The Elqui Valley, a link between the cool Pacific of northern Chile and the towering Andes, can take your breath away. This is where Viñedos de Alcohuaz are growing Syrah, Garnacha, Malbec and Petit Verdot, at almost 2,200 metres above sea level, where the mountains seem to touch the stars. A combination of extreme day and night temperatures, mineral soils, perpetual sunshine and low rainfall contribute to the spicy mineral characters and fresh vibrant acidity that underlines all their wines. These are unique wines from a unique place – true mountain wines.

Indigo caught up with Fernando Vargas, their marketing manager to hear how the recently completed 2018 vintage is looking.

After a series of unpredictable years influenced by El Nino, how was the 2017-18 growing season?
We’re very happy with what we harvested in 2018. The growing year was mild, with low rain, so the fruit was healthy and phenolically ripe. This was a relief as 2016 was a very short growing season – we had snow in October, a disaster for the Malbec and Garnacha, the young shoots were devastated. The quality of what we harvested was good but we had 10% of the normal yield. In 2017 the vines were still recovering, and our yield was around 60% of what we’d normally expect.

It’s a risk you take when you’re work with ‘extreme terroir’. We knew this when we started the project, it just hasn’t been this extreme for 30 years!

It’s still a relatively young project, is anything changing as you progress?
We don’t have a recipe, everything depends on the year. Reta (Marcelo Retamal the winemaker) has a lot of experience in Chile, he’s learning this new terroir and the conditions. Over the last two vintages we’ve changed the way we work with the Garnacha. We used to vinify it in open lagares, but as the grape is sensitive to oxidation, and we now use closed conical concrete tanks so the style is more reductive.

We’ve also started adding stems – 20-30% – to Grus and the single vineyard Garnachas which gives greater freshness.

How are things changing in Chile, there’s a lot of talk about a move towards quality, and exploring different regions with more terroir driven wines?
There’s a business focused core to Chile’s wine industry that focus on volume not terroir. Wines of Chile has around 400 members and less than 1% are small producers, so the WoC budget is directed by the big wineries. Small producers have different aims, over the last 5 years we’ve started to join together in groups such as MOVI (Movement of Independent Vintners), to present ourselves to the trade and explain what we’re doing differently. Not everyone is riding the same wave with a priority of quality. Argentina is better organised in this respect.

What’s most exciting about winemaking in Chile at the moment?
There isn’t just one thing! We have great assets: a diversity of terroir, from high altitude sites in the Andes to coastal micro-climates. Small producers are energised, they’re experimenting, matching the best varietals to the most suitable sites. The central part of Chile is good for ‘Coca-Cola’ wines, but outside this area the most diverse areas are being explored, producers are dry farming to get more character from their vines.

The central part of Chile is good for ‘Coca-Cola’ wine, but outside this area the most diverse areas are being explored, producers are dry farming to get more character from their vines.

What next?
There is very little legal framework around winemaking in Chile, no DOCs. We need to develop a framework, for example ‘Reserva’ on a bottle means little, you can buy very cheap Reserva wines. Consumers aren’t stupid, they will realise it means nothing if a Reserva wine costs £5. We need to generate trust with consumers, so they know what they’re buying and will feel comfortable to spend more.

Many wineries keep growing. This is not the spirit or vision at Alcohuaz, we want to remain truly boutique.

You can find out more about the project and individual wines on our website.
If you’d like to taste them or enquire about volumes please contact your sales rep or [email protected]