Alcohol holds back Chilean Pinot Noir

Alcohol levels represent “the big challenge” for Chile’s ability to produce top quality Pinot Noir, according to Matias Ríos, winemaker at the country’s largest producer of the variety, Cono Sur.

Matias Ríos, winemaker at Cono Sur

Noting that regions such as Casablanca and San Antonio, which are widely cited as two of the most exciting sources for the country’s Pinot Noir, have “cold weather but lots of sunlight,” Ríos stressed the difficulty in achieving balanced fruit.

“Picking early is not the way,” he told the drinks business. “You’ll get alcohol at 12% abv but green flavours.” Instead, argued Ríos: “In Chile this balance is about 13.8% abv.”

In order to prevent alcohol levels rising too far beyond this level, Ríos pointed to two main approaches adopted by Cono Sur. “First, we started to look at canopy management”, he explained, outlining a recent reduction from 18 to 14 leaves per shoot.

The second approach identified by Ríos was a mission “to find less efficient yeasts”, outlining his aim to find “a yeast that needs 21-22g of sugar for a degree of alcohol.”

Pinpointing the “most important” regions for Chilean Pinot Noir as Casablanca, San Antonio, Chimbarongo in Colchagua and Bio Bio, Ríos noted that Cono Sur also has experimental plantings in Limari and Maule’s San Clemente region.

One of the largest Pinot Noir producers in the world, Cono Sur’s offer with this variety reaches from its sparkling rosé to the Bicycleta brand, reserve, single vineyard selection, 20 Barrels limited edition release and, at the very top, its icon wine Ocio.

Although primarily made from Casablanca fruit, in recent years Ocio has included up to 15% of Pinot Noir grown in nearby San Antonio. As part of its mission to make “the best Pinot Noir in Chile”, each year the winemaking team blind tastes around 200 different barrels up to five times before making the final selection.

Alvaro Garcia, UK fine wine business development manager for Cono Sur’s parent company Concha y Toro, pointed to the consistency that results from this blended approach. “The feedback from sommeliers is that there is great stability from year to year for Ocio compared to other wines,” he remarked.

While the UK represents the largest market overall for Cono Sur, when it comes to the biggest buyers of top end wines, Ríos highlighted Canada and Japan as particularly significant. “We’ve just started in China,” he added, revealing: “They bought a whole container of Ocio – 10,000 bottles.”

With total annual production of Ocio currently varying between 500 and 2,000 cases, a regular order of this quantity from a single market would be unsustainable. However, Ríos noted: “In future we have the possibility to make more, but we don’t want to put pressure on it.”

Nevertheless, there are signs that Cono Sur is looking to take advantage of this rising demand and recognition for Ocio, which saw its 10th vintage this year. Speaking to the drinks business in July, the company’s export director Francisco Ascui revealed he was considering a price hike by as much as 40% for the wine, which currently retails in the UK for around £30.

Ríos explained that such a price increase would help to support the significant investment Cono Sur has made in developing Ocio. This year alone, the company has spent US$6 million on winery improvements, including a new grape reception area, open top fermentation tanks and barrels, as well as doubling the capacity of the barrel room.

He also offered an indication of the higher cost of producing Ocio compared to Cono Sur’s other wines. “In our other cellar we can crush 500,000kg of grapes in a day with four people; for Ocio we can crush 6,000kg in a day with 28 people.”

Outlining ongoing experiments with new sites and clones in regions including Bio Bio, San Antonio and Chimbarongo, Ríos also pointed to the work being done by Cono Sur to improve its understanding of Chilean Pinot Noir in the producer’s own laboratory and nursery vineyard. “Today around 70% [of our Pinot Noir] is from our Massal selection,” he reported.

With so much activity going on, Ríos is confident that Chile will progress quickly. “In New Zealand and California it is very clear what sites they have for Pinot Noir and its style”, he observed. “In Chile it’s just started, so nobody knows, but I have a feeling that we can do really spectacular Pinot Noir. Each year is better than the last.”

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