The Elqui Valley of northern Chile borders one of the driest spots on earth – the Atacama Desert. For well […]Keep Reading
The Elqui Valley of northern Chile borders one of the driest spots on earth – the Atacama Desert. For well over 100 years, grapes grown here were largely eaten or distilled into Pisco, the brash brandy that is the national spirit of Chile and Peru.* The Elqui Valley stretches from the coastal plain outside the city of La Serena, renowned for its beaches packed with tourists during the summer, all the way up into the Andes Mountains. With less than 7cm of rainfall annually, grape production is limited to bench lands close to the River Elqui and historically favored heat and drought tolerant varieties such as Pedro Ximénez – an ideal selection for distillation.
Viñedos de Alcohuaz, named after a small village high up in the Elqui Valley, was founded in 2005 by Patricio & Alvaro Flaño after a visiting friend suggested that the boulder-strewn, sandy granite soils of the area looked to be the perfect place to plant some vines. After confirmation of the area’s potential by viticulturalist Eduardo Silva, Patricio and his son Alvaro began planting Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Garnacha, Petite Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cariñena, and Touriga Nacional at elevations ranging between 1800-2200 meters above sea level. The Cabernet Franc and Merlot did not survive, but the other varieties thrived. Now totaling 18 hectares (with an additional 2 hectares Roussanne and Marsanne recently planted but not yet in production), Viñedos de Alcohuaz has the distinction of being the highest commercial vineyard in the world.**
The elevation and arid climate present some unique challenges for the production of fine wines at Alcohuaz. Luckily the valley is so steep and narrow this far up into the Andes that the vineyards are close enough to the River Elqui to benefit from groundwater deep underground. The property also has a spring-fed reservoir to keep the vines from suffering too much during the growing season. Another problem is the intense UV light at this elevation and latitude. Relying on the experiences of generations of Pisco producers, the vines are trained in pergolas locally known as parron elquino, which create a canopy of leaves to protect the fruit from the intense light of day. While daytime temperatures are hot, the evenings are quite cold, and diurnal shifts of up to 25ºC are not uncommon. Obviously, farming is easily sustainable under these conditions, but Patricio and Alvaro have tended their vineyards organically and biodynamically but have no plans to seek certification.
A testament to the forethought and efforts Patricio and Alvaro put into locating and planting their vineyards came about in 2007 when Marcelo Retamal joined the project. Reta is the iconic winemaker of De Martino and a proponent of site expression, heritage vines, non-interventionist winemaking, and a pioneer of championing wines made outside of the Central Valley of Chile. From the start, each variety has been harvested by hand, crushed by foot, and fermented by indigenous yeasts in stone lagars. The wines are then aged in concrete eggs or Stockinger foudre. These steps reveal and preserve the natural acidity and freshness innate to this mountain fruit. These are pure, vibrant, and exciting wines -exactly the sort we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to represent.
Alta Elqui, it’s the new Sierra de Gredos.
* Let’s take a moment to consider the Pisco Sour. This drink can test the meddle of any bar since it relies on the presence of two important ingredients – Pisco and fresh egg whites. It also requires a fair amount of upper body strength and endurance to pull off. If well made, please tip your bartender well.
** There are some vineyards within the Elqui Valley at higher elevations. Still, due to frost and the increasing salinity of the soils at higher elevations, wine production is erratic enough that these are not fully commercial vineyards. So you really didn’t ask, but we still thought you might like to impress your tasting group with the knowledge.Close