Valle de Elqui, Etc.


   – 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.

Chile is Terroir


   Andrea Leon — winemaker and marketing director at Lapostolle.

   I always knew, intellectually, what the word terroir meant, of course, but it never really ever translated for me in the glass.  In California winemakers don't talk about terroiri all that much.  Many of them believe terroir is sort of a joke – largely because they manipulate their wines with oak, secondary malolactic fermentation, bringing grapes to over-ripeness, then watering the wines back — illegal in Chile and most other wine regions — not to mention the surreptitious adding of tartaric acid and, yes, even antiobiotics [sic].  And worse.  We know that there are different regions in California, for Pinot Noir, e.g., but in a blind tasting could anyone really distinguish between Pinots from, say, the Sonoma Coast vs. Santa Ynez vs. Willamatte Valley?  I doubt it.  Certainly not with any degree of empirical accuracy.  That's because terroir doesn't really mean shit when winemakers are doing whatever is necessary in a given year, with all its attendant difficulties, to make (force?) the wine that they want to make.  Oh, sure, certain grapes grow in certain mesoclimates better than others, but it wasn't until I came to Chile — with no expectations, mind you; Carmenere and ubiquitous mass market wines like Santa Ema about the only thing I knew — that I started to understand the meaning of terroir.

   I came to Lapostolle with my guard up.  Since embarking on this trip I've been inundated with E-mails from anybody and everybody hoping that my Sideways Part III will maybe have Miles favoring one of their wines and that when a film is made we'll all cash in.  Of course I can't be bought — not that it doesn't stop people from trying — of course I'm going to write the novel I'm going to write, but truth be told, it's not the wineries, per se, that interest me as much as the people.  So, Lapostolle, and its eponymous owners, who made their fortune in the invention and production of Grand Marnier, probably the most recognizable licquer in the world, perhaps surprised me with not only the sublime beauty of their property, but more with what they're doing with it.  And their wines.

   Before I came here I had a 4+ hour, fascinating, lunch with the scion to this empire, Charles Lapostolle (actually the name is pretentiously much longer than that, but I'll just leave it at Charles).  He gave me the whole history of the family, how they found their way to Chile, how his mother had the idea for the winery, and what happened after that.  He also gave me an intriguing lecture on Pisco, the national distillate of Chile and Peru (and the legal battles between the two neighboring countries over its origin and trademark) and how his family is entering the Pisco market with his own brand Kappa, the making of which would boggle the mind of anyone who ever thought they knew how a distillate was produced.  And one of the best distillates I've tasted, giving me a renewed appreciation for the Pisco Sour after an introductory one made me think of the lighter fluid drinking scene in Withnail and I.

   Anyway, I was met at the property by winemaker Andrea Leon.  A Chilean who married a Brit, photographer Matt Wilson — who, like so many others I've run into down here who've met the loves the of their lives and expatriated to Chile — she works in marketing, but her heart is really in wine, specifically vinification.  After matriculating from college, Andrea did a stint making boxed wine at San Pedro — a huge winery down here — and then a year in California at other big wine congloms like Fetzer.  She came back to Chile and got a job with Lapostolle, working in both marketing and under their head winemaker, Jacques (blanking on his last name), and consultant, and lightning rod of controversy himself, Michel Rolland — infamously featured in the hatchet job of a movie Mondovino, made by the tendentious Jonathan Nossiter, who ruffled feathers with his film about the globalization of wine and palate profiles, a film riddled with half-truths, but provocative nonetheless.  By '08 she had wanted to branch out on her own and was given the chance to do a boutique project (more on that below), but first, Lapostolle:

   Lapostolle is located in the beautiful Colchagua Valley, one of about a dozen important wine regions in Chile.  Unlike the Casablanca and Leyda regions, this is an inland region, about thirty miles from the spine-tingling cold Pacific Ocean, and within view of the still snow-capped (it's their July 1st here as I'm writing this) Andes.


