Final stop of the Chile tour was perhaps
one of the most interesting. This is frontier-land. Elqui, in the
far north of the country, over 300 miles north of Santiago.
It’s wild-looking country, dry, arid
and desert-like, but, because of the Andes and the snowmelt, there
is enough water here for viticulture.
Indeed, this region has been growing
grapes for a long time for Pisco production (this is a grape-based
spirit), and also as table grapes. The table grapes from here are
highly prized because they ripen at a time when table grapes from
other places are relatively scarce. As a result, many of the table
grape vineyards are protected by hail/UV netting. It’s only fairly
recently that this has become a wine valley, too.
We were visiting the pioneers here: Viña
Falernia and the sister company Viña Mayu. Aldo
Olivier settled here from Italy with his family in 1951, as a young
child with his parents and brothers. His family started growing
vegetables near La Serena. In 1972, Aldo was married with kids and
moved to Elqui where he planted grapes for Pisco production. He
became vice-president of the Pico co-op, but soon realised that the
co-op world was not for him, and in 1975 started his own Pisco
project, building a winery.
In 1995 Aldo’s cousin, Italian
winemaker Giorgio Flessati, visited the valley and they decided to
make wine together. Giorgio said that as soon as he saw the valley
he realised its potential: it is one of the few places in Chile with
no problems of frost and rain. The first dedicated wine vineyards
were planted here in 1999. Initially they just planted what they
could get their hands on, but were lucky that one of the varieties
they planted, Syrah, seems ideally suited to the conditions
vineyard on alluvial soils
‘It’s like northern Italy,’ says
Giorgio, ‘in that every five kilometres there are different
conditions.’ He has four Syrah vineyards, and they each produce a
different wine. The Elqui Valley has a number of climatic
influences. The first part , 15-25 km from the sea, has a cooling
influence from the Pacific. Then, as you get closer to the Andes it
gets warmer, and then cooler as the altitude increases. Soils differ
quite a bit too. And then there’s the amazingly intense sun: it
hardly every rains here, and the constantly blue sky leads to high
levels of solar UV, particularly as the altitude increases.
Falernia/Mayu is the only significant
winery in the region, although 6–7 companies buy fruit from Elqui.
The focus is on Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc,
and the two pisco grapes Pedro Ximenez and Torontelo (aka Torrontes).
‘I really like Pedro Ximenez because of the minerality and the
possibility to make different styles,’ says Giorgio. For Pisco it
can be cropped at 30 tons/hectare, but for wine yields have to be
half this, although by any standards this is still generous.
‘There are 350 wineries in Chile making wine with the same grape
varieties,’ says Giorgio. ‘We have to do something different. I
would like to try Italian varieties, but it is too difficult to get
the material. I would like to try Nero d’Avola. We have fantastic
soils and you have many options for blending to make different
Mayu was started as an independent winery
within Olivier family group in 2005, and is run by Mauro Olivier.
It’s a separate entity, but the wines seem very similar in style,
with winemaking overseen by Giorgio also.
We travelled up the valley towards the
Andes, with the destination being the Huanta vineyard. It was a
remarkable journey, and the Hunta vineyard, at 2070 metres (6320
feet) is one of the highest in the world. The quality and intensity
of light this high up is amazing. Currently, it is
planted with old Pedro Ximenez and Muscat vines, but
there are plans to grow other varieties here also.
film of the visit to Huanta:
The next day we had another great
experience, this time not wine related. We were taken to the Tololo
observatory, which is open to visitors a couple of times a month
(you have to book, Saturday mornings only). Elqui is famous for its
clear skies and lack of light pollution – a perfect place for a
light telescope, and the Tololo observatory (website
here) has a few of them.
view from the observatory
The biggest telescope a mirror shaped
like a donut, 4.1 metres in size, and can see a long, long way.
It’s sort of mind-blowing to think of looking at galaxies billions
of light years away.
I admit to not being up to speed with
astronomy, and all the talk of heavy matter, black holes, red
dwarves and the rate of expansion of the universe made my head hurt
a bit. But I came away interested in all these concepts. I need to
do some more learning.
film of the visit:
We tried through some casks/tanks in the
winery. I was impressed by the Syrahs, with each vineyard having its
own personality. The Titon was my favourite: intense, fresh, peppery
and structured. Brilliant wine: a shame this is not bottled
separately. Then we had a look at bottled wines, and these are notes
of the highlights:
Falernia Antakari Carmenere Syrah
Reserva 2008 Elqui, Chile (an exclusive label for Laithwaites) The Carmenere is made
one-third in an amarone style. The grapes are dried by leaving them
on the vines for 2 months longer. Lovely autumnal dark fruits nose
with some chalky spiciness. The palate is sweet and pure with ripe
dark fruits and a distinct pepperiness. Lovely richness and balance.
Falernia Alta Tierra Syrah Reserva
2008 Elqui, Chile (an exclusive label for Laithwaites) Sweet, slightly tarry,
spicy dark fruits here. Nice black cherry and blackberry with some
freshness, but also lots of ripeness and a hint of meatiness. 88/100
Falernia Carmenere Reserva 2008 Elqui,
Chile 60% made with dried fruit. Very sweet, open blackberry nose.
Palate shows lovely texture and richness with bold dark fruits and
sweet blackberry character. Some plum and chalk notes, too. Intense.
Mayu Pedro Ximenez 2010 Elqui, Chile Fresh, bright nose with mineral and citrus notes. Fresh, pithy
and bright with lively acidity and nice fruit purity. Very lively
and full. 87/100
Mayu Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2010
Elqui, Chile Fresh and focused with grapefruit and green pepper on the nose,
as well as some melon and citrus on the palate. Great acidity.
Mayu Chardonnay Reserva 2010 Elqui,
Chile Rich peach, melon, fig and pineapple notes here. Has nice fruit
richness combined with good acidity and real purity. 91/100
Mayu Syrah Selected Vineyards 2009
Elqui, Chile Nice sweet black cherry fruit with some appley, spicy, meaty
notes. The palate is rounded and fruity with blackberry and plum
fruit as well as some meatiness. Rich but expressive, showing lovely
Mayu Syrah Reserva 2007 Elqui, Chile Lovely aromatic nose: rich, bold, meaty and spicy with notes of
pepper and olives. Sweet blackberry fruit on the palate with nice
richness, some spicy notes and a really expressive personality.