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Two Days to the Valley

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 17, 2008 10:04am ET

Well, it took me two days to get to Chile's Limarí Valley. Yes, it’s a remote spot, but a day waylaid after a missed connection in Miami resulted in my having to miss out on my first two scheduled appointments. After finally landing in Santiago though, I was greeted with a rapidly warming and sunny morning, as well as a two-hour helicopter ride north, covering over 250 miles, to Limarí.

If you haven’t heard of Limarí, don’t worry, it would be an advanced question on any wine quiz. The valley, located in the Coquimbo region, doesn’t have anywhere the history or presence of Chile’s Maipo or Colchagua valleys, and has only recently become a source for quality wines.

Limarí was known more for copper and gold mining over the last 50 years, along with pisco and table grapes (pisco is the national grappa-like drink, distilled from high-yielding Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes). But in recent years, Chilean wineries have begun to search far and wide for new and interesting terroirs, and the pisco market has gone soft. The combination has pushed Limarí into a new light.

Concha y Toro has planted its flag here, following their purchase of the Francisco de Aguirre winery a few years ago. The valley has grown rapidly, and so has CyT’s presence.

In 1995, Limarí had only 230 acres of planted vines; today there are more than 4,000 acres of wine grapes. Since setting up shop in Limarí, Concha y Toro has planted 1,077 acres of its own, including 171 just last year.

Though agriculture can’t exist in Limarí without irrigation, there is still room for growth, according to Marcelo Papa, the young Concha y Toro winemaker who oversees the Casa Concha brand line, along with the new Limarí project. “Another 2,000 hectares probably,” he said. (One hectare is equivalent to 2.47 acres). Wineries looking to produce fresh, brightly delineated whites may want to hurry then, because Papa’s project is off and running with impressive early results.

Limarí isn’t new to Papa though: He’s had his eye on it since working with Kendall-Jackson’s Calina project from 1995 through 1997. After moving to CyT, Papa helped push the Casa Concha brand line to new heights, but never stopped pushing for a chance to develop Limarí.

“When I was working with Kendall-Jackson, we vinified Chardonnays from all over Chile,” explained Papa. “But Limarí really stood out for me. The whites there are fresher, longer and more balanced than Casablanca's,” he said, comparing the region to Chile’s best-known white-wine area. “Not better, just different. Casablanca is sweeter in feel and more tropical. Limarí is very minerally.”

It’s not only amazing that Papa convinced his superiors to let him develop Limarí, but that he convinced them to let him develop it for white wines as well. After all, the grapes that had been grown there had historically been red, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Merlot. In Limarí, there is no coastal range of mountains, which rise up farther south. This allows for a stronger coastal influence: The fog rarely lifts before noon and pushes much farther inland than it does in other coastal spots such as Casablanca. In addition, the region features a much longer growing season, with harvests stretching typically into May (the equivalent of November in the northern hemisphere, where seasons are in reverse). The original thinking was that this longer season would allow for later-ripening red varieties to excel.

A smattering of early returns from other wineries were searingly herbal and lean however. It turns out that while Limarí delivers light in spades during a lengthy growing season, it doesn’t deliver much heat—the coastal influence is that strong. Papa saw it as an opportunity for whites instead.

“Burned fruit comes from temperature and sun,” said Papa. “Here you have great light after the fog lifts, but the temperatures never get too high. You get enough light to burn off green, vegetal notes in white varieties, not red, while the fruit stays fine, elegant and balanced.”

Limarí breaks down into two distinct sides—the north and south banks of the small, leisurely Limarí River. Papa showed me the differences, deep down, by digging a calicatta, or hole, in each of two vineyards (check out the two videos for more).

The north bank features hillier contours and poor, stony soils while the south bank is a large, almost perfectly flat river bench plateau topped with a hefty layer of thick clay over stony soils. On the surface, they look like good spots for red varieties, but with a little digging, Papa found more alkaline soils underneath, which are ideal for white varieties. (In the video, he’s dousing spots with a hydrochloric acid solution, which then reacts with the alkaline soils.) Low-acid soils produce high-acid in grapes—white varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc thrive on them.

The rest isn’t history quite yet. The project, called Viña Maycas, has just released its first Chardonnay (from the 2006 vintage). But considering how fresh and pure the wine is, with a distinctive range of melon, papaya, kiwi and lime flavors backed by a long, stony finish, I expect it will be soon enough. Prerelease samples of an ’07 Sauvignon Blanc showed bracing lime and chalk notes without being severe, while the ’07 Chardonnay is a step up from the debut version, showing more depth and concentration.

Papa isn’t content with proving Limarí’s capability with just whites though. He’s tinkering with a Syrah as well. Since the grape ripens earlier than the reds in the Cabernet Sauvignon family, it too is proving a suitable variety. The Viña Maycas Syrah shows lots of perfumy violet and white pepper notes along with a nice core of raspberry fruit. Both the not-yet-released ’06 and ’07 versions are richer and fleshier than the very good debut ’05.

It may have taken me two days to get to Limarí, but the trip was worth it. It’s a spot unlike anything else in Chile. Seems Papa was onto something all along ...

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