under the Talinay name, as well as a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc under the winery's Reserva Especial line. [Note: As always, official reviews of the wines, based on blind tastings, will appear in the near future.]
Viña Tabali's Talinay vineyard features rolling hillsides just a stone's throw from the coast in the northern Limarí Valley.
Viña Tabali has its home base further inland, with the main vineyard located 29 kilometers from the coast and located on the opposite side of the Limarí River from the other wineries in the valley. There, the winery's original 180 hectares of vines are planted . And although it’s further inland, the vineyard is situated on the highest of the four alluvial terraces that form the valley, keeping it markedly cool as well.
“The wines show cool-climate character—pepper, iron and black fruits,” said Müller. “But they don’t show the green side of a cool climate. And the minerality is great too.”
Müller, 35, worked with De Martino’s Marcelo Retamal for seven years before taking on the job at Tabali at the end of 2006. He’d been tantalized by the area’s potential, but admittedly wasn’t sure when he took the job.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” said Müller of Limarí. “I was living in Santiago, had a family. It was a long way to go. But now that I’ve been here, I see the potential.”
That potential was partially unmasked by Chile's terroir hunter, Pedro Parra, who helped Müller map Viña Tabali’s inland vineyards. The vineyard was planted initially in rectangular blocks that followed irrigation lines, but Parra showed Müller the myriad soil changes that followed anything but straight angles through the vineyards. Subsequent plantings now follow those differences.
“It’s not efficient, planting in odd areas, along ridges, up and down hillsides and far from the winery. But if quality is the goal, then those issues don’t matter,” said Müller, showing me an aerial view of the vineyards that now look almost free form in their outlines, as opposed to a squared off chunk of green amidst a semi-arid landscape.
Müller used Parra’s advice to not only plant in new areas, but also replant 100 hectares of the existing vineyards at Tabali. After all the work, Müller isolated a small 3.3-hectare block of Syrah that he found particularly compelling. Müller vinified the fruit separately and it will now go into the winery’s new flagship Payen bottling, which will debut with the 2007 vintage, to be released this month. The wine was vinified primarily in stainless steel, with some in open-top barrels with manual punch down, the traditional Burgundian method for Pinot Noir that Müller feels brings "amazing fruit and delicate tannins".
That "do over" in the vineyards, coupled with the addition of the Talinay site, just may give Müller and Viña Tabali the lead in Chile’s latest race.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Francesca Martin — Chile — October 15, 2010 1:57am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — October 15, 2010 8:36am ET
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