Wine Column: A trip to Chile yields fruitful insights

03/16/2012 12:41 PM |

Truly, the wine world has become very small. In the 1990s, the big joke in the wine industry was, “If you want to find a California winemaker, go to the Santiago, Chile, airport.” At the same time, a group of Chilean winery owners came to Long Island to invest, buying Laurel Lake Vineyards in Laurel. As winemakers in the northern hemisphere increasingly take advantage of a second harvest season by going to the southern hemisphere, and vice versa, the benefits of shared insight and opportunity have been tremendous.

I recently returned from my first South American jaunt to see for myself the state of the vine in both Chile and Argentina. February and March there are analogous to August and September here, so it was a perfect time to see the beginning of Vintage 2012, South American style.

Enjoying political stability today after of decades of turmoil, Chile’s wineries are led by the massive Viñas Concha y Toro. Concha began in 1883 with grape cuttings from Bordeaux; it has survived government land grabs, recessions and earthquakes (and adapted to anti-alcohol campaigns by buying the Chilean Coca-Cola franchise) to become the largest wine property in South America, with 2010 revenues equivalent to 812.3 million U.S. dollars. As if almost 21,000 acres of vineyards in Chile were not enough, in 2011 Concha also bought several California wine properties (including Fetzer and Bonterra).

Driving from Santiago toward the massive Concha processing plant, about one hour south of town in the Maipo valley, I went a little farther down the road to one of Chile’s smallest new wineries, Antiyal. Antiyal — a Mapuche word that means “sons of the sun” — belongs to Álvaro and Marina Espinoza, two organic/biodynamic practitioners who explain, “We founded Antiyal to teach our children, and all who would listen, about the earth, work and wine.”

When the earthquake of 2010 toppled the Espinozas’ ancient stone walls, Marina touched the trembling earth in an appeal for peace that now defines their reconstructed farm. Raising grapevines alongside almond trees and alpaca for biodiversity in their vineyard, the Espinozas have earned international accolades for their dense, rich red wines. Highly experimental, they have adopted the French egg-shaped concrete fermenters for making a supple carmenère.

With a production of only about 2,000 cases per year, Álvaro augments his income by consulting worldwide. When I told him I was from Long Island, he exclaimed, “I’ve been to Mattituck, consulting there with Macari Vineyards! I adore Joe and Alex!”

Like Álvaro, Argentine-born Alexandra Macari and New Yorker Joe Macari Jr. have studied biodynamic practices under California guru Alan York. It’s not as easy to go bio on humid Long Island as it is in dry Maipo, but the intent and enthusiasm for delicious, fruit-driven wines are evident in both families.

From Antiyal, I continued south into the Colchagua Valley to see Viña Montes, a super-premium winery founded by four successful Chilean businessmen who thought they could improve on supermarket-style Chilean wines by following the same practices (limited production, select varieties, hillside plantings, gravity-driven processing, French oak aging) that have led to premium wines in other parts of the world. Venturing into the neighboring Apalta Valley to take advantage of its underground streams and cool breezes, Montes built a showcase winery that rivals any in the world. Its barrel aging room is a temple to wine, with recorded medieval chants to tame the brawny wines and old-fashioned oak fermenters giving a nod to European tradition. The antique winemaking equipment in front of the glass and stone visitors’ center honors the past while putting the modern into perspective.

From Colchagua, I drove up the Pacific coast, through a paradise of fruits, nuts and vegetables, to Chile’s most audacious winery, Casa Marín, the winery closest to the Pacific Ocean and the only Chilean winery owned by a woman. On dry, fog- and windswept hills behind the blue-collar seaside resort of Cartagena, Maria Luz Marín cleared acres of eucalyptus forest to plant some of the most interesting riesling, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer I’ve had.

These wines, relatively low in alcohol, are bursting with acidity and punchy, mineral-driven aromas. Delicate and textured at once, they prove once again the benefits of cool-climate maturation in protecting essential aromas under low-yield conditions. Of all the wines I tried, these had the most in common with ours on Long Island. Pushing viticulture to its limits will never appeal to the bulk producer, but lovers of distinctive, exciting wines can reap the benefits gained by visionary vintners who take the greatest risks.

In my next column, I will explore Mendoza, Argentina’s pre-eminent wine region.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.