Felipe Müller of Viña Tabalí tells News editor Joanna Goodman about the discovery of a magical new vineyard in Chile's Limarí Valley.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Chilean wine scene is the race to discover new vineyards, often in virgin territory, with the potential to produce even better wines with intelligent matching of soil type to grape variety.
Viña Tabalí looked as though they had already stolen a march on the competition when they established vineyards in the Limarí Valley in 1993. One of Chile's most northerly and upand- coming wine growing regions, Limarí is 400kms north of Santiago and just below the southern boundary of the Atacama Desert. Though close to the ocean (just 29kms), the area is very dry (an average 99mm rain per year) with pure, clear skies, hot days and fresh nights. A sea-fog, Camanchaca, blankets the area, tempering the heat. 'It's unusual to have such a dry climate so close to the sea and in a cool-climate area' explains Felipe, 'it means we can grow both red and white grapes and leave them to reach optimum maturity without the worry of rot setting in.' But it isn't just the climate that is unique here, the soils are like nowhere else in Chile too – very chalky with clay and stone.
With the help of Chile's terroir-hunting guru Pedro Parra, Tabalí have carried out one of the most extensive soil studies in Chile. They have dug over 300 calicatas (deep trenches in the vineyards) to conduct complete chemical and physical analyses of the soil components including measuring its electroconductivity. This, combined with satellite images and aerial photos, has enabled them to divide and classify each parcel of land individually so that it can be handled separately. Rather than planting in rows following irrigation channels, vineyards trace the shifting patterns of soils so the appearance looks almost free-form compared to the usual squared-off blocks of vines. 'This isn't the most efficient way to farm' admits Felipe, 'but our goal is to produce distinctive wines of exceptional quality.'
This pursuit of quality is what drives both Felipe and his boss, Guillermo Luksic, one of the owners of Tabalí, a Croatian entrepreneur who is passionate about wine (he also owns Viña Leyda). 'Tabalí is a small, boutique project and Luksic really understands what the team is trying to do here.' Just as well, as Felipe was still searching for the perfect vineyard. The story of how he came across this new vineyard, like many a tale from this continent, has an air of magical realism about it – perhaps not surprising for a winery situated on the edge of the Valle del Encanto (Enchanted Valley) – an area of great historical and archaeological interest with intriguing rock carvings made by ancient civilizations.
'I was sitting in my office one day when I got a phone call from this guy asking me if I wanted to buy some grapes from him. I asked where the vineyard was and I was very surprised as I didn't think there were vines in this area. It's very close to the sea (12kms) and from the road you can't see any vines … it really is an unusual place, a kind of hidden valley'. Felipe told the grower that he would come and see his vineyard the next day. 'When I got there I knew straight away that this was a very special place…I got out of my truck and I just thought "Wow". I asked if we could dig a calicata. We came back the next day with our digger and I found what I was looking for – limestone.' This kind of soil is very rare in Chile and having worked in Sancerre and Burgundy Felipe was well aware of its potential for producing top-quality wines with mineral character.
There are other magical aspects to this caliza (limestone) vineyard. It is the only vineyard in Chile planted on a marine terrace (sea-cliff and wave-cut platform brought to the surface by earthquakes thousands of years ago). The rock has been ground down and weathered by rain allowing roots to penetