Meet some coastal Chilean winemakers who are redefining wine

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Chile is a place to pay attention to for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Meet some of the winemakers who are redefining Chilean wine with their Coastal Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. These winemakers are friends and colleagues who have studied together and worked together over the years. They are each focused on cultivating a distinct sense of place in the wines they produce. And, they share the common belief that if one succeeds, they all will succeed.

Rodrigo Soto of Veramonte, Ritual, Primus, Neyen

“We need to focus not on what is new, but what is really good,” Rodrigo Soto explained. “I met Rodrigo last year and had written a story about him finding a sense of place in Chile. Well-spoken and insightful, Rodrigo is the president of Veramonte, Ritual, Primus and Neyen wines.

Veramonte was established by Agustin Huneeus in the early 1990s. Soto took the position of head winemaker in 2012 after working at Fetzer and Benziger in California, Wither Hills in New Zealand and Matetic in Chile.

Under his direction, Rodrigo converted Veramonte from a conventional winery to a biodynamic winery. His interests in organics began at university and ultimately became the topic of his thesis. To Rodrigo, biodynamics “is the best way to achieve quality and longevity” in wine. In addition, both organic and biodynamic farming practices lead to terroir-driven harvests.

As the perception of Chilean wine shifts from value to distinctive regionality, Rodrigo said that individual brands should be connected to one appellation. “Appellations need to be consistent. We need to establish them and be good at what we do.” Of the four labels produced by Veramonte, Ritual Wines are made exclusively from selected plots from the organic vineyards in Casablanca.

Wine to look out for:

Ritual Chardonnay 2016, Casablanca Valley ($18) – With notes of pineapple, crisp red apple, citrus, spices and ginger, your tongue will tingle from the acid and then your mouth will water wanting more.

— Rafael Urrejola of Undurraga

“There is a part of me in my wine,” Rafael said as he drove us through the vineyards. “When you drink my wine, when I share my wine with friends, it is a part of me.” Rafael, whose father was an agricultural engineer, grew up knowing Chilean wine pioneer Aurelio Montes and Chilean leading winemaker Ignacio Recabarren. In school, his friends were artists (photographers, poets, filmmakers, designers) and he wondered what he could do that was creative. He chose to make wine.

After university, Rafael wanted to go to Napa and make Cabernet Sauvignon. It was 1999, and he ended up in the lesser-known Santa Ynez Valley working at Gainey Winery for six months where he fell in love with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

He returned to Chile in 2000 and was offered the position as the first winemaker at Viña Leyda, the pioneer winery in the unknown region of Leyda, and now Rafael is a proponent in the potential of the Leyda Valley. He joined Undurraga in 2007 where he oversees all of the wine production.

Undurraga is one of the oldest wine companies in Chile, having been established more than 130 year ago. Undurraga purchased the property in Leyda Valley in 2006 and planted the vineyards in 2007. Under the Undurraga umbrella, Rafael created Terroir Hunter, single-vineyard, terroir-driven wines that explore the diversity of Chile. When asked what is his favorite wine to make it, Rafael declared that Pinot Noir is always at the top of the list.

Wine to look out for:

Terroir Hunter Pinot Noir 2015 Leyda Valley ($24) – 2015 was an average season in Leyda Valley and the resulting wine has a deep nose of red fruit, floral notes and brown spices. On the palate, it is medium-bodied with fresh acidity and a bit of grip.

— Sofia Araya of Veramonte, Ritual, Primus, Neyen

At age 15, Sofia’s grandfather gave her a book about winemaking, which piqued her interest. She was interested in microbiology and chemistry and went to study food biochemistry in Santiago. She liked best the fermentation class and sensory development class, and she realized that wine was calling her.

Sofia joined Veramonte in 2009 as assistant winemaker, a few years before Rodrigo Soto came to the winery. Moving to Veramonte, in the Casablanca Valley, also meant making Pinot Noir for the first time. What draws her to Pinot Noir is the challenge of working with it.

“With Pinot, one mistake and you cannot hide it,” she said. Under Rodrigo’s direction, Sofia has also been part of the conversion to organic and biodynamic farming, to which she quickly adapted. Organics was “a logical move,” she said. “It is a way of working that represents me more. It is a way of working and of living and it makes sense.”

Today, Sofia is the head winemaker. In the 15 years that Sofia has worked in the wine industry, she has seen more and more female winemakers. While her class had only five women, of which only two are winemakers today, she is excited by the increase of women in wine.

Wine to look out for:

Ritual Pinot Noir 2016 Casablanca Valley ($18) – Aromas of black raspberry, pomegranate, kirsch, black tea and dry herbs are on the nose. On the palate the wine is smooth with silky tannins and notes of tart cherry.

