Vines with an Ocean View

Mar 19, 2008

The move to cooler climates and better vine materials has been the major force for the upsurge in quality among Chilean wines in recent years, its white wines in particular. With that in mind, I worked up the coastline today, starting in the new area called Leyda.

Leyda is one of three subregions of the San Antonio Valley, which lies between Colchagua and Casablanca. The area, which has a view of the coast, is markedly cool in temperature. But unlike Casablanca, its better-known neighbor to the north, there is no danger of frost here. The soils are also more clay-dominated than the sandy soils of Casablanca. The problem with Leyda is not its terroir, but its access to water.

It wasn’t until recently when a group of wineries developed a pumping station at the mouth of the Maipo River, 8 kilometers away, to bring water into the area for irrigation, that Leyda began to develop its viticulture. Now patches of green vine rows dot the arid landscape, and there’s a gold rush of wineries coming in to plant large tracts of land.

I met with Matias Garces Silva, 38, the owner of Amayna winery, a 700-hectare property that has 150 hectares of vines already (having started in ’99) and more on the way. Amayna is keeping a small percentage of its grapes for its own boutique production, while Aurelio Montes contracts for the rest. Montes is using the grapes for his new Leyda-designated Sauvignon Blanc bottling, a bracing lime and chalk filled version that represents the new quality level for Chilean whites. Montes’ son, Aurelio Jr., 33, heads up the Leyda project and really likes the quality of fruit that comes from these breezy, rolling hillside vineyards. He’s not alone as Viña Leyda, Santa Rita, Luis Felipe Edwards, Concha y Toro and several other wineries have also bought land and quickly started planting in the area. This is an area worth keeping an eye on for fresh Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays, as well as potentially interesting Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Thanks to water piped in from several miles away, vineyards in Leyda are popping up all over.

There’s far less competition in Lo Abarca, the next sub-valley as you head north. Here, the terrain changes dramatically from Leyda’s gentle rolling hills to steep slopes that create jagged strips of land, with red, granite soils on top merging down into loamier alluvial deposits at the bottom.

Maria Luz Marin had her eye on Lo Abarca for years, having been brought by her father here for family vacations since she was a child.

“I’ve always had my eye on it,” she said. “I’ve always felt something in the air and the soil. When I started my own project, I knew this was the place.”

Marin is one of the veterans of Chile’s wine industry, a colleague of Montes and Pablo Morandé from their early days at Concha y Toro and Viña San Pedro in the 1980s. She’s made wine for over 20 years, but after a long career of consulting, she founded her own Viña Casa Marin, which debuted in the 2003 vintage. The 90-hectare property has just 40 hectares under vines, producing about 10,000 cases per year, of which 40 percent comes to the U.S.

“Are you scared?” asked the diminutive but feisty Marin, as we skirt the edges of her hilltop vineyards in a truck that seems just a bit too big for her to drive. “Don’t be. I am a good driver,” she said matter-of-factly.

Casa Marin is another of the new wineries in Chile focusing on cool climate varieties—Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir and a touch of Syrah—and the white wines here are severe in style, with very precise minerality. Two bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc headline the portfolio: The Cipresses bottling is made from a blend of parcels on the top portions of her vineyards; the Laurel bottling comes from parcels lower down. The former is extremely steely while the latter shows a touch more roundness.

The Pinots rely solely on the Valdivieso clone of Pinot Noir (named for the large Chilean winery which was historically a large buyer of Pinot Noir), which Luz Marin admits to being a frustrating clone to work with. It produces small and irregular clusters, but she likes the quality of the fruit, which delivers an earthy, cola-like profile along with plenty of spice.
The hilltop vineyards of Viña Casa Marin are buffeted by wind, which keeps vigor low. Owner Maria Luz Marin has also cleared the steeper slopes to plant more vines.

I find the wines just a touch diffuse in the midpalate however, and I wonder if the irregular clusters (some are more stalk than berries) as well as irregular berry size mean irregular ripening...

