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Chile north to south. Part II

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

A major series based on my 10-day tour of Chile in December 2009. This is Part II, visiting Aconcagua and the coastal vineyards of Casablanca, San Antonio & Leyda.

Part I   Chile overview, Elqui and Limari
Part 3  The Central Valleys and Bío Bío


Aconcagua, singular or plural?

The drive is on to better understand the differences between Chile's wine regions and the qualities that make them distinct. These regional characters will be used not only to shape the future for wine in these regions, but to market the wines to the world. For winemakers this means understanding their terroir and, quite naturally, a search to identify not only what is unique about their region, but about their specific vineyard sites.

This new focus on geography and geology is also causing many to question the relatively large demarcated zones in Chile, and whether a finer-grained map needs to be drawn. Here in Aconcagua, recognised as a hot, red wine area, there is speculation that the region could be redefined as at least two, if not three new appellations.

Owner of Viña San Esteban, Horacio Vicente, tells me he would be happy to be considered as part of a 'Mountain Aconcagua' appellation, just as others will fall in a 'Coastal Aconcagua' zone. But for every winner there could potentially be losers, and some cool central sites could find themselves lumped into a less rarefied appellation simply because of geography. Similar debates are raging in most of the established Central Valleys, perhaps as a reaction to new 'boutique' regions like Leyda and Limari that have stolen some of the limelight. Right: San Esteban's vineyards (click photo for larger version).    aconcagua

Dominated by Mt Aconcagua at 6,962 metres and sitting at an altitude of around 900 metres, the Aconcagua Valley used to be the northern limit of Chilean vineyards before Limari and Elqui came along. Vineyards follow the flow of the Aconcagua River from the Andes to the ocean, and as is so often the case, sea breezes cool the vineyards whilst Andes snow-melt irrigates them.

But vineyards have been spreading out from the flat, fertile centre towards the mountains and the coast. This has uncovered cooler zones within Aconcagua, and has led to an improving reputation for cooler climate varietals like Syrah, and white varieties too.

Aconcagua producer profiles and tasting notes

Viña San Esteban

Having switched from bulk to bottled wine, San Estaban farms organically and rather likes to swim against the tide.

10 wines tasted

Viña Errazuriz

Daddy of Aconcagua, Errazuriz's wines like Don Maximiano and Seña helped propel this Valley onto a world stage.

12 wines tasted

Casablanca: no foggy thinking

The particular geographical position of Chile's capital city Santiago - surrounded by semi-desert and practically ringed by high mountains - means it suffers from almost constant air pollution. Add the emissions from a crowded, modern city and although Santiago may sit hard against the Andes, a heavy haze often obscures the otherwise breath-taking views of the city against the mountain backdrop. Once into the largely agricultural valleys however, and brilliant blue skies and sunshine invariably break through.

Except, that is, in the Casablanca Valley. Casablanca is a relatively new region, planted in the mid 1980s much closer to the coast than anything that had gone before it. The coastal influence on this Valley is powerful. The Humboldt Current is, as always, the main player bringing freezing cold water up the Chilean coast from the Antarctic. Morning fog and cloud rolls across the relatively low coastal mountains at this latitude, filling the valley with cooling mist that lingers heavily long into the morning. By the afternoon, sunshine burns through the cloud and fog, giving plenty of light and sufficient heat exposure to the vines.   

There is only a little danger from frost on the valley floor in the colder months, and with still relatively dry conditions, Casablanca's potential for white wine was spotted early. Big players from other regions like Lapostolle and Errazuriz rushed to plant Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Viña Casablanca was the first estate to base itself here in 1992.

Today, other coastal, cool areas have muscled in the patch that Casablanca had all to itself for over a decade. San Antonio and Leyda, and coastal extensions to Aconcagua, Maipo and other Central Valleys also play the cool climate game. But the conditions in Casablanca, its long-established vines and it reputation remain intact.

Casablanca producer profiles and tasting notes

Viña Casablanca

Part of the Santa Carolina group, pioneers here in Chile's original cool-climate, white wine valley and now planting Syrah.

9 wines tasted

Viña Mar

Also part of a larger group (VSPT), Viña Mar has an eye on even cooler sites if climate change continues to warm the Casablanca Valley.

13 wines tasted

Viña Morandé & Vistamar

From their fruit farming beginnings, Tamaya were Limari's pioneers in the late 1990s, when their first vines were planted.

15 wines tasted

Leyda: Chile's hottest property

"Every winery in Chile wants to have a little piece of Leyda," says Francisco Ponce, Oenologist at Viña Garces Silva. Without doubt the development of vineyards in Leyda, once a traditional, poor farming region for wheat and barley, has been the most talked about innovation in Chile's recent winemaking story.

Ignacio Casali (right), Agricultural Director at Viña Leyda, took me onto a high ridge for sweeping views that showed the Leyda Valley laid out before us like a topographical map.

Leyda, a sub-appellation of the San Antonia Valley, lies to the west of the coastal mountain range that shelters the inland Central Valleys to its east. It was unprecedented to squeeze vineyards into this cool, foggy strip beside the Pacific ocean, and many must have thought it was folly when an eight kilometre pipeline was laid to bring water to the valley for the first cultivation of vines.

That first 80 hectares of vines was planted only in 1998, yet today the total area planted is fast approaching 2,000 hectares. It seems that Francisco Ponce was right that everyone wants a slice of this Pinot Noir and Chardonnay heaven, where the average summer temperature is only around 24ºC, and falls overnight to around 11ºC. Like Casablanca, morning fogs disperse around noon, leading to mostly dry, sunny summer conditions with an annual rainfall of only around 250mm.

Soils here are on a granite base, in a gently undulating landscape where topsoils of loamy clay vary in depth, and are rich in quartz and gravel. As well as the Chardonnay and Pinot that put Leyda on the world stage, cool climate aromatic white wine grapes abound, and planting of Syrah is increasing.

Leyda carries a heavy burden on its shoulders. People talk of it doing for Chilean fine wine what Marlborough has done for New Zealand or Napa has done for California. Certainly it is already - after just a decade - producing some of the country's most interesting wines, though thankfully with the explosion of new winemaking zones spreading up and down the country, some of that pressure to be 'the future' for Chile may at least be shared.

Leyda producer profiles and tasting notes

Viña Leyda

With a young, dynamic team at the helm, the pioneering estate of the Leyda Valley goes from strength to strength since coming under new ownership in 2007.

12 wines tasted

Viña Garces Silva (Amayna)

The Amayna brand from the Garcés Silva family has established a huge reputation in just a few years, and their neat, efficient winery is now expanding.

6 wines tasted

Go to Part I - Introducing Chile's Valleys, and visiting Elqui and Limari in the north
Go to Part II - Travelling south through Aconcagua, Casablanca and Leyda
Go to Part III. The Central Valleys, and my journey south concludes in Bío Bío