Thursday, April 14, 2011

Perfecting Pinot Noir in Chile

For decades now, vintners in Chile have known the benefit of the warmth of the sun. Theirs is a moderate to warm climate, meaning that conditions are ideal for varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and their local grape, Carmenere. The country's finest reds have been made from these varieties, from areas such as Maipo Valley (especially the Alto Maipo, a bit southeast of Santiago), Colchagua and Aconcagua Valleys.

But there are a few dozen producers that have wanted to scratch an itch for years and that itch is working with cool climate varieties, especially Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah. It all started in the 1980s when Pablo Morandé planted several varieties in Casablanca Valley some 12-15 miles from the Pacific Ocean. He took the chance, it paid off with many lovely wines and today, there are many established wine estates in Casablanca, while many other source fruit from this zone.

About a decade ago, a few more intrepid producers ventured even farther west, planting Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and one or two other varieties in the Leyda and San Antonio Valleys. These wine zones are extremely close to the Pacific, with some vineyards as close as 2-5 miles from the ocean. This is a razor's edge climate, so ripening it sometimes difficult, but when it works, it does so brilliantly.

To date, I've tasted some lovely Pinot Noirs from San Antonio and Leyda, most notably from Casa Marin as well as Leyda Vineyards. I've also tasted some beautiful examples from Morandé and William Cole in Casablanca. However, I've also had some bottlings from these zones that have been disappoining, ranging from overripe to underipe to harsh and slightly bitter. It's clear that while Chilean Pinot Noir has improved dramatically over the past two decades, much works needs to be done.

I recently tasted three fine examples of Chilean Pinot Noir that I'll mention in brief.

The first was the Valdivieso Reserva 2009 from Casablanca Valley. My notes mention "fresh, attractive aromas of bing cherry along with a note of cardamom spice; medium-bodied, this has good concentration and varietal character, medium-weight tannins, tart acidity and a light touch of wood."

This is an elegant Pinot Noir that is styled for many types of food and is fairly priced at $17. I think most consumers looking for Pinot Noir in this price range would be very happy with this wine.

The second wine was the Veramonte "Ritual" 2009 from Casablanca Valley. I've enjoyed this winery's bottlings for many years now, be it the delightful Sauvignon Blanc or the red blend known as Primus. The wines are well made and offer very good to excellent character for their prices.

But as good as those wines are, they did not prepare me for the qualities, complexities and character of this new Pinot Noir. Displaying aromas of bing cherry, cardamom and a hint of bacon fat, this wine has delicious varietal fruit with perfect ripeness and a lovely elegance. The finish has good length and is quite flavorful and everything is in balance- the acidity is very good, tannins are round and silky and the wood notes are quite subtle.

For $20 retail, this is a steal. I would be happy to pay $30 for this, as here is a wine with beautiful varietal character, lovely texture and impeccable balance. I've tasted $40 and $50 Pinot Noirs from other countries that haven't had this sort of complexity and finesse. Best yet, this is a lovely food wine - I think it would pair especially well with a Thai preparation of chicken or pork.

Finally, I sampled the Cono Sur "Ocio" 2008 from Casablanca Valley. This producer has a series of special selection and single vineyard wines that have greatly impressed me in the past (especially the "20 Barrels" Sauvignon Blanc). This Pinot Noir has lovely varietal character, excellent depth of fruit and a velvety feel in the mouth. It is quite rich with beautiful ripeness, very good acidity and excellent persistence.

The only problem I have with this wine is the excessive oak; the wine was aged for one year in small oak barrels. Oak in Pinot Noir is a delicate thing and it doesn't take much for a wine to be laden with wood notes. I prefer a different approach to aging a glorious wine such as this in oak, but the winemaker was looking for a particular style. This approach is also taken with numerous vintners of showcase Pinot Noirs in California and Oregon, so this wine is not alone in its balance of fruit and oak. Besides, the wine still has an elegant feel to it; there are no bitter wood tannins present.

This is a trophy wine, so to speak, and is a fine example of what Chile can produce with Pinot Noir. Producing notable wines from this grape is a work in progress in many great areas around the world, even in superb zones like Sta. Rita Hills or the Santa Lucia Highlands in California, so Chile is holding its own with the variety. Based on these three wines, the future looks exciting for Pinot Noir in Chile.

P.S. A final note- the Cono Sur bottling retails for $65, this price no doubt due to its limited availability. But for me, I'll take three bottles of the Veramonte "Ritual" over one bottle of the Cono Sur bottling every time!


  1. Tom,

    What did you think of the Syrahs?

  2. I'll have a post on the Syrahs very soon - stay tuned!

  3. I discovered your blog just as I was getting into wine seriously and learned a lot from your well written, humble and informative posts.