Ten Recommended Wines from Chile's Northern Frontier
From Pisco and papayas to uniquely styled table wines in one decade: that is the story of the Limarí and Elqui valleys.
Not too long ago the rugged, sparsely populated northern regions of Limarí and Elqui were best known for two products: Pisco, Chile’s national brandy, and papayas, better known as caricas. But in recent years intrepid terroir hunters, spurred on by pioneers who previously succeeded in cool-climate areas such as the Casablanca and Leyda valleys, have slowly but surely helped shift the regional focus to table wines.
Limarí and, to a lesser degree, Elqui (pronounced EL-kee) were long thought to be too dry, cold and windy to grow grapes other than basic table grapes and Moscatel, the early harvest base grape used for distilling Pisco. But they are now emerging as legitimate, albeit climate-challenged, spots for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, dry Pedro Ximénez (PX), Syrah and even Carmenère.
To date, there are still fewer than ten wineries making serious wines in Limarí and Elqui, which prompts the question: what’s the big deal? But for a country like Chile that is often maligned for producing too many full-bodied generic wines from the sprawling Central Valley, the north’s leaner, more minerally white wines along with floral, medium-bodied reds may be just what the doctor ordered.
Among the producers who claim they are committed to Limarí, a valley which begins about 25 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean and extends east toward the Andes range, are Concha y Toro, through its Maycas brand; Viña Tabalí, part of the large Viña San Pedro/Tarapacá group; Viña Casa de Tamaya; Santa Rita; and De Martino, among others. For the most part, these wineries are concentrating on Chardonnay and Syrah, although Tamaya and Tabalí are producing the gamut of varietal wines and a few red blends.
Meanwhile in Elqui, which sits to the immediate north of Limarí and extends along the Elqui River from the Andes to the Pacific, the players are even fewer: there’s Falernia and Cavas del Valle, both run by a family of Italian descent. At Falernia, Syrah has emerged as the winery’s signature wine. In addition, San Pedro is sourcing Elqui Valley Sauvignon Blanc for its Castillo de Molina line, while De Martino is also active in Elqui (Syrah).
“From the start, and by that I mean the 1990s, people have had concerns about making quality table wines in Limarí and Elqui. They said it was too dry, too much of a desert, and that nothing would grow there besides papayas, Moscatel and PX,” says Diego Callejas, commercial director for Tamaya. “But we took the risk, almost like a bet, that it could be done, especially with white wines. We are in a cool climate, for sure, very close to the Pacific Ocean. But we have very long sun days, no pollution, less heat than in Santiago and to the south of that, zero frost and hardly any rain. We have proven that through experience, our vines growing older, and climate and canopy management that quality can be achieved.”
What the regions also boast, particularly Limarí, according to Tabalí winemaker Felipe Müller, are limestone-based soils that are unique within Chile. “You dig down a meter and it is all white chalk,” he says. “This doesn’t exist anywhere else in Chile, and it’s what gives the wines minerality and refinement, almost like the Loire Valley. Winemakers from elsewhere try our Chardonnays and they ask, ‘Where does that come from?’ ’’
The full article on Chile's Limarí and Elqui valleys is available in our March 2010 issue.
10 Recommended Wines from the Limarí and Elqui Valleys
91 Maycas de Limarí 2006 Syrah (Limarí Valley); $23. One of Chile’s more personality-driven Syrahs. Condensed, meaty and structured, with mineral, toast and ribald blackberry aromas. Rich but well built, with plum, berry, herb and chocolate flavors. Brawny but sophisticated.
90 De Martino 2008 Legado Reserva Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $15. Composed and showing no overwrought oak or cloying tropical fruit aromas. A smooth operator, with toasty apple and mineral scents leading to a ripe but cleansing palate and finish. Best Buy.
89 Viña Tabalí 2008 Reserva Especial Syrah (Limarí Valley); $20. Dark, full, dense and foresty, with minty oak, a sauvage character and a strong identity. Flavorful, with intense blackberry, spiced plum and youthful heat. Tight now but will settle over the next year or two.
89 Viña Tabalí 2009 Reserva Especial Sauvignon Blanc (Limarí Valley); $20. Cool, green, minerally aromas lead it off, and next there’s fresh bell pepper, jalapeño and gooseberry flavors. Bright, focused, edgy and stony, with proper acidity, bite and clarity. Very nice Chilean SB.
88 Tamaya 2008 Reserva Chardonnay-Viognier (Limarí Valley); $15. A very nice blended white with melon and powdered sugar aromas. The palate is ripe and bouncy, with flavors of apricot, orange and lime. Dry and brushing up against complex on the finish. Shows more Viognier than Chardonnay.
88 Maycas de Limarí 2007 Reserva Especial Chardonnay (Limarí Valley); $23. Warm oak and mildly sweet, with a shot of apple pie. The palate is fresh and racy, and the flavors of apple, kiwi and lemon are focused. Narrow on the finish, with citrus, minerality and oceanic freshness.
87 Falernia 2009 Reserva Sauvignon Blanc (Elqui Valley); $11. Opens with textbook Elqui aromas of jalapeño and gooseberry, while the flavors are a little tropical due to pineapple notes. On the back end it reverts toward minerally green fruit, jalapeño and white pepper. Good wine; not vegetal. Best Buy.
87 Falernia 2007 Reserva Carmenère (Elqui Valley); $14. Made in a mild ripasso style. Miserly on the nose and hot on the finish, but what comes in between is very nice. Sweet flavors of brandied cherries, plum and chocolate blend with spice and pepper accents. Burns late, something that may resolve with bottle age.
86 Tamaya 2009 Pink Goat Rosé (Limarí Valley); $15. More red than pink in color, with strawberry, cherry and pomegranate on the pleasant bouquet. Acidic but pure, with flavors of red apple, cherry and raspberry. Citric and pithy on the finish, but with a clean personality.
85 Elki 2008 Syrah (Elqui Valley); $15. Not a demanding wine, as it opens with simple plum and berry aromas accented by an herbal hint. The palate is snappy, with fresh raspberry and strawberry flavors. Finishes with a touch of oak and pepper. From the family that owns Cavas del Valle and Falernia.
For additional reviews on new wines from Limarí and Elqui, see the Buying Guide section on Chile.
The following is from Wines of Chile, USA:
"This month, we would like to express our deepest concern and sympathy for everyone affected by the earthquake in Chile. Our thoughts are with the people of Chile."