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Ventisquero: We were lucky to have a lower volume vintage

Alejandro Galaz, winemaker at Chile’s Viña Ventisquero, said the producer was “very lucky” to have had a vintage with lower yields, due to the additional pressure Covid-19 put on the harvest.

Ventisquero’s vineyards in the Atacama desert, with the salt clearly visible.

Speaking during a Pinot Noir-focused Zoom tasting, Galaz said the mandatory Covid-19 health and safety measures made harvest a challenge.

“We had to wear a mask all day long, maintain social distancing and wash our hands every half an hour,” he said. “Every single material we used had to be sanitised before and after use. We were speaking to colleagues working in other regions via Zoom and we were operating with less people.”

However, despite a 15-20% reduction in yield, which Galaz admits “was not good in terms of production”, he said overall the winery was “very lucky”.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened if we’d had big yields,” he said. Due to a dry winter followed by high temperatures in January, February and March, Ventisquero’s harvest was brought forward by between 10 and 25 days, depending on the region, echoing a pattern recorded in most regions of Chile.

Galaz made the comments when discussing four of the producer’s Pinot Noirs: Kalfu Kuda (Leyda Valley); Grey (Leyda Valley), Herú (Casablanca) and Tara (Atacama Desert).

The evolution of Chilean Pinot Noir

He explained the differences between the three regions in which Ventisquero produces the grape, and explained the evolution of Chilean Pinot Noir, both in terms of changes made in Chile as a whole, and by his team.

He believes it has taken winemakers in Chile 10 years to get to grips with the variety, and that travelling outside of the country and observing how others work has helped. He also stated that clones, rather than use of an old massal selection used to produce sparkling wine, had led to better quality wine, along with Pinot Noir being planted in the right locations.

He also stressed the potential of Pinot Noir from Leyda, a region much closer to the sea than the more well-established Casablanca. Of the two cool climate regions, Casablanca was established and planted first (in 2000 in Ventisquero’s case), and therefore the older and more mature vines have been used to source the producer’s top wines.

However, Galaz said this could change in the future, as the vines in Leyda, which were planted in 2010, gain maturity.

“Last year we made the first trial in order to produce high-end wine from Leyda. This year, I continued the trial and the quality is better,” he said, stating that wines from Leyda and Casablanca will always taste different, but that in the future, Leyda will be “much higher quality”.

In terms of winemaking changes, Galaz has experimented with the use of stems in the last five to six years, increasing the proportions used depending on where the grapes originate.

He uses 15-25% stems in the Leyda Pinot Noirs, 30-40% for Herú and 50% for Tara. Rather than using whole bunches, he destems the grapes, and layers berries and stems in the tank “like a cake”.

“Doing it that way, we discovered we had much better oxygenation during the fermentation,” he said. “Pinot Noir can be a very reductive variety during fermentation and this ensures we get more air in.”

In terms of sales, the producer’s top markets include the US, Brazil, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan.

Extreme winemaking

Ventisquero also has a 13ha project in the far north of the country called Tara. Planted in the Atacama desert, an environment Galaz describes as “extreme”, the vines experience windy and dry conditions, with twice daily fog episodes, known as the camanchaca. Temperatures, however, remain cool, not rising above 25 degrees and falling away at night.

However, the principal challenge is the salt in the soil. Galaz said the vineyard soil contains over 20 times the level of salt that vines are believed to be able to tolerate. This means that Ventisquero must irrigate the vines for 20-hour periods in order to remove the salt, and allow the vines to absorb both moisture and nutrients.

These challenges, however, has not put the team off. The Tara range currently comprises a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and a solera Viognier.

In the last two years the wine producer has also planted Cabernet Franc and Grenache, and is conducting trials into the commercial potential of these varieties. It has even invested in making its own 1,000-litre concrete eggs, made from stones in the vineyard, which have been used to age the wines from the 2018 vintage.

Galaz said the challenging vineyard, which was first planted in 2007, yields interesting wines with a saline character and an umami element that pairs well with food.

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