   Alexandra Lapostolle, the visionary behind this property (winery, boutique hotel (a term which doesn't even do it justice, frankly), vineyards) decided that she wanted to do it all biodynamically.  And this is where Andrea and I picked up the conversation.  A friend of mine, Katherine Cole, a fine wine and food writer wrote a book on biodynamic viticulture and vinification called Voodoo Vinters.  It's a terrific book, but because I was only reading about it and not getting a first-hand tour of what biodynamic really means, it kind of went in one ear and out the other — sorry Katherine.  But since arriving in Chile I've been astounded by how the concept of terroir really heavily influences the winemakers here.  Andrea talked about how they don't use any nitrogen-based fertilizers — which would make Michael Pollan happy! — of course no herbicides, no pesticides.  They produce their ow compost out of the must, they breed a kind of worm that activates subsoil microbial action that is necessary to keep the soils from various mineral depletions common with a monoculture like grape farming.  Oh, sure, there's the "voodoo" part of biodynamic, the planting by the phases of the moon, the burning of gophers and the offering sacrifices to the Gods that so many winemakers roll their eyes at – Andrea and I didn't get into that — but what I really understood for the first time about biodynamic viticulture is that it shows an almost holistic respect for the land.  It's no accident that Alexandra is French — Swiss French to be exact — because France is really where biodynamic viticulture took root with a strong presence.

   Clos Apalta is the high-end Bordeaux-style blend made from grapes grown in Lapostolle's biodynamically tended vineyards.  It's well known that their '05 won Wine Spectator's 2008 Wine of the Year award, a dubious award based on the criteria used to determine the Top 100, but certainly thrilling and noteworthy to win in nonetheless, even if it's a blatant marketing ploy by Wine Spectator to sell more magazines.  I'm not a huge Bordeaux-style guy.  I prefer the finesse and elegance of more cool-weather grapes like Pinot (of course), Chardonnay (when not over-manipulated), and now, since coming to Chile, Sauvignon Blanc (world class Sav Blancs here!) and Syrahs (maybe, along with Sav Blanc, my new favorite grape).  Andrea told me to wait, that I would be surprised with the Clos Apalta because it's not the Bordeaux-style fruit bomb that so many of the Parker score-influenced wines we see coming out of Napa and the south of the France (who have become somewhat vitiated by Parker's ridiculous ratings, not to mention his hyperbolic and grandiloquent verbiage).  I didn't have the fabled '05, but the four Clos Apalta's I sampled where low in alcohol, beautifully-made, deeply layered, spice- and mineral-driven and, in all honesty, gave me a new appreciation for the grape that Chile's wine industry is trying to shove down the world's throat, Carmenere (one of the grapes used in a blend that Lapostolle keeps under wraps).  One only has to visit this property, walk down the spiral staircase to the 6-floor subterranean barrel room, stay (if you're lucky) in one of the "casitas," to realize that Alexandra is a perfectionist in everything she does.  And her perfectionism effloresces in her wines. Sure, she may have hailed from the Grand Marnier fortune, but I've visited a number of wineries where money has meant nothing when it came to what was in the glass.  Obviously, Alexandra is a woman of very refined tastes and aesthetical sensibilities, and she has produced a wine — they do others than the Clos Apalta, all lovely for the price — in Clos Apalta that, from the vineyard to the fermentation cellars to the barrel rooms, that just gets every detail assiduously right.  There are no rough edges on the wines, no sense of disjointedness.  Michel Rolland, whom I would be happy to excoriate, as is my wont, wins this battle against Nossiter.


  The Clos Apalta barrel fementation room.

   I have met winemakers here in Chile who farm with yunta de bueyes (oxen) harnessed to plows, and they're making extraordinary wines.  And I've met winemakers working with obviously much bigger budgets who are making preternaturally good wines.  Money matters, but only up to a point.  As in the film business, money often means more compromises.  Far less money means way less control and the inability to do things you might like to do.  Alexandra clearly has the resources, but she's making wine — well, overseeing the making of the wines — with zero compromises that I could ascertain.  Her presence is a gift to Chile and their burgeoning wine industry.

   But, back to Andrea Leon, one part of this Rolls Royce operation.  Alexandra gave her the opportunity to pursue her passion for an interesting project that Andrea proposed to her.  She sourced Syrah grapes — her favorite variety she confided — from six totally different regions, vinified two barrels each from the same vintage, using the exact methodologies — so much time in oak for each, etc. – and produced six completely different expressions of the Syrah grape, each one of these remarkable wines giving us nothing but the earth and temperatures and rainfall of that region.  Wild fermented, unfiltered, unmolested, unmanipulated, pure wines from the grape to the bottle.


