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Great expectations, boundless opportunities

Chile is a wine-producing country with seemingly endless potential. New plantings in previously unexplored territories are bringing new styles to market. Following her recent visit, Felicity Murray brings a series of reports from the north to south of the country

Report 3: The Aconcagua Valley

The Aconcagua Valley, 100km north of Santiago and overlooked by Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas, is the last east-west transversal valley between the arid north and the fertile north-south Central Valley. Like Limarí, the Aconcagua Valley enjoys a stable Mediterranean climate with clear skies and a low risk of frost damage.

Irrigation is vital in the valleys but they are blessed with a plentiful supply of snowmelt from the Andes that flows into the rivers. This water is diverted to a network of canals that feed the vineyard drip irrigation systems.

It is these ideal, controlled conditions for winemaking that have encouraged the rapid growth of organic and biodynamic vineyards in the region. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carmenére are the predominant varieties grown here but there are some very promising Malbecs coming along to challenge Argentina in the market.

Viña San Esteban Founded by the Vincente family in 1974, Viña San Esteban is located near the city of Los Andes at the mountainous eastern edge of the Aconcagua Valley with vineyards running along the sandy banks of the Aconcagua river and, since the early 1990s, over the rocky foothills of the Mount Paidahuen (pictured above). VSE was a pioneer in Chile for high altitude vine planting. And it is these hillsides at 850-940m that is critical to the character of the winery’s flagship brand, In Situ, which features symbols from the ancient rock carvings to be found surrounding the vineyards. Other brands from the winery are San Esterban and Rio Alto. The high altitude allows for progressive and gentle grape ripening through warm days and cool night breezes that are key to the expression of ripe fruit and elegance, whereas vineyards in the valley bring out more mint and mushroom aromas in the wines. The best results can be a blend of both. In 2006 the In Situ vineyard initiated the conversion to organic farming, obtaining certification in 2009. Certified organic wines are produced from15ha of VSE's total 100ha for wine grapes (a further 20ha is given to fresh fruit production). All the vineyards are managed using sustainable vineyard practices adopted from organic farming, such as the use of cover crops between rows and biodegradable reed to tie back pruned canes. “I chose organic rather than biodynamic because I don’t think consumers understand the difference,” says Horacio Vicente, winemaker and general manager at VSE and son of the founder José. “I like the concept of biodynamic management but not the witchcraft elements.” He adds that he thinks following biodynamic methods is easier than organic because with biodynamic you’re given a list of what you must do, whereas with organic you’re just told what you can’t do.” Horacio is Bordeaux trained winemaker and winegrower who has also worked in California. VSE has just launched a generic label design to test-market new products in the In Situ range. These will be called Signature Wines. The first wines that will be tested this year include a Chardonnay / Voignier blend, and two Cabernet Sauvignon / Syrah blends from certified organic grapes. Below: VSE organic vineyard Vína Errázuriz This fifth generation family wine estate dates back in 1870 when Don Maximaino pioneered winegrowing outside the Maipo Valley. The Chilean wine industry at that time was entirely on the outskirts of Santiago where wealthy families established their wineries in the 1800s. Committed to the concept of terroir, Vína Errázuriz now has eight estates in the Aconcagua Valley. Seven of the vineyards plus the winery are close to the mountains and one vineyard, Manzanar, is situated near the coast. Here a new planting of Syrah is hoped to produce a different style of wine that bridges the gap between Syrahs from warmer or cooler areas. Renowned for its icon wines, such as the Don Maximiano Founders Reserve, and Seña Valle Aconcaqua, Errazuriz offers a broad range of styles and price points. Winemaker Francisco Baetting says Chilean wines offer good quality for money and, with people trading down because of the crisis; the US$15-20 market is certainly an opportunity for Chile. The recent focus by Chilean winemakers on terroir and cooler climates has led to a change in quality and greater potential for varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  Francisco adds: “I think Chile has yet to find the style of Pinot Noir it really wants to show the world. I find that generally Chilean Pinot Noirs lack balance and finesse. We get nice colour and red fruit but we need more complexity. The offering is, nevertheless, incredibly good value for money.”  Errazuriz has moved all its Estate wines into 14% - 18% lighter glass bottles and it says the next step will be the smaller volume icon. The company is also close to opening its new winery and visitor centre - the building of which is scheduled for completion this month (February 2010). Capacity will be almost trebled to 1,150,000 9-litre cases and the visitor centre, which in the old winery was seeing around 4,700 visitors annually, is expected to now attract up to 15,000. Below: the new winery under construction (December 09)

1 February 2010 - Felicity Murray