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Wines released from Chile’s highest vineyard

The battle for Chile’s highest commercial vineyard just got tougher as the country sees the official release of two red blends from a plantation at 2,200 metres above sea level.

Two wines are being rolled-out across Chile this year from the country’s highest commercial vineyard. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

The wines come from a project called Viñedos de Alcohuaz, after a town high up in the Elquí Valley, where vineyards were planted with a range of red grapes between 2005 and 2009.

At 2,200m altitude, the vines are a couple of hundred metres above the region’s highest plantations of Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez, which are grown for making into Pisco, Chile’s brandy, which takes its name from the town of Pisco, located at 1,300m in Elquí – a little further down the valley from Alcohuaz.

When the wines from Alcohuaz are officially launched later this year – Bocanáriz restaurant in Santiago already carries them – Alcohuaz will become Chile’s highest commercial plantation, replacing Viña Falernia, Elquí’s first table wine producer, and owner of the Huanta vineyard, which rises to an altitude of 2070m – now Chile’s second highest table wine producing plantation.

However, it should be noted that there is one vineyard even higher than Alcohuaz. The result of a cooperative project deep within the Atacama, the plantation is located at 2,400 metres above sea level, but, as previously reported by the drinks business, the wine from it, called Ayllu, is not produced in commercial quantities and just sold locally (primarily to tourists) since its launch with the 2010 vintage.

Indeed, such is the extreme nature of this plantation, dubbed Toconao, that the vines are subject to stresses from frost and sunburn to excessively saline soils, hampering the commercial viability of the project.

At 2,200m above sea level, this is Chile’s highest commercial vineyard. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

On the other hand, Alcohuaz is producing two wines in commercial quantities. Not only that, but these are blends with precision, concentration, and great character, despite the youthful nature of the vines, making this single venture one of the most exciting and finest newcomers to Chile’s increasingly varied vinous offer.

And when one considers the personalities behind Alcohuaz, that is perhaps no surprise. Key to the operation are nonagenarian and savvy Santiago businessman Patricio Flaño; De Martino’s highly regarded and innovative winemaker Marcelo Retamal; and local Pisco producer and former local town mayor Juan-Luis Huerta.

Together, later this year, they will roll out two wines nationwide in Chile: a top-end Syrah dominant blend from the 2011 vintage called Rhu – a word describing a spiritual space between the living and eternal worlds – priced around US$50, and a further red blend called Grus (named after the common crane) from the 2014 harvest, costing approximately US$30.

So far, just 2,200 bottles of Rhu 2011 have been produced, and 8,000 of Grus in its inaugural 2014 vintage, although Alcohuaz hopes to peak at over 9,000 cases (108,000 bottles) when all the vineyards reach maturity.

“We’ve been so focused on the production-side that we are only just thinking about the commercial side, and the idea is to sell the wines in Chile, as well as here, in the Elquí Valley,” Juan-Luis Huerta told db last month during a visit to Alcohuaz.

Juan Luis Huerta, longtime Pisco producer and local mayor, manages the Alcohuaz project full time. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

Although the height of the vineyards makes viticulture demanding – diurnal temperature swings can be as much as 25 degrees Celsius – the greatest challenge is finding labour, according to Huerta.

“Everything is complicated here, you need to have know-how to tend the vines, but it’s hard to find the people,” he said.

He also said that local rat-like creatures called Degus were a nuisance, eating not only the grapes, but also gnawing at the trunks of the vines in the isolated vineyards. Furthermore, he admitted that not all the varieties trialled at Alcohuaz were successful: “Merlot and Cabernet Franc didn’t work,” he stated.

Thankfully for a region with an annual average rainfall of just 100mm, Alcohuaz has access to water from a stream that runs through the property, allowing each vine to receive drip irrigation by gravity – eliminating the cost of pumping water around the site.

Boulders are used to line the vineyards. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

Presently, 18 hectares have been planted to a range of red grapes, with Syrah so far performing the best, but Petit-Syrah and Malbec are also producing excellent results. And next year, the triumvirate behind Alcohuaz are going to plant a further 2ha with Rousanne and Marsanne, in the hope of adding a white wine to the range, which could contribute a further 1,000 cases to the annual Alchohuaz output.

The idea for planting vineyards at such a high altitude began when someone staying at Patricio Flaño’s holiday home at Alcohuaz suggested that the businessman, then in his eighties, might consider making a wine.

Inspired by the thought, Flaño initially enlisted the help of consultant viticulturist Eduardo Silva, who studied the area extensively before confirming its suitability for growing grapes for table wine.

The first vines went into the ground in 2005, and in 2007, winemaker Marcelo Retamal became a shareholder in the project, because he was so excited by the quality potential.

And his influence is key. Retamal, who has become famous in Chile for his quirky winemaking methods at De Martino, has ensured that the wines from Alcohuaz are made using a range of techniques, from foot-treading the grapes in lagares, to ageing the wines in concrete eggs as well as oak foudres from Stockinger – the Rolls Royce of wooden vat makers.

Great care has also been taken in the vineyard, with local boulders used to create dry stone walls around the plantations, like a series of rugged Burgundian clos, while vine training stakes have been made from hard-wearing Chilean oak, proving a natural, attractive and long-lived solution.

The vines are trained 80cm from the ground in an adaptation of the Parron Elquino pergola style system used in Pisco production, which Alcohuaz has adopted for table wines because it is necessary to shade the bunches from the intense sunlight at this altitude.

So far, Huerta admits that US$3m has been invested in Alcohuaz, and more will be spent, not just on next year’s 2ha of white grapes, but also the creation of a cellar deep into the rocky hillside alongside the winery, which will be used to age Rhu and Grus in bottle.

Also adding to the spend will be the creation of a boutique hotel on the site – Alcohuaz hopes to embrace oenoturism. After all, this part of Elquí, with its dramatic scenery and remarkably clear skies, along with observatories to aid star-gazing, is always filled with visitors.

Rather than disturbing the site by removing the many massive stones, vines were planted between the boulders. I’m sitting on one of the larger ones in this, the highest vineyard at Alcohuaz, which peaks at 2,208m. Photo credit: Alvaro Arriagada

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