— Amael Orrego of Kingston Family Vineyards

Amael was raised in a small town outside of Santiago. He was always in touch with nature, so when he went to university, he knew that he wanted to continue working outside. He studied agriculture, covering soil, climate and more. What drew him to wine was the idea that through chemistry, you could “transform something and give your own interpretation.”

Amael worked in Napa and Sonoma at Flowers Winery and Quintessa Winery. He returned to Chile and worked in the Colchagua Valley before moving to Kingston Winery in Casablanca in 2015. The Kingston family, originally from Michigan, settled in Chile in the early 1900s and ran a large dairy and cattle ranch. Fourth-generation Kingston family member Courtney Kingston first planted grapevines in 1998.

Since Amael joined Kingston in 2015, they have started to transition to organic certification. Organic viticulture, according to Amael, “allows for precision agriculture, makes a good environment for the grapes and makes a better wine.” Amael loves Pinot Noir because “it is so expressive.”

Amael is married to winemaker Sofia Araya from Veramonte and they recently had their first child. As a married couple who work as winemakers at different wineries, how critical are they of each other’s wines? They both agreed that their recipe for a good marriage is that they taste the other’s wines and help each other with challenges. The goal is to make the best wine possible.

Wine to look out for:

Kingston Family Vineyards 2016 Alazan Pinot Noir, Casablanca Valley($38) – Notes of cherry, pomegranate, earth and spice are revealed in the nose. On the palate the wine is focused with good acidity and is a beautiful expression of the Kingston estate.

— Julio Bastias of Matetic Wine

Julio Bastias, whose family grew Mission grapes, was “100 percent sure I would be a winemaker.” Circa 2000, Bastias moved to California to train and study at UC Davis. In Napa, Bastias met Ken Bernards, winemaker at Ancien Wines who introduced him to Rodrigo Soto, the first winemaker at Matetic.

Matetic Winery was started in 1999 by the Matetic famly, Croatian immigrants who first arrived in Chile in 1892. Matetic is located on 20,000 hectares that cross both San Antonio and Casablanca regions. Bastias joined Matetic Winery is 2002 as the assistant winemaker under Rodrigo Soto.

Soto started converting the vineyard to biodynamic, and by 2012, Matetic was certified biodynamic. Julio worked with Rodrigo for six years and then took over as winemaker. Continuing Matetic’s biodynamic practices, Bastias describes biodynamics as “the expression of the place. It is natural. It is a healthy environment. Everything is related. It is circular. It is harmony. It is not mystical, it is logical.”

Wine to look out for:

Matetic EQ Pinot Noir 2015, Casablanca Valley – EQ stands for “equilibrio”, meaning “balance and these wines represent the balance between the soil, climate and vines. This single-vineyard Pinot Noir has intense red and purple fruit aromas with earthy notes. It is concentrated and yet delicate on the palate.

— Felipe Muller East of Viña Tabali

“As a winemaker, I do not like to cook. I like to show the wine as it is,” said Felipe Muller, CEO and chief winemaker at Tabali in Limari Valley. Muller had been working at a winery in Maipo and was responsible for buying grapes from other regions for seven years. He was familiar with Tabali because he bought Chardonnay from them.

Viña Tabali is owned by Guillermo Luksic who bought the property in 1991 and planted grapes in 1993. He first came to the region as a child and recognized the special climate and temperature. They sold the grapes until they began making wine in 2002. Luksic was the first businessman to build a modern winery in the Limari Valley. Muller joined Tabali in 2006 and his first vintage was in 2007.

One of the vineyards owned by Tabali is the Talinay vineyard, located the Fray Jorge National Park. The vineyard, located 12 kilometers from the ocean, is part of the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Obscured from the highway, this vineyard is tucked in the foothills of the small coastal range.

A pre-desert area, it is surrounded by cacti and brush. Muller did not know it existed until a grower invited him to see it. He was surprised but intrigued to find a vineyard so close to the ocean and felt that he was standing at the end of the earth.

“Where am I,” he asked. As he looked around, he looked down and saw white. He picked up some soil and put it in his pocket. He took the rock to the lab, added acid. “It was like fireworks,” he said. “I had been looking for 10 years for pure limestone.”

It was destiny. Muller brought Luksic to the property and convinced him to buy it. Talinay vineyard is the “heart and soul in Limari,” Muller said. “As a winemaker, I love to really feel and taste the vineyard.”

Wine to look out for:

Tabali Talinay Chardonnay 2015, Limari Valley ($28.99) – The Chardonnay is hand-picked and whole cluster pressed. It is fermented in French oak barrels for 10-12 months with daily pump-overs but does not go through malolactic fermentation. The wine has a flinty, mineral nose. On the palate, the wine has a round mouthfeel, followed by bright acidity and finishes with salinity.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.