Chile wine trends: 2. Extreme viticulture

While many viticultural changes are taking place within Chile to improve the quality of its grapes, such a replanting on rootstocks, using improved clones, reproducing old vine material and managing vineyards for a better sugar-acidity balance in the berries, it is the planting of increasingly extreme locations that is the most remarkable development.

Volcan Osorno southern Chile

The Osorno volcano in southern Chile. Picture source: Wines of Chile

It seems producers are obsessed with one-upmanship, attempting to find the highest, driest or most southerly vineyard in the world. Thankfully, Chile provides a suitable playground: home to the longest continental mountain range on earth, and the planet’s driest non-polar desert.

One of the world’s most extreme vineyards, and Chile’s most northerly, is a cooperative project deep within the Atacama. Employing respected oenology professor at the Universidad de Chile, Alvaro Peña, and terroir specialist Pedro Parra, the project is high profile in Chile, but the wine from it, called Ayllu, is sold locally (primarily to tourists) since its launch with the 2010 vintage.

But the Atacama has also attracted the interest of one of Chile’s biggest producers, Viña Ventisquero. The company planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Viognier, Merlot and Pinot Noir in 2007 in a southern part of the Atacama Desert called Huasco, and has produced around 1,000 bottles from each variety from the 2011 vintage under the Tara label.

According to chief winemaker Felipe Tosso, the area is a cool climate due to the altitude, and points out that it benefits from limestone soils as well as the nearby Huasco river. Indeed, he describes the vineyard as a small oasis, though admits that the water is problematically salty.

Viña Ventisquero’s Atacama vineyard

Viña Ventisquero’s Atacama vineyard

As for the Chile’s most southerly vineyard, that is owned by Undurraga, and located 1,250 miles south of Santiago. At 46 degrees latitude, the planting – which is in the Chile Chico region – is 1 degree further south than Central Otago. This makes it not just Chile’s most southerly vineyard, but the most southerly planting in the world, according to Rafael Urrejola, Undurraga’s head winemaker.

However, Urrejola admits that he has only been able to make a small amount of wine four years after the project began in 2007 with experimental plantings of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. He now has 30 bottles of Pinot from the 2012 vintage, with a 12% abv, and future production is earmarked for Undurraga’s Terroir Hunter series.

Meanwhile, Casa Silva holds the title of most southerly planting in commercial production, with its Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot vineyards on the shores of Patagonia’s Lake Ranco, 600 miles south of Santiago at 40 degrees latitude. Casa Silva is releasing wines from the site this year using grapes from the 2013 vintage. While the Chardonnay and Pinot are to be used primarily for sparkling wine, Casa Silva has released a pale but attractive strawberry-scented Pinot under the Lago Ranco label with an 11.5% abv, along with a crisp and herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc (both of which will be available to try at London’s Beautiful South tasting). Casa Silva is planning to build a “boutique” winery at the site in the near future.

Undurraga's Chile Chico vineyard

Undurraga has planted vines in Chile Chico, the most southerly vineyard in the world

But while the move south is one development, the overwhelming trend for extreme viticulture is ever-higher plantings. “The future of wine is truly from the hills and mountains, so everybody is trying to work their way up,” says Randy Ullom, winemaker at Calina, owned by Jackson Family Wines.

For example, this year Cono Sur picked the first harvest from a 105 hectare estate planted in 2010 in the foothills of the Andes in an area called Jahuel, in Aconcagua. Winemaker Adolfo Hurtado tells db that he has trialled 13 different grape varieties at the site, which is 1,100 metres above sea level, because he wants “to prove the quality potential of the Andes foothills.” And his initial assessment? The result is “very impressive”, he says.

Similarly, Chilean terroir specialist Pedro Parra has been moving upwards in vineyard elevation, particularly for top-end whites, “The next step for Chile will be high altitude Andes for better acidity and balance.” He sees the search for “high-level Chardonnay” as a particular motivation for this development: “Today the whites from the coast are good, but those from the Andes are one step higher.”

De Martino’s Marcelo Retamal agrees: “The future of great wine in Chile is the Andes, because there is great rock, and there is snow during the winter, and I have a theory that the greatest wines in the world come from wine regions that have snow during the winter – although I accept that there are some exceptions, such as Bordeaux.”

Previous Chilean wine trend topics can be seen below.

3. Taking on the top end

4. Pinot focus

5. Reducing ABVs

6. Embracing the Med

7. Rediscovering País

8. Sauvignon moves up

9: Malbec revival

10. Quirkiness takes root

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