– Chilean film director Pablo Larrain
It's been awhile since I've blogged. I've been on the road, visiting a lot of wineries and wine regions, so forgive my absence and forgive the somewhat desultory nature of today's blog (1/10/'13).
First off, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for Chilean film director Pablo Larrain for his film, No. I have not seen the film, but my friends inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tell me that it's an important, scatchingly funny film about a sad chapter of Chile's past. It's the third film in a trilogy for this young director and is a landmark movie because I believe that only one other film from Chile has ever been nominated for an Oscar before. Unfortunately, Michael Haneke's Amour is a lock to win — as it garnered a total of 5 nominations all together — but what an achievement for Mr. Larrain and the country of Chile, which I'm proud to be traveling around in, researching a novel. I've been to the Oscars, where we won for Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways, and I'm behind a second Oscar when my ex-wife Barbara Schock won the 2000 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York. Congratulations to Mr. Larrain.
But I digress. I've spent the last week in Elqui Valley. It is the northernmost wine region in all of Chile. Unfortunately, I was saddled by more car problems — this time a loaner that had no A/C that I got just before going to southernmost tip of one of the hottest, dryest deserts in the middle of Chile's summer during a heat wave — and had to cancel some appointments. Fortunately, Guy Hooper, Marcelo and Francisca of De Martino made the trip worth my while. They are owed a longer blog about the two days we spent in this region, but I wanted to get something out about Elqui, so am going to focus on a small producer, but first:
The above is Rio Claro in Elqui Valley. Just look at that water. This is pure Andean snowmelt that cascades down through this non-arable desert moonscape and waters this extraordinary valley where grapes are planted on steep, parched and barren hillsides where not even bighorn sheep venture. Temperatures soar into the 90's and they get less than 5" of rainfall a year. I know of no other wine region that even remotely comes close to Elqui Valley.
Elqui Valley is the land of Pisco, Chile's — and Peru's — national distillate. It's made from generally three grapes, two of which I remember, Moscatel and Pedro Jimenez. I'm not a huge distilalte fan, but the Pisco Sours have our margaritas in the U.S. beat all to hell, I'm afraid to say. But, back to wine. I don't know who was the first to start thinking seriously about wine in Elqui Valley, but it's only been in the last 20 years that vinifiable grapes started coming out of here for purposes other than distilling Pisco. And the grape variety star of this area — although there are others — is Syrah. De Martino is a pioneer here, as it Tabali and Tamaya in neighboring Limari — a different valley, granted, but semi-contiguous and dealing with many of the same problems. De Martino's vineyards are mostly planted on insanely steep slopes in incredibly high altitudes for viticulture — over 5,000 feet — and like I said they deserve a well-meaning blog from me all on their lonesome (coming next!).
Today I just want to mention one small winery and two people that I happened to meet on Facebook who are also located in Elqui Valley. They do not have a large umbrella corporation supporting, or puppeteering, them. They are tiny, tiny, tiny, producing less than 1,500 cases in this almost surreal landscape.
Pamela Nunez — a University of Santiago-educated enologist — and her expat Danish husband Steffan Jurgensen are Elqui Wines. Currently they are working out of a huge Pisco distillery, but they're about to move into their own facility. They are partnered with an individual who owns 85 hectares (about 210 acres), but they only source grapes from less than 20. They are new. Their first vintage was 2011. They more than doubled their production for 2012 (still in barrel) bringing the total to a little more than 3,000 cases. Is Robert Parker or Wine Spectator or Eric Asimov of The New York Times going to write about this amazing couple any time soon? I don't know. But, in my opinion, they, and many others like them, are a paradigm for the future of Chile's wine industry, an industry that has a huge future becaus of the amazingly diverse mesoclimates and because of intrepid souls like Pamela and Steffan who have staked everything on their little winery in this arid region where the sky literally explodes with an opalescent galactic river of stars at night, where new meaning is given to the word quiet and magical (a word I rarely use).
I think Elqui Wines have some of the coolest labels I've come across in Chile. I love their almost Pop Art simplicity and the hip little "ew" that looks like something a rancher would brand onto one of his herd.
Chile's wine industry is sort of an interesting conflation of competing interests. On one hand you have the old guard who are both making perfectly decent, if not particularly distinguished, wines for the mass market. But many of the old guard also fund small projects, which I'll be writing about in future blogs. You also have this nouveau riche — which can be both old and new money — who are financing new medium-sized projects like Casa del Bosques, Metatic, Loma Larga, Concha y Toro, Amayna, and many others, who are turning out some amazing wines despite their deep pockets, which might suggest to some in the U.S. more of a Gallo mentality. But Elqui Wines is pure blood, sweat and tears and that's why I wanted to blog about them today. They didn't politick me, they didn't swarm me with an over-eager marketing staff; it just started with an E-mail exchange and if I was in the valley I might like to taste their wines. One day with this view …
… I found myself with nothing to do so I E-mailed Steffan and said, "I'm in Elqui and I'd like to try some of your wines." Elqui Wines makes a Syrah, a Syrah/Camenere blend, a Carmenere, a Moscatel/Pedro Jimenez blend, a 100% Moscatel that's new for 2012, a new Pinot Noir also for 2012, and a single experimental barrel of Tintorera, a wine so blood red that it'll stain your teeth, your fingers, your clothes and gives a whole new meaning to the usually meaningless wine term legs. The Pinot in barrel that I sampled was bright cherry and fruit forward with solid tannins and, with six more months in barrel, is going to be incredibly unique. The '12 Moscatel is a beautifully fruity wine, perfecto for this insanely hot desert weather. But the star was the Syrah, an Old World-style wine that was big and ripe and bold and feral and barnyard-y and just really complex in the mid-palate, as so many Chilean wines are. All these wines — not just from Elqui, but from Casablanca/Leyda/San Antonion, Colchagua, Maipo and Maule – have that mineral-rich Andean snowmelt and that heavy granite soil interlacing them, and it's why they taste like no other wines I've ever sampled.
In the U.S., and in California and Oregon particularly, little guys like Elqui Wines would be sought out, fashionable even, the thrill of wine geeks. Here in Chile, where the wine world works differently, I fear a little bit for their future. They need to break into the U.S. market — which is now the #1 market for wine in the world. If they — and all of Chile, the big guys and the little guys — focus on quality, quality, and more quality, and not the mass market, which is how, sadly, they're currently perceived in the U.S., they will triumph. I'm excited about these small projects — one by Concha y Toro I'm going to visit next week, and others — and what their future holds for the Chilean wine industry. As Steffan said, with his wife nodding emphatically next to him: "Patience is the key." Indeed.
My trip to Elqui Valley and De Martino Winery next.