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The Narrow Road to Quality in Chile’s Far North

Pisco vineyards in the Elqui valley. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One of the perennial regrets of any traveling journalist must be the fact that you just can’t go everywhere and see everything. I don’t think I’ve ever ended a press trip to any wine region around the world without some amount of such feelings. As the saying goes, so much wine, so little time.

For this reason, one of the things I like to do when visiting a wine region involves taking an afternoon to just sit in a room and taste through a bunch of wines from somewhere I’m not going to get the chance to visit on that trip. On my most recent visit to Chile, I didn’t have the time to make it up to the far north of the country, but my hosts were kind enough to collect a bunch of wines for me to taste one evening. It was a great experience to simply check in on how things are coming along in some of the frontiers of Chilean winemaking — the regions of Elqui, Limarí, and the southern edges of the Atacama desert.

The northernmost parts of Chile rapidly descend into desert conditions. Driving north from Santiago, cacti begin to dot the landscape within an hour. By the time you get to the two valleys of Elqui and Limarí, five hours and 329 miles later, you’ve entered the southern reaches of the Atacama desert, and one of the most arid places on earth. Much of the Elqui region receive less than an inch of rain each year, and it boasts the claim of being the hottest wine region in the country. Limarí, a bit further south, gets a mere 3 or 4 inches of rain per year.

Once upon a time, Elqui and Limarí could lay claim to being Chile’s northernmost wine regions. But exploration and experimentation constantly push at the boundaries of winegrowing. Now there are two valleys to the north of Elqui and Limarí that are technically wine regions — Copiapo and Huasco, but wine grape plantings there are quite scarce and, thanks to the full force of the Atacama desert, very marginal.

Despite becoming better recognized as wine regions, Elqui and Limarí host very few fine wine vineyards, and even fewer established resident wineries. But they have a long history of growing grapes, which up until recently, were used for Pisco, the ubiquitous clear brandy that comprises and names the country’s national drink, the Pisco Sour.

The desert-like climate of these two valleys would never allow viticulture were it not for the influence of elevation. Most of the vineyards in the region sit above 5000 feet of elevation, making for cold nights and intense UV radiation during the day. In addition to their extremity, these regions (Limarí in particular) also host some of the highest concentrations of limestone in the country, something which has sparked interest among winemakers.

The regions’ Pisco producers have largely focused on the Muscatel, Quebranta, Italia, Albilla and Torontel grape varieties — hardy, good producers of sugar that ferment easily. But starting about 15 years ago, some pioneering winegrowers (with the confidence that comes from the bankrolls of Chile’s largest wine companies) began planting other grape varieties in the hopes of making fine wines.

One of the first was Concha y Toro, who planted Chardonnay in the limestone soils of the Limarí Valley and released it under the Maycas de Limarí brand to the amazement and acclaim of many (including myself). It was a taste of this wine in my first visit to Chile 10 years ago that sparked my interest in these regions. In addition to Chardonnay, Syrah has also proven successful in the region, and winemakers continue to experiment with planting new varieties.

Having had a couple of promising wines on my first trip to Chile, when I returned last month I was very excited to dive into a large group of wines from the region as a measure of the progress and increasing potential of the region.

The result? Clear and intriguing evidence of potential, but some ways to go for many producers.

Now I don’t make it my habit here on Vinography of publishing a lot of low scores for wines, because most people want to know what to drink more than they want to know what not to drink. And wine is an ever changing thing. A wine can go from lousy to quite good from one vintage to another, as winemakers, grape sources, and many other variables change. But information lingers online for posterity. So I try not to trash wines.

The one time that I do tend to publish low scores, however, is when I am reviewing a cross section of wines in some way, because the full range of scores are instructive as an assessment of the category as a whole. In this case, for instance, I could have concluded this article with simply the top five or six wines from my tasting. But providing the full perspective of my tasting is the best way to characterize the state of winemaking in these somewhat lesser known Chilean wine regions, as well as to encourage the folks there to keep improving.