   I'm sure this has been done before, but maybe it's unprecedented, I don't know.  But I'm not sure the experiment would yield much of interest except maybe in the northern Rhone.  But do they really have regions as diverse as the sere, desert-hot Elqui Valley — from which Andrea made a plush, fruit forward version — to Casablanca – a cool-weather region which produces grapes with tremendous minerality — to Maipo Alto — in the foothills of the Andes — to Colchagua with the granite-rich soils and inland heat (which was my favorite).  Why isn't this done more often?  Andrea not only showcased the versatility of the grape.  In one afternoon in Lapostolle's tasting room, overlooking the vineyards, with the Andes in the distance, Andrea showed the almost whiplashing microclimatic diversity of Chile's wines, their colossal potential for being world-class wines, but also how the world has yet to catch up with what's going on in the country.  There's a revolution in the wine world down here.  And what's blowing me away is that it's happening at both the top, high-end with wineries like Lapostolle and at the lower end, if you will, with incredibly innovative vintners like Derek Mossman and his wife Pilar and others of MOVI.  And so many in-between like the colorful Grant Phelps (who makes Jim Clendenon at Au Bon Climat seem like Walt Disney) at Casa del Bosques, the great Maria Marin at Casa Marin and her son Felipe, Francisco at Amayna, Marcelo at de Martino, and so many others.  My God, this country is pullulating with talent.  And many of them are letting the terroir speak for itself.

   There's a lot of experimentation going on down here in this antipodean "island" cut off by a scorching desert to the north, a gooseflesh frigolic ocean to the west, the majestic Andes to the east, and the shipwrecked iciness of the Magellan Straits to the south.  But they need to work on their road signs.  Getting lost going somewhere is a national pastime here in Chile, a source of mirth if you've endured it long enough.  But it makes the pleasure of arriving at any one of the above wineries worth the Lewis and Clark Expedition to get there.


Amores Perros


   On a bluff overlooking the jawdroppingly gorgeous town of Matanzas, one of the lost perros of Chile.

   When I first arrived in Santiago I noticed a lot of untended dogs, the majority with no collars, wandering aimlessly about town.  I asked about them and was told they were strays, or homeless.  How many?  Estimates range to over a million — and I believe it, because they're everywhere.  A high percentage appear to be some form of a Labrador breed, as if few other breeds existed here in Chile.  You don't see small dogs very often.  Of course, in the U.S. these dogs would be picked up by The Pound in a matter of days, if not hours, and then euthanized in 7 days if not adopted or claimed.  Here that would be, I've been told, unthinkable.  Yet, there's something interesting about these animals …

   In the U.S. all dogs are on leashes in urban areas — or are supposed to be.  And they're friendly, too friendly for my taste as they jump on you and slobber on you like you were their best friend, the dog owner's thinking that you're going to like their animal as much as they do.  Often the owners have to restrain their animals because they'll bark ferociously at you.  The dogs of Chile are totally different in temperament.  They'll come up to you, but they almost always stop a few feet away and hang their heads shyly.  They rarely, if ever, bark, and they never whimper or try to lick you or, God forbid, hump your leg.  The Chilean people are not affectionate with these animals that they've clearly abandoned to the streets — one winemaker explained to me that when citizens can't afford their animals — and it's all dogs, not cats — they just release them, figuring the populace at large will find a way to take care of them.  And they do, because, for the most part, the animals look pretty well fed.  Sure they're not particularly groomed because they're out roaming all day and all night, but they seem relatively content to me.

   But they look lonely.  Because they're not used to affection they don't beg for it.  They're quite humble.  Chileans are tacitly encouraged not to feed them, but they do anyway.  In some cities like Valparaiso the "problem" is so acute that garbage containers are mounted on poles so that the perros can't get to the food, but they find a way to do so anyways.

   I have come to the ineluctable conclusion that the Chileans treat their stray dogs like we treat our homeless.  We don't, for the most part, interact with them, but we give them money and clothes and try to help them out, and not totally disacknowledge their existence.  We wish they would go away and find a home, but we know that that's impossible, so we tolerate them.  Especially in Santa Monica where I lived for so many years.  However, in an interesting ironical twist, I truly believe the Chileans treat their homeless like we treat our animals.  I've spent enough time in the two major cities here — Santiago and Valparaiso — to conclude that homelessness (of the people kind) is virtually non-existent.  I can only conclude that the citizens, or their family, take them in.  Maybe there's a governmental program that I'm unaware of that helps them, but I just have not seen any sign of homelessness, certainly not like the kind I'm used to in my country.  We treat our dogs the same way.  There are nearly as many dogs in the U.S. as there are people — over 300 million.  And, for the most part, they are extremely well cared for.

   Maybe the Chileans have their priorities more in order than we Americans do.  It' just a thought, one which I'm sure will bring me grief for having voiced it.