Natural limits on where good wine grapes can be grown have existed since the first vines were planted. That’s why it was the Greeks and Romans who got the wine ball rolling and not the Vikings, Inuit or Maasai.
Fast-forward a few thousand years and the rules of viticulture aren’t so strict. Global warming has resulted in new vineyards popping up in historically cool, northerly places like England and Canada, while enhanced technology aimed at tapping vital water combined with overall intrepidness is allowing wineries and winemakers to explore parts of the planet that were heretofore inhospitable to growing grapes and making palatable wine.
Case in point: Viña Ventisquero, a large, forward-thinking Chilean winery, has spent the past seven years battling the driest desert on earth in hopes of making unique, high-quality wines. Call it a folly, a vision quest or one of the most glaring examples of a winery pushing the envelope, but today we can drink wines made from vineyards in the Atacama Desert.
From near the coastal town of Huasco, located some 550 kilometers (about 340 miles) north of Santiago, Ventisquero is producing surprisingly good Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from two small vineyards watered by the Huasco River. “This is a place that tells us what to do, not the opposite,” says Ventisquero Winemaker Alejandro Galaz. “And the wines are far more natural than what Chile is known for. The level of human intervention is extremely low.”
The wines, called Tara White Wine 1 and Tara Red Wine 1, are varietal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, respectively. A Sauvignon Blanc, bottled under Ventisquero’s new Kalfu label, also hails from Huasco. I recently tasted the inaugural U.S. releases of all three (2012s for Tara; 2013 for Kalfu Sauvignon Blanc). The Tara wines, which retail for about $40 a bottle, are excellent overall and quite different from central Chile’s often blowsy Chardonnays and tutti-frutti Pinot Noirs.
What makes these wines special, other than their place of origin? The Chardonnay (100 cases made), which tastes much like a Jura or Valle d’Aosta white, is fermented in stainless-steel barrels with only natural yeasts, then aged in fifth-use Burgundy barrels. The unfined, unfiltered wine is waxy smelling, with alluring stone-fruit flavors, bright acidity and none of the heavy vanilla, toast, pineapple and banana characteristics that frequently plague Chilean Chardonnay. The Pinot (50 cases made), on the other hand, is naturally fermented in open bins, then aged in the same type of neutral barrels as the Chardonnay. The end result is a smooth yet vibrant wine with earth, leather and tea qualities, but none of the candied red-fruit flavors that many Chilean Pinots show.
Talk about wines from a particular place. But who ever thought the place would be situated in the world’s driest desert? Welcome to the New Chile.
Six Chilean wine myths debunked by Ventisquero
1. Chile’s only good wine regions are located in the country’s fertile central valleys.
2. The Elqui Valley is Chile’s most northerly viable wine zone.
3. Nothing of importance can grow in the Atacama Desert.
4. None of Chile’s best Chardonnays and/or Pinot Noirs are so-called “natural wines.”
5. Chilean wines are always aged in new oak barrels.
6. Chilean wineries only care about big-volume, value-priced wines.