Feature Story

Sauvignon from Mother Rock, Chile’s Coastal Edge

Pedro Parra is one of only a few terroir doctors in the world, with a PhD in geology applied to wine. Most of his fellow vineyard geologists live in France, where he studied before returning to his native Chile.

Filipe Müller and Héctor Rojas at Talinay

Filipe Müller and Héctor Rojas at Talinay
Parra now consults for a number of growers, including the Matetic family, which owns more than 37,000 acres of land on Chile’s far coast, in San Antonio and Casablanca. Parra helped them plant Valle Hermosa, Casablanca’s most westerly vineyard site, eight kilometers from the sea.

“Seventy percent of the great wines of the world grow on geological soils,” Parra says. “It’s the mother rock, for real men: St-Emilion on limestone, Priorat and Douro on schist, Chile on coastal granite.” His worldview separates these vineyards from others grown on geomorphological formations: “new soils, alluvial and colluvial soils, such as in the Médoc or Châteauneuf-du-Pape”—or here, in Chile, where rivers slowly erode the Andes. Since those rivers define Chile’s viticultural areas, Parra’s map of Chile looks substantially different from the official appellation maps.

For him, the significant difference between mother rock and newer soils is in root development. And for sauvignon, with all its vigorous root development, mother rock rocks.

The point was hammered home to me by a wine I tasted this past January at Matetic, the 2010 Coastal Sauvignon from Valle Hermosa. Farmed biodynamically, it’s planted to clone 242, which builds the tropical fruit flavors, and UCD 1, which balances that with freshness, minerality and floral citrus notes. It’s ripe and harmoniously balanced between finesse and intensity—the sort of beautiful white Chile does best.

I found a number of interesting new sauvignon projects in Casablanca, including a 2008 Morandé had vinified in foudre, going back to the traditional wood-aged sauvignons of Chile’s past. And Ritual, a new wine from Veramonte made with their most extreme and intensely flavorful fruit. But the most riveting sauvignon I tasted came from farther north, while visiting Altos de Talinay with Felipe Müller, the winemaker for Tabalí. In 2002 and ‘03, Müller had worked with vines planted in mother rock in St-Emilion—with Stephan von Niepperg at Canon-La-Gaffelière and La Mondotte. When he returned to Chile, he was interested in the calcareous soils of Limarí, even if the limestone was geomorphological: It had formed as part of an alluvial wash from higher up in the Andes.

Limarí is at the edge of the Atacama Desert, near La Serena, where Müller arrived in 2006. He was content to work with those alluvial soils, 29 kilometers from the ocean, until he found a geological formation of limestone and decided it was something he couldn’t live without. The rock was under a newly planted vineyard, the only vines west of the Panamericana in Limarí. It was a sector of a large property Agustin Huneeus and three partners had purchased abutting the Parque Nacional Fray Jorge. The Parque is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a rainforest in the midst of a desert, formed where the coastal mountains rise over 2,000 feet. The mountains block the camanchaca, a dense fog the ocean generates where the cold waters of the Humboldt Current meet the warmer Pacific anticyclone. The forest ends at the top of the mountains; inland, the climate is both cool and dry in the rolling hills below.

The presence of the park is critical, if only for the access road it provides to this remote corner of the desert. Even with the road, this seems an unlikely distance from civilization to plant vines. Few, however, would question Huneeus’s savvy when it comes to vineyard exploration in Chile—he began his career at Concha y Toro in the 1960s, went on to develop Veramonte in Casablanca and took on partnerships in Montes and other leading vineyards.

What Huneeus and his partners had found at Altos de Talinay was a New World viticulturist’s fantasy: a seabed brought to the surface of the earth by tectonic activity, the kind of pure white fractured limestone that makes Sancerre and Champagne such coveted terroir. And they found it in close to ideal climate conditions for that soil: 12 kilometers from the ocean, cool and dry, just close enough to the Elqui River that they could pump water in for irrigation. They planted 98 acres in 2006 and another 86 in 2008, and word began to get around. Müller saw the property and wanted it, immediately. He went to Guillermo Luksic, the owner of Tabalí and one of the wealthiest individuals in Chile, who questioned whether Huneeus would really want to sell. So Müller and Héctor Rojas, Tabalí‘s director of viticulture, set out to look for similar soil nearby, but were soon convinced this block was a one-off, particularly for its access to water. Luksic wrote a check for the 1,000 acres, based on his team’s belief that the newly planted vineyard would deliver. Müller and Rojas knew they’d be sent off to wander in the rainforest if it didn’t.

“We have the opportunity to plant 240 acres more,” says Müller, “but not for the moment. We have to sell the wine first.” He grows impressive chardonnay and pinot noir at the site, but it is the sauvignon that thrives, balanced at a yield of one to 1.2 kilos per plant, naturally. The character of the wine is driven by the intensity of the winds, and the pure white limestone soils.

The 2010 Caliza Sauvignon Blanc is a selection from the best areas of Altos de Talinay. With its focused, acidic drive and potent minerality, it is one of the most elegant sauvignons you will find in Chile. Check it out.


This feature appears in the print edition of August 2011.
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