While there have been improvements with some Chilean Pinots in recent years, the abundance of this fickle clone (and several winemakers gave different versions as to its origin, which means in all likelihood, it’s become a catchall term for whatever Pinot is in the vineyard that isn’t a registered clone) makes me think of the problems Chile faced with Sauvignon Blanc for many years. Inferior clonal material and a mix of misidentified Sauvignonasse and Sauvignon Vert that were all thrown into the same fermenting tank as Sauvignon Blanc resulted in nondescript wines. If Chile is going to seriously consider producing Pinot (and the emergence of cool coastal regions is spurring an interest in Pinot production) it might want to get its clonal material sorted out quickly.

As for the lack of competition in the Lo Abarca neighborhood (only Bodega y Viñedos O. Fournier has bought some nearby land with plans to plant vineyards soon), Marin explained: “It’s a difficult area to work and to find water. Lots of wineries have come and looked, but they all want large, flat piece of land that can be more commercially successful. You don’t find that here.”

While other wineries have come and looked at Lo Abarca, there’s no chance of competition in the next valley north, called Rosario. That’s because the Matetic family owns the valley, all 10,000 hectares of it. The family has interests in fruit farming, timber, cattle and more, and in the late ‘90s, current generation Jorge Matetic, 38, caught a whiff of the wine bug and founded Matetic (MAH-teh-titch) Vineyards.

The first vines were planted in 1999 and plantings have increased slowly to the current total of 130 hectares today. The northernmost valley of the three San Antonio sub-regions, Rosario features both rolling hillsides and some slopes, though less precipitous than those in Lo Abarca. The soils are sandy granite soils, ranging from rust in color to blonder, where more sand dominates. The breeze starts in the afternoon here, unlike the all day breeze in Lo Abarca, helping to reduce vine vigor.

Paula Cardenas, 35, handles the winemaking, which again focuses on Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for the whites, with Pinot Noir and Syrah for the reds. A winery facility was completed in 2004, and there are now 13,000 cases produced annually, with 4,000 coming to the U.S., and both numbers are growing. The wines here are fresh, sleek and polished, with a touch more weight to them than the wines from Leyda or Lo Abarca. The Syrah also takes on a beefy edge when young, but settles in nicely after an extra year or two of bottle age. With new vineyards coming on line and production expanding, Cardenas plans to maintain quality control by adding a second label, called Corralillo, keeping the best fruit for the higher EQ line.

From Matetic, I crossed the border into Casablanca and stopped in at Kingston Family Vineyards. Like the Matetic project, Kingston Family Vineyards is an offshoot of a larger enterprise. The Kingston family is also in the cattle ranching business, but with 3,000 hectares of land in the Casablanca valley, Chile’s prime spot for white wine production, planting vineyards seemed inevitable.
The Valdivieso Pinot Noir clone, despite its irregular cluster and berry size, is popular in Chile.

The estate now totals 120 hectares of vines, from which resident winemaker Evelyn Vidal, 31, keeps a small percentage for the Kingston label, while the rest are eagerly bought up by Concha y Toro, Viña Montes, Viña Tarapacá, Viña Santa Carolina and others. Unlike its developing neighbors to the south, Casablanca carries name recognition, being the first major cool climate valley to be developed in Chile, by Pablo Morandé initially, though now it’s home to several wineries.

Vidal is also working with a large amount of Valdivieso Pinot Noir vines, but she’s doing a selection massale, noting which vines produce more consistent fruit and then propagating new vine plantings off of those, which might explain why the fruit from the Kingston vineyards is so popular among the other wineries. After renting space in neighboring Casa del Bosque winery, Kingston built its own facility in time for the 2006 vintage, and now produces 4,000 cases (heading to 5,500) almost all of which come to the U.S. market. The Pinot Noir here is better knit than most of its Chilean peers, and I particularly like the white pepper-inflected Syrah.

I’ll finish up with another stop in Casablanca tomorrow before catching my flight to Mendoza in the afternoon. The flight, though very short, offers one of the best views anywhere in the world, as it crosses over the Andes. It’s one of the few flights where you want a window seat...

Chile Red Wines Pinot Noir

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