Extreme winemaking in The Atacama Desert
Firstly, what is Terroir?
If you have every spoken to somebody who works in the wine world, you would have inevitably heard them use the word ‘terroir’. Very often misunderstood, this world loosely translates to ‘sense of place’. There is no English equivalent. The French began using this word, taking it from the Latin word ‘Terra’ which means earth or land.
Terroir is the interaction between soil, climate, topography and winemaker.
Every small detail can make a difference to how that grape will taste when you drink that wine. Soil is a big factor here. They have different mineral deposits, microbial communities, density, organic matter, depth, drainage, the list goes on. Climate is the second big factor in terroir. Is it hot or cold, foggy or windy? What are the weather patterns? Topography is the third factor. What elevation are the grapes planted at? Are they on a slope? What are the geological features of the vineyard? Are there mountains, forest or a volcano nearby? The last factor is the Winemaker and his technique. How are the plants trained in the vineyard? What is the density of vines? Do they dry harvest? When and how do they prune? Inside the winery are they doing wild fermentations?
There are a selection of wines that I work with from a very unique and special terroir and I have always used them, to really demonstrate what terroir truly is. These wines come from the Atacama Desert. be the ‘driest place in the world’.
So what is The Atacama Desert?
The Atacama Desert is the most northern part of Chile and you may have already heard of this place as it is the Driest Desert on earth. Some weather stations in Chile record zero water annually, so you wouldn’t be too wrong, claiming this to
It is a beautiful place to be in. Imagine wild guanacos (they are similar to llamas) roaming around freely, the clearest skies (this is one of the best places in the world to stargaze), Copiapoa cactuses amongst the ‘mars like’ soils, lagoons and geysers, and views that simply look like watercolor paintings. If you are extremely lucky a phenomenon happens every 5-7 years called the “desierto florido” (flowering desert), where the rain causes incredible fields of flowers to pop up out of nowhere. This is a magical place; barren and utterly beautiful.
I have so much respect for Viña Ventisquero, the only commercial winery in the Atacama Desert. The fact that they knew from the beginning that planting in the arid north was going to be one of the most extreme locations for grape growing, has never phased them. They first planted in 2007 and it may not surprise you that all the vines died that year.
Let’s look at the terroir of this crazy grape growing location.
There are two vineyards, one is 18km from the coast, the other is 23km. Up in the north, once you get past the wine region Limarí, the coastal mountains stop. In Huasco Valley where you can find these vineyards, in place of the coastal mountains are transversal mountains. They suck in the ocean breezes, blasting them through the vineyards. This really cools things down. You will find in the middle of the Desert it is typically 40°C, however even in the middle of summer at the hottest part of the day, the vineyards only reach 26°C. This is a cool climate desert. The vineyards are planted at around 220 metres above sea level so altitude is not an additional cooling factor. The cooling factor is the ocean and a fog called the camanchaca, which is dense and humid and sits over the vines until around 1pm every day. The fog can give a little moisture which is entirely needed. It rarely rains here. Some years there might be as little as 40mm. The vines are planted at low density: 2500 to 3000 plants per hectare, so the vines can take in the very little nutrients in the soils.
The soils for me are the most interesting part of the vineyards; Limestone, chalky and saline soils. Limestone can be found in some of the best vineyards in the world, such as Champagne, Burgundy and Barolo. There are only two places in the whole of Chile that have limestone, and this is one of them. Team this with the salt, which is an extremely unique feature, and you have one very special soil.
In fact investigating this soil, it is crazy to discover that through the millions of years of geological phenomena, the vineyards originally used to be glaciers, then river beds, before eventually becoming the driest desert that it is now. This also explains the different terraces of alluvial origin along with marine origins, and the clay and loam in certain areas. Soil nerds, you can have a field day here.
So once the winemakers had tackled one of the biggest problems; the salty soils, it then became a challenge to find a way to water the vines. The River Huasco runs from The Andes Mountains, through the vineyards and to the coast. With the water they encountered another dilemma. The water is salty, so how can you put salty water onto the already salty soils and not kill the vines? With a clever technique using the drip irrigation system, the winemakers discovered if you water the vines nonstop for 24 hours, this will put the water down to the roots and the salt with come up to the surface. They do this every two weeks.
The vines are incredibly stressed out in this extreme terrior. They don’t get enough water, they don’t like the salt and the strong winds spend all day attacking the vines. But through adversity, we discover who we really are and what we are made of. The wines that are made from the Atacama Desert truly show their sense of place, their terroir, who they really are.
With yields of 18hl/ha (that’s half of what the top Grand Crus of Bordeaux must adhere to) these wines have a purity, an intensity, direction and a saline finish.
VENTISQUERO GREY SINGLE BLOCK SAUVIGNON BLANC, HUASCO VALLEY, ATACAMA
This has the most unique nose of green chili peppers, smoke, flint and mineral notes with grassy hints and vibrant lemon. The acidity is super high, and the palate is direct, linear and powerful. An explosive Sauvignon Blanc. The finish is long and saline.
Soho wine supply £15.50
Davys Wine Merchants £16.10
KALFU SUMPAI SAUVIGNON BLANC, HUASCO VALLEY, ATACAMA
The nose is delicate and restrained, giving hints of jalapeno peppers, wet stone, sage and chalk. The palate is filled with lemon, herbs, and green bell pepper. The wine is round with a soft creaminess and mouth watering acidity. The long lingering saline finish.
Frontier Fine Wines £17.85
TARA WHITE WINE 1, HUASCO VALLEY, ATACAMA DESERT
This is 100% Chardonnay and it is unfined and unfiltered so cloudy. The wine is pure, aromas of fresh lemons, apricots and lemon blossom with chalk and wet stone minerality. It is lifted and perfumed. The palate is fresh and linear with mouthfuls of fresh stonefruits, white flowers and apple blossom. The wine has texture but intense acidity and a saline finish.
Only 5800 bottles made in 2016 vintage
TARA WHITE WINE 2, HUASCO VALLEY, ATACAMA DESERT
This is a crazy Viognier wine made through the solera system with a blend of vintages 2011 up to 2016. Only one barrel of this first edition was made. It too is cloudy like the Chardonnay.
Expect candied orange peel on the nose with some orange blossom, sponge cake and dried fruits. The palate is round but taut. Super fresh with a saline finish that is typical of the Atacama Desert wines.
398 bottles made in the NV First Edition
TARA RED WINE 1, HUASCO VALLEY, ATACAMA DESERT
This is 100% Pinot Noir.
Pure red cherry aromas with beautiful musky notes of truffle and vilets, followed by wilds strawberries and crushed minerals. The body is round and soft with lushious red fruits. Super fine chalky tannins with a long finish with a hint of salt. This Pinot is elegant, concentrated and the clean fruit just dances.
4167 bottles made in 2016
TARA RED WINE 2, HUASCO VALLEY, ATACAMA DESERT
This is 100% Syrah
Immediately perfumed on the nose with fresh black cherries and stewed plums. There’s an earthiness and hints of cracked black pepper. On the palate the fruit is pure, chalky tannins and beautiful acidity.
5285 bottles made of the 2015
The Wine Treasury £39
What wines have you tried that have really showcased ‘terroir’ ?