Chile is one of the oldest and most productive wine regions in the New World, thanks to the missionaries who introduced viticulture there in the 16th century. But although Chile’s wines have stormed the global market, they haven’t always enjoyed a reputation for quality or complexity.

Today that story’s shifting, thanks to a loosely affiliated group of winemakers in the country’s northern reaches. Rodrigo Soto is one of them. Wine director at Veramonte, in the Casablanca Valley, Soto believes the key to shifting Chile’s reputation lies in emphasizing quality and site expression — a message that may be well-worn for the Old World but is all-new for Chile.“Today, we realize the value of Chile is its regionality,” Soto told me. “We haven’t communicated our geography and regionality effectively. We have promoted brands over the regions. That’s a problem.”

Soto and a small group of like-minded winemakers have decided to take the message of Chile’s sub-regions to the masses in the best possibly way — through the wine glass. In a recent visit to the Leyda Valley, San Antonio, Casablanca, and Limarí, I discovered that these visionaries have a unified ambition: To produce high quality Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that are truly expressive of place. Below I share my findings.


Leyda Valley

Located in Acongagua within the San Antonio Valley, Leyda is cooled by morning fog and strong afternoon winds. Undurraga winemaker and self-professed “terroir hunter” Rafael Urrejola called out the special conditions of the region at the winery’s Lomos de Leyda estate. The site receives little annual rainfall, but it’s located merely five miles from the ocean, so the mornings are foggy, the afternoons sunny, and the winds blow constantly. The average temperature is 10-12°F cooler than in Chile’s Central Valley regions.

All of these factors contribute to lower yields and slower ripening. Urrejola said the grapes “cook like in a slow oven, giving them plenty of time to ripen,” but retain their natural acidity. The granite soils are topped with various types of clay—another factor that adds freshness, he said.

“Vines want to grow vigorously. Granite acts like a hand-break, stopping over production of the vines, said Urrejola. This “adds vibrancy to the wine… increases longevity, adds structure and tension.” I found in his wines pronounced fresh fruit notes and subtle secondary notes with rich vibrancy from minerality and crushed stones. Wines of note include 2016 T.H. Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Sibaris Gran Reserva Chardonnay, 2015 T.H. Pinot Noir, and the 2016 Trama Pinot Noir.


San Antonio Valley

At Matetic winery, the vineyards also have a strong ocean influence. Winemaker Julio Bastias said that the combination of the cold Humboldt ocean current, foggy mornings, and wind add “freshness and vibrant acidity for Pinot Noir.” Soils here are also granite, but mixed with a little mica and quartz. It is a complex soil that he sees as a key to the complexities of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc produced here, as it retains water well and adds minerality to the wines.

Bastias embraces biodynamic practices in the vineyard, believing that “biodynamics is simply the expression of a place. It’s part of the chain; everything is harmonically connected.” The vineyards are surrounded by native forests, which he said gives the wines more identity and balance. The winery also has 5,000 cattle helpful for their fertilizing manure and uses sheep, chicken, alpacas, and geese to control vineyard weeds and pests. Limited intervention in the vineyard continues in the winemaking practices, as Bastias strives to let the fresh fruit and pure flavors of the place to speak through the glass. I admired the 2016 EQ Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 EQ Chardonnay, 2014 EQ Pinot Noir, and 2017 EQ Pinot Noir.


Casablanca Valley

Casablanca is slightly farther inland, so the winds are more subdued and the temperatures warmer. Veramonte was the first to plant in Casablanca, in 1984, but now there are 50 producers with approximately 5,500 hectares of vineyards. The soil is deposited from the old coastal mountain range, which is much older and more decomposed than the Andes. The crumbled granite is the key to the region; fracturable, it allows the roots of the vines to grow through it, interact with it.

In 2012, Veramonte head winemaker Rodrigo Soto shifted all of their vineyards to organic viticulture, and his next goal is to transition to biodynamics, a practice he believes is particularly suited to expressing site. “How can we capture decomposed granite in grapes?” he asked, hypothetically. “How can we get the soil into the wine?” For Soto the answer is to close the fertility cycle of the vineyard through biodynamics, allowing a unique expression of region into the wines.

Veramonte started their Ritual label as a vineyard-designate project, and vineyard practices and winemaking techniques are employed to emphasize the characteristics of each place. I found the wines expressed fresh fruit and minerality with depth and complexity, including 2017 Veramonte Chardonnay, 2016 Ritual Chardonnay, 2016 Supertuga Single Vineyard Chardonnay, 2016 Veramonte Pinot Noir, 2016 Ritual Pinot Noir, and 2016 Monster Block Single Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Kingston Family Vineyards is an American-owned winery in Casablanca, started in the early 1900’s. Today winemaker Amael Orrego is overseeing the conversion of 60 hectares from conventional to organic vineyards, with a focus “not on promotion, but to make better wine.”

Soils under the undulating vineyard hills are decomposed granite. A dairy farm on site supplies manure for compost. “Compost improves the microorganisms in the soil,” Orrego said, adding that it “does not fertilize the wine — it feeds the soil.”

Orrego believes Kingston is the only winery in Casablanca with Pommard and Calera Pinot Noir clones planted among the more common Dijon. He expressed high hopes for Calera in particular, and believes that “Chile is on the cusp of a breakthrough in premium Pinot Noir.”

Kingston wines such as the 2016 Savino Chardonnay, 2016 Tobino Pinot Noir, and 2017 Alazan Pinot Noir illustrate that high quality wines from Casablanca are worthy of international recognition.


Limarí

Limarí, in the northern Coquimbo Valley, is not protected by a coastal mountain range, so receives full ocean influences, with steady winds. Marcelo Papa, winemaker at Concho y Toro, said the fog rolls in around 3 a.m., blanketing the area until noon and resulting in a maximum of 5 hours of sun each day. This produces Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are “more austere, less fruit intense, more intellectual, more Burgundian in style,” he said.

Papa’s special project, Maycas di Limarí, seeks site expression in the vineyard’s limestone soils and red clay, which he believes add body to the wines. Through the 2016 Maycas di Limari Quebrada Seca Chardonnay and the 2016 Maycas di Limari San Julian Pinot Noir Marcelo shares his expression of Limarí.

If Papa is fortunate to have veins of limestone in his vineyard, Felipe Müller, winemaker at Viña Tabali, won the limestone lottery. Müller told me that Tabali’s Talinay Vineyard is the only vineyard in Chile planted over marine terroir – the bedrock is solid limestone. Lying just adjacent to the Atacama Desert, the average rainfall is a mere 80 mm a year, requiring irrigation for the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir planted there. Viña Tabali beautifully expresses the unique site of the Talinay Vineyard through its 2015 Talinay Chardonnay, 2015 Talinay Pinot Noir, and 2015 Talinay Sauvignon Blanc. Each wine reveals a similar style of expressive fruit with pronounced minerality, complexity, and vibrancy.


Conveying — and Communicating — a Sense of Place(s)

Over my week of site visits and tastings, it became clear that these winemakers are not just striving to produce wines of place, they’re succeeding.

“We have not been good storytellers of our country,” Rodrigo Soto, of Veramonte, said. But through loose team effort these winemakers are trying to shift the narrative. “This project is about believing in the regions,” he said; an organic movement started by those who have their hands in the dirt.

The shift won’t happen overnight. “Building an image takes time,” said Müller, of Viña Tabali. “Maybe we should have started sooner, but we are here now.”