Digging Deep - Chile Pinot Noir

POSTED ON 01/10/2008

Like ‘interesting’ and ‘promising’, the word ‘potential’ can so often be used to damn with faint praise that when it’s employed in the context of Chilean pinot noir, you can be forgiven for imagining that those who use it, and there are many, are indeed doing precisely that. But why should faint praise necessarily be damning? Given the yardstick of red burgundy and the fine quality pinots coming out of New Zealand and California, the fact that in 1994 Chile had just over 100 hectares of pinot noir in the ground raises the legitimate question of how could Chile possibly show anything other than potential with ‘the heartbreak grape’, so-called because its sensitive, thin-skinned, fickle nature makes it notoriously difficult to achieve anything like the consistency of more forgiving varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and syrah?

Where higher yields and overconcentration can be acceptable or even desirable in other varieties, the challenge of pinot noir is the elusive search for what makes it so beguiling: fragrance, delicacy and summer fruits freshness and flavour. As Louis Vallet, Córpora’s burgundian winemaker points out, ‘you can’t make a good expressive pinot noir with high alcohol, too much concentration or extraction or from a vineyard producing a huge amount of grapes’. Get pinot wrong and it loses all pretensions to elegance and finesse. Get it right, and it will slap you in the face the following year for having the presumption to imagine that just because you achieved it one year, you can do the same year in year out. Small wonder then that unless it’s bred in the bone, the pinot noir gauntlet tends to be run only by individuals courageous enough to take on the challenge and avoided by big companies understandably not prepared to take the risk.

‘We have very few wineries that are tiny like in Burgundy’, says Errazuriz’ Francisco Baettig. In a country in which big wineries and broadacre vineyards using semi-industrial vineyard management techniques dominate the wine industry, it’s not surprising if pinot noir is not an obvious choice of grape variety. Chile’s historic red wine legacy is based on Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon in particular, and its main vineyard surface, occupying the warm, flat central valley between the cooler Pacific coast in the west and Andean vineyards of the east, is too warm to expect pinot noir produce much more than an everyday dry red . As Maria Luz Marin of Casa Marin points out: ‘Chile has a wide variety of conditions, most of which involve ample sunlight and ripening opportunities and most pinot noir from Chile does not have a distinct terroir. At Casa Marin [in San Antonio], we are on the very edge of viticultural possibilities’. As a sign of growing confidence and maturity, Chile has started to grasp the pinot nettle.

Despite discrepancies between official figures as to precisely how much pinot noir is planted in Chile (one chart says 1382 hectares, another 674), it’s clear first of all that pinot is still at a very early stage of development and that the major plantations of pinot noir are concentrated in three specific areas each with the requisite cool climate for the slow, even ripening of sugars and flavours. The coastal valleys of Casablanca and its southern neighbour, San Antonio, are bordered by the Pacific Ocean, so benefit from San Francisco-style morning fogs cool breezes engendered by the cold Humboldt current. Casablanca, where Casa del Bosque, Loma Larga and Anakena are working well with pinot, has water retentive red and black clay and granitic soils. In hillier San Antonio, with more red clay in the soils, Vina Leyda’s Las Brisas and Pinot Noir Lot 21 display attractive cherry fruit characters, Amayna and Matetic’s pinots opulence, albeit a tendency to hefty alcohol, and Casa Marin’s intense Lo Abarca Hills Pinot Noir may be a tad oaky but shows real pinot promise.

In the volcanic, southern region of Bío Bío, whose cool climate derives more from latitude at 37º south, the pinot noir vineyards are divided almost exclusively between the pioneering development of Córpora Vineyards on undulating hills bordered by the Bureo River and the 130 hectare Quitralman Estate belonging to Concha y Toro’s Isabel Gana. Rainfall is high, but low in summer with harvest rains a potential danger. There are red clay soils here, whose alluvial and volcanic stones, clay and sand help to stress the vine gradually, a feature which some think can bring a degree of minerality to the wine (but others doubt). One problem is a danger of excessive rainfall but it doesn’t bother Pascal Marchand. What attracts Córpora’s chief winemaker to Bío Bío is that it has ‘the perfect balance between a cool enough region that still allow some warm days during the peak of the summer and a long enough growing season with cool nights for ripening’.

Irrespective of the fact that pinot is at best a challenging variety, one of its major problems is the plant material, which as Errazuriz’ Francisco Baettig points out, was until recently ‘awful, with plenty of virus, poor massal selections and mostly planted in warm areas’. Most pinot noir is based on the Valdivieso clone originally used for the production of sparkling wine. It’s unpopular because it’s prone to dehydration and yields haphazardly. Because of restrictive quarantine laws and poor storage, it’s only recently that a nursery like Guillaume in Colchagua has been able to import the Dijon (777 and 115 appear to be the most favoured) and Davis clones that the majority of pinot noir producers believe Chile needs if it’s to achieve the necessary quality and consistency to compete on a level pinot noir playing field. Even then, as Cono Sur’s viticulturalist Gustavo Amenabar says, with potential problems of grafting new clones onto virused vines, efficient vineyard management, in particular ventilation, row orientation for protection from the sun, and water management for optimum yield, is crucial.

Burgundy’s negociant trade and possibly Villa Maria in New Zealand apart, Cono Sur itself is the exception to the rule that pinot noir is only for small, individual growers. With a range of pinot noirs from its basic everyday pinot at a fiver a bottle to its flagship 20 Barrels and Ocio pinots, Cono Sur, exceptionally for a company if its size, has blazed such a brave trail for pinot that you wonder what the beancounters’ fingernails look like. Cono Sur’s Adolfo Hurtado has made it his mission to put Chilean pinot noir not just on the Chilean but the world pinot map. Using vineyard sources in Casablanca, Leyda and Bío Bío, Cono Sur this year crushed 4 million kilos of pinot noir grapes to make it, at roughly 300,000 cases, one of the world’s biggest pinot noir producers. The good new for Cono Sur is that demand is such that all five pinots in its range are on allocation. While big is not necessarily beautiful, what Cono Sur is doing is showing that with the necessary critical mass, Chile doesn’t need to run before it can walk with pinot noir as long as it can walk at a respectable pace. With pinot, Chile is starting to walk the walk.

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