Of course there’s a certain amount of selection bias going on here. I only tasted the wines that were collected for me by Wines of Chile, and there are undoubtedly other wines from the region that I didn’t get a chance to taste, perhaps from smaller producers that don’t have a relationship with Wines of Chile (which, like many such organizations tends to represent the largest players in the business).

So you shouldn’t, as I don’t, look at this as a definitive and comprehensive judgment on the region, only a snapshot as best as Wines of Chile and I were able to put together on my recent trip.

But let’s get into the wines with a highlight of the most impressive thing going on in Elqui at the moment, and that is the small side project of Marcelo Retamal, who spends most of his time as the winemaker at the well-known producer De Martino. Widely regarded as one of Chile’s most knowledgeable and accomplished winemakers, Retamal was retained in 2007 (and eventually brought in as a partner) by Patricio & Alvaro Flaño, a father and son pair who took the remarkable gamble of planting in the sandy, rocky granite soils of the upper Elqui Valley at more than 7217 feet of elevation (making it the highest in Chile and among the highest elevation vineyards in the world). Battling the near complete lack of water, intense UV radiation, and diurnal shifts of more than 45° F / 25° C, these three have figured out how to coax amazing things out of this extreme terroir.

Alcohuaz_vineyard.jpg

This is what one of their vineyards looks like. The nearby Elqui river supplies a certain amount of sub-surface groundwater that may assist the grapes, but irrigation is a requirement for now. The extreme desert conditions keep disease pressure low, and allow the team to farm the estate with a combination of organic and biodynamic methods, with purportedly no intention of certification. But while mildew and rot may not be an issue, other concerns, from the local rodents that eat the grapes and gnaw the vines to frost, sunburn and winter freezing keep the winemakers on their toes. Retamal has taken an extremely traditional approach to the winemaking: harvesting everything by hand, fermenting with ambient yeasts in stone lagares and crushing by foot, after which the wines are aged in a combination of concrete eggs and large foudres. The results are some of the most distinctive and dynamic wines that I have ever tasted from Chile. In addition to the two reds that I tasted here, the winery makes three single-parcel wines, which I hope to taste at some point. I can’t recommend highly enough that you seek out these wines.

Here’s everything I tasted. I tried to find as many as I could online, but many wines are not available via online retailers, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for them.

White Wines

2017 Tabali “Vetas Blancas” Chardonnay, Limari Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith and grapefruit. In the mouth, lemon pith and grapefruit flavors mix with pomelo and other exotic citrus as the bright acidity seems to intensify across the palate and through the finish. Deeply stony and mineral in quality. Perhaps missing some depth of complexity, but pretty compelling. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $12. click to buy.

2015 Ventisquiero “Tara Atacama – White Wine #1” Chardonnay, Atacama, Chile
A cloudy bright yellow gold in color, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon pith and wet stones. In the mouth, deeply stony flavors of lemon pith and lemon zest have a chalky tannic texture and a wet slate aroma and flavor that pervades tara_chard_label.jpgthe wine. Filigreed acidity and long pithy flavors in the finish. Very interesting, with obvious sediment. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9 . Cost: $60. click to buy.

2018 Tabali “Talinay” Chardonnay, Limari Valley, Chile
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones and lemon pith and white flowers. In the mouth, very stony flavors of lemon pith and grapefruit have a slightly floral aspect, but not much intensity or depth. Tastes a bit thin despite the deep minerality and excellent acidity and length. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2018 Ventisquiero “Grey – Single Block” Sauvignon Blanc, Atacama, Chile
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells intensely of wet chalkboard and green apple skin. In the mouth, green apple and kiwi flavors are quite intense thanks to almost searing acidity welded to a wet slate minerality. Chalky notes linger in the finish along with lime zest and green apple. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2018 Mayu “Huanta Vineyard” Pedro Ximinez, Elqui Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemongrass and pears. In the mouth, pear and slightly spicy, unripe apple flavors have a nice acidic kick to them. Clean and crisp with a faint tannic grip in the finish. Ready for seafood! 13% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $11. click to buy.

2017 Tabali “Barranco” Viognier, Limari Valley, Chile
Pale blonde in the glass, this wine smells of pineapple and peaches in syrup. In the mouth, sweetish peachy pineapple flavors have a deep underlying minerality, but also a sort of bitter candied quality that I don’t care for. Notes of peach pit and bitter orange linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5 . Cost: $13

2017 San Pedro “1865” Chardonnay, Elqui Valley, Chile
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of pineapple and cold cream. In the mouth, somewhat straightforward flavors of cold cream, lemon pith and a hint of more tropical pineapple are sort of short on the midpalate. Decent acidity. Alcohol not stated. Closed with a screwcap. Score: around 8. Cost: $15

2017 Falernia “Grand Reserva” Chardonnay, Elqui Valley, Chile
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of intense lemon curd and pineapple grus_label.jpgwith a backdrop of vanilla and melted butter. In the mouth, melted butter, pineapple and candied lemon peel flavors are zingy with very sharp acidity, but there’s a bitterness to the pineapple notes and scents of oak that linger in the finish. Overdone. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $??

2018 Falernia “Reserva” Chardonnay, Elqui Valley, Chile
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of pineapple and dried mango. In the mouth, strong and slightly bitter flavors of pineapple and dried mango have a high-toned quality that leaves notes of jalapeño in the finish. Not great. 13.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 7 and 7.5. Cost: $??

2015 Valdivieso “É;clat” Chardonnay, Limari Valley, Chile
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of sweet pineapple and lemon drop aromas. In the mouth, candied lemon and pineapple flavors have a sweetish, vanilla complexion and lack the acidity to make them truly refreshing. 14% alcohol. Score: around 7. Cost: $??

Red Wines

2017 Vinedos de Alcohuaz “Grus” Red Blend, Elqui Valley, Chile
Inky, opaque purple in color, this wine smells of wet pavement and cassis and exotic flowers. In the mouth, sour black cherry and cassis flavors are shrouded in a fog of powdery tannins like a cloud of chalk dust whipped up in the wind and filling every nook and cranny of the mouth. Fantastic acidity keeps the mouth watering as floral, cassis and sour black cherry notes linger in the finish with a hint of earth underneath. A blend of 60% Syrah, 13% Grenache, 12% Petite Sirah, and 15% Petit Verdot. Fermented in stone lagares and aged for 12 months in concrete eggs. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $27

2013 Vinedos de Alcohuaz “Rhu” Red Blend, Elqui Valley, Chile
Inky opaque garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and crushed stone. In the mouth, deeply mineral flavors of cassis, flowers and black plums have a sort of weightlessness to them as they float on top of a deep stony bed of minerality. Fine grained tannins disperse like rock dust in the mouth. Excellent acidity and long finish. Quite distinctive. A blend of 64% Syrah, 20% Grenache, and 16% Petite Sirah. 13.5% alcohol. Fermented in stone lagares and aged in a combination of concrete and foudre. Score: between 9 and 9.5 . Cost: $46

2015 Ventisquiero “Tara Atacama – Red Wine #2” Syrah, Atacama, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bloody steak and a touch of cassis. In the mouth, cassis and other floral flavors are gripped in a tight fist of muscular tannins as notes of iodine and cassis linger in the finish. Good acidity. 13% alcohol. 5285 bottles made Score: between 8.5 and 9 . Cost: $48

2015 Ventisquiero “Tara Atacama Red Wine #1” Pinot Noir, Atacama, Chile
Light garnet in color but headed towards ruby, this wine smells of cedar and raspberry and red apple skin. In the mouth, red apple skin and raspberry flavors are beginning to take on secondary rhu_label.jpgaromas like cedar and potpourri. Fairly muscular tannins coat the mouth, and excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, even as it leans more towards the dried end of the spectrum. Underneath everything, there’s a deep wet pavement minerality. 13.5% alcohol. 3933 bottles made Score: around 8.5. Cost: $46

2013 Tabali “Payen” Syrah, Limari Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blackberries. In the mouth, flavors of cassis and blackberry are bright with intense acidity and shot through with bitter green herbal notes. A deep mineral quality suffuses the wine, aided by powdery chalk-dust tannins that coat the mouth. There’s a bitter edge to this wine that reads as slightly high octane. Contains 10% Cabernet Franc. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??

2017 San Pedro “Kankana del Elqui” Syrah, Elqui Valley, Chile
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet cassis and blackberries. In the mouth, sweetish flavors of blackberry and cassis have a nice herbal note to them and a powdery accompaniment of tannins. Notes of oak show up in the finish but the fruit has a nice freshness thanks to good acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $60

2015 Tabali “Talinay” Pinot Noir, Limari Valley, Chile
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry jam and a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, raspberry fruit has a slight citrus-peel edge to it and is zippy with juicy acidity. Faint, grippy tannins buff the edges of the mouth while greenish herb flavors linger in the finish with a certain amount of bitter sawdust. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5 . Cost: $30

2016 Tabali “Vetas Blancas” Pinot Noir, Limari Valley, Chile
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberries and raspberry leaf and chopped herbs. In the mouth, very green herbal flavors dominate the red fruit at the core of the wine, which is draped in a heavy blanket of tannins. Good acidity, but the bitter sawdust quality to the wine is a distraction. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $30

2017 Mayu Red Blend, Elqui Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of green olives and plums. In the mouth, cherry and strawberry fruit flavors are wrapped in a thick, peanut-buttery goo of tannin. Notes of dried herbs linger in the finish with a touch of the green olive from the nose. Decent acidity. A blend of 55% Carmenere and 45% Syrah. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8. Cost: $16

2016 Tabali “Vetas Blancas” Syrah, Limari Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and white pepper. In the mouth, somewhat shrill cassis and black cherry flavors have an herbal and woody bitterness to them and are squeezed in a tight fist of tannins that are somewhat overwhelming. High acidity. 14% alcohol. Score: around 7.5. Cost: $15

NV Falernia Carmenere, Elqui Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black plum and blueberries. In the mouth, plum and blueberry flavors have a distinct sweetness to them. Good acidity makes them bright and juicy, but can’t cut the sweetness nor mask the sightly high-octane nature of this wine’s 15% alcohol. Faint tannins. Score: around 7.5. Cost: $11

2018 San Pedro “1865” Pinot Noir, Elqui Valley, Chile
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells intensely of struck match and sulfur dioxide. In the mouth, tart raspberry and raspberry leaf flavors are short on the palate and wrapped in a tacky, sandpapery tannin sheaf. Bitter notes in the finish. Unremarkable acidity. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 7. Cost: $13

2014 Valdivieso “Caballo Loco” Red Blend, Limari Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet raisins and chocolate. In the mouth, flavors of raisins, cassis and black cherry are enclosed in a thick matrix of putty-like tannins that suffuse the mouth and coat the palate. Notes of bitter wood linger in the finish. Decent acidity. Overdone. 15% alcohol. Score: around 7. Cost: $40

NV Falernia Pinot Noir, Elqui Valley, Chile
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of red fruits and the dried Japanese seaweed known as nori. In the mouth, dried raspberry and nori flavors are short and one dimensional. Faint, grippy tannins. Unremarkable. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 6.5 and 7. Cost: $16

NV Falernia Syrah, Elqui Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, blackberry and a very unusual note of camphor wood. In the mouth, sweetish flavors of black cherry are one dimensional and shot through with brown sugar and oak. Faint, drying tannins. Meh. 14.5% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 6.5 and 7. Cost: $12

2016 Tabali “Vetas Blancas” Cabernet Franc, Limari Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum and green bell pepper and alcohol. In the mouth, extremely high-octane flavors of plum and cherry have a volatile quality to them, as if they’re being delivered in a solution of pure alcohol. Unbalanced and icky. Moderately thick tannins and rough acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 6.5. Cost: $20