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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Marco Puyo: Leading the Way in Chile's Elquí Valley

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 15, 2009 3:48am ET

2002 seems like such a long time ago. That year, during my first visit to Chile, I met more than a handful of winemakers, a few of whom I thought to myself were probably going to do some big things down the road. So far, the column I penned back then has proven to be mostly prescient—winemakers Álvaro Espinoza and Enrique Tirado have gone on to become leaders in the industry. Michel Friou went from Casa Lapostolle to Viña Almaviva, both cushy gigs. And Marco Puyo isn’t far behind.

I sat down with Puyo to get caught up since my last sit down with him about a year ago. Puyo, 42, is a busy man these days, and not just because of the newborn twins that have doubled the number of children in his home. Puyo oversees the high-end wines from Viña San Pedro Tarapacá, the new wine producer that is the result of 2008's merger between Viña San Pedro and Viña Tarapacá.

On its own, Viña San Pedro was the second-largest wine company in Chile. The new merger doesn’t change that, though it does close the gap a little on the longtime number one, Concha y Toro. As Puyo explained, "It was more of an administrative merger, which is good because if you mix everything—wines and vineyards too—it’s like making a wine in a cocktail shaker."

To that end, the various wine brands from both companies (Bodega Tamarí, Finca La Celia, Viña Misiones de Rengo, Viña Casa Rivas and others) have been kept as is, with no change in their respective winemaking teams or vineyard bases. That’s left Puyo to focus on his revamping of the Castillo de Molina, 1865 and Cabos de Hornos lines, as well as his new project based in the Elquí valley.

The Elquí valley lies 500 km north of the country’s capitol, Santiago, and is 90 km north of the next closest viticultural outpost, Limarí, where Marcelo Papa is making headway with his Viña Maycas del Limarí project. In Elquí, the coastal range of mountains has faded away, leaving no buffer between the valley and ocean-fed breezes that blow in off the coast, just 20 km away. That results in an almost constant, cooling breeze through the better part of the day. Combined with the area’s calcareous soils, it’s proving to be a very intriguing spot for cool-climate varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir. The area is so cool, harvest typically doesn’t end until late May.

Puyo now has 50 hectares of vines in Elquí, and his first couple of harvests of Sauvignon Blanc grapes were bottled under the Castillo de Molina label (both the '07 and '08 bottlings were excellent $13 values). While that bottling will continue as production increases, Puyo plans to start selecting the best fruit from Elquí for a separate line, as yet unnamed.

That selection will be enhanced by more detailed efforts in the vineyards. Using satellite imagery and infrared technology, Puyo is among the growing number of winemakers mapping their vineyards and noting the various canopy vigor levels through individual parcels—the variation can be dramatic at times, even in a block planted with the same clonal material and with every vine carrying the same crop load.

Puyo is also bringing in Chile’s "terroir hunter," Pedro Parra, for help in understanding the variations in soil that run through the vineyard. Areas of differing vigor are harvested and vinified separately, with Puyo using those that offer more acidic and minerally snap to blend with those that produce more up-front fruit, the ideal result being a wine that balances both aspects.

The new lineup of Elquí wines will debut later this year with two 2007 Syrahs, an '08 Chardonnay and an '09 Sauvignon Blanc. I tasted some of these wines following my last sit down with Puyo. This time he brought barrel samples of the 2008 reds and '09 whites for me to try. [Note: I tasted these barrel samples without Puyo present, though they were not tasted blind.]

The 2009 Sauvignon Blanc sample shows lots of zesty chive and citrus peel notes, along with nice white asparagus and floral hints. The acidity is really mouthwatering. The 2009 Chardonnay (drawn from a used barrel) is broad and ripe, with lots of melon and yellow apple flavors and a round texture. It’s a bit soft in the end though and not as dynamic as the Sauvignon Blanc.

The two Syrah bottlings offer the most interest in my opinion. The regular bottling is snappy and fresh, with saturated kirsch, pepper and violet notes backed by a vibrant minerality. The top Syrah bottling is lusher in profile, with more blackberry and graphite notes and a long, well-defined finish.

Prices have not yet been set for the new Elquí wines. Frankly, the winery still has a ways to go in terms of establishing a track record for serious quality—Puyo is trying to turn around a tanker much the way Daniel Pi is at Argentina’s Trapiche (and both winemakers are starting at the top end of the portfolio). The Elquí valley also remains virtually unknown to American consumers, despite is exciting potential, so no matter how fancy the label art, the name is not going to help sell it. I hope both factors will push VSPT to err on the side of caution here and aim for offering a real value.

This is another project in a recent trend that includes Matetic, Viña Casa Marín and Kingston Family, along with Viña Garcés Silva, Viña Cono Sur and Viña Maycas del Limarí, all wineries that are pushing the viticultural boundaries of Chile, aiming for higher acid, more elegant expressions of wine as opposed to the wines produced in the warmer, inland valleys such as Maipo and Colchagua. It's a trend that's helped push Chile to greater heights with its wines in recent vintages. It's a trend I'd like to see continue.

William Bowen
June 29, 2009 9:19pm ET
We are a wine club in Toms River NJ in an active adult community our membership 65 strong and active recently 22 of our members went to chile. On July 1, they will present an evening of Wines From Chile. I was able to invite from the Chile Embassy Ms S. Rameriz from Trade Comm she will attend our meeting and we would like to know if you are interested in attending. William Bowen 732 942-1085Wine Appreciation Society At Lake Ridge
James Molesworth
June 29, 2009 9:24pm ET
William: Thank you for the kind invitation, but I will not be able to attend. Have a great tasting though...!
Maximiliano Morales
Santiago, Chile —  July 12, 2009 10:29am ET
Dear James,I lived 5 years in La Serena city (2001-2006)where are located the 3 valleys the Coquimbo Region has (Elqui, Limari and Choapa) when nobody believed much on this wine region.I have been following the evolution of the vines and wines in Elqui and Limari particulary and I think Marco¿s work has been quite interesting if we see it from the point of view of select grapes from their own San Pedro grapes all over the country to produce wines with a special character and tipicity.On the other hand, areas like Elqui and Limari are quite the most important new endeavours of San Pedro and was visualized many years ago by the other winemaker that work with Marco, Patricio Celed¿n, who lived and worked in Elqui Valley many years ago before starting to work in San Pedro. Patricio started producing wines in Elqui and Limari based on grapes from both valleys and now in San Pedro can express much more impact with the guidance of Marco because he knows the right location and the right terroir to get the best grapes of each valley.Max MoralesAgronomistandes@andeswines.com

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