Notes From the Pan-American Highway
By Bruce Sanderson, tasting director
Perhaps it was the anticipation of 10 days' vacation visiting vineyards and wineries, or maybe the idea of being on the other side of the world, but as I stepped off the plane at Santiago's airport I felt a tinge of exhilaration that sustained itself throughout a recent trip to Chile and Argentina.
Ten days, two countries, 13 wineries and several hundred wines later, I came away with a snapshot of the wine scenes in both countries. Here are some observations.
Some of the new vineyard development in Chile is expanding beyond the lush valley floors, scattered with random shacks, to the scrubby, rock-strewn, cactus-laden hillsides at the valley edges. This may potentially reduce the vines' natural vigor and improve grape quality. Of course, hillside vineyards are more expensive to develop, but presumably the resulting wines will be of better quality and command higher prices. Philippe Debrus, Valdivieso's French-born winemaker, said, "We are just beginning to find the best sites. The valley floor was planted first because it was the easiest."
The Casablanca valley, about an hour northwest of Santiago, is a hot new area for growing grapes. Its viticultural splendor was suddenly laid out before us as we emerged from one of the many tunnels adorning the Pan-American Highway.
Descending the incline into the valley, the mercurial Ignacio Recabarren, one of Chile's most prominent enologists, explained that the upper Casablanca is warmer and more suitable for reds, while the lower Casablanca receives more ocean influence and is planted to aromatic white grape varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer. About halfway through the valley, the trees bore witness to the increased wind. By the time we climbed out of the valley, a steady breeze was blowing. With its cooler climate (grapes flower here roughly two to three weeks later than in other valleys), Casablanca reminded me of the Carneros region in Napa because of its rolling hills and ocean breezes.
Casablanca has attracted several newcomers. Veramonte (Franciscan Estates), Casa Lapostolle, Valdivieso and Mondavi-Errazuriz have all planted vineyards recently. Veramonte's new winery is nearly completed, and Mondavi-Errazuriz is also planning a facility there.
Chile is a narrow strip of a country with one major road, the Pan-American Highway, fraught with every obstacle imaginable, from tanker trucks to pedestrians, bicycles and livestock. After two or three days traversing the dust-choked tracks leading to vineyards in different regions of Chile, I noticed that the benevolent climate becomes glaringly obvious. Blessed with warm, dry and sunny conditions during flowering, most of the growing season and harvest, in addition to few vine diseases and pests, the need for grape-growers to use herbicides, pesticides and chemical sprays is greatly reduced.
A typical vineyard scene offered several bicycles leaning against the end posts of the vine rows. Cheap labor costs allow for the vineyards to be cultivated by hand, hoeing the soil around the vines rather than using chemical treatments and mechanization, except in the very largest vineyard tracts.
One of the most interesting developments is the use of drip irrigation in the new vineyards, a technique popular in California but new in Chile. Some wine industry insiders say drip irrigation may facilitate the spread of phylloxera (a vine louse that eventually kills its host vine)--which has the potential to be particularly damaging, as most Chilean vineyards are not grafted to phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. Some believe traditional flood irrigation during winter has kept the pesky vine louse in check. As a result of these concerns, a portion of the new plantings are being grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
The Mendoza region of Argentina has a harsher climate. The flight from Santiago across some of the highest peaks in the Andes to the city of Mendoza is breathtaking. The city boasts a drainage system designed by the Incas, consisting of open concrete ditches about three feet deep that I was lucky enough to avoid falling into.
There is neither ocean influence for cooling nor lush valleys; only the rows of poplar trees protect the vineyards from the elements, resulting in more wind, heat and direct sunlight on the vines. Storms crop up frequently and violently from the nearby Andes mountains. On the drive between San Rafael and Mendoza, we encountered a hailstorm that cut a swath across the semi-desert, scrub-infested landscape. Hail is a major threat to vineyards in both the San Rafael and Mendoza regions.
The more forward-thinking vineyard owners in Argentina are experimenting heavily with clonal selection. Dr. Nicolas Catena's new Agrelo vineyard in the Mendoza region has 120 clones of Malbec taken from the Lunlunta zone, an area with an established reputation for top-quality Malbec. Catena is also looking closely at several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon.
I didn't see many new wineries apart from Veramonte in Chile and Bianchi in Argentina, but the established facilities (many over 100 years old) are in their second or even third phase of technology, sporting rows of jacketed stainless steel tanks, pneumatic presses and small oak barrels from the most prestigious coopers in France and the United States. Valdivieso and Casa Lapostolle in Chile reminded me of construction sites as they renovated to accommodate increased production and equipment; Luigi Bosca in Argentina had recently invested $5 million in new equipment.
Surprisingly, only three of the wineries I visited are equipped to handle visitors on a large scale. Yet this fact comes into perspective when one considers that export markets are the driving force behind the increased quality in both countries. Despite higher wine consumption than in the United States, Chileans and Argentines don't go winery-hopping on weekends as Americans do.
So how are the wines? If barrel tastings are any indication, 1997 is a very, very exciting year for red wines in Chile. Deeply colored, packed with ripe, freshly crushed fruit flavors and well balanced, the '97 reds were a treat everywhere I tasted. From Argentina, it was the Malbec that impressed me in every cellar. Old vines (up to 60 years old) planted in the right soils (Lunlunta, Lujan de Cuyo, Pedriel) combined with the heat of the Argentine climate seems to be the right combination.
I came away with the anticipation of many new and exciting developments in Chile and Argentina at both the vineyards and the wineries. The enthusiasm of the vineyard managers, winemakers, enologists and owners was infectious. This trip exceeded my expectations. I'd love to return in a few years to see the changes.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from tasting director Bruce Sanderson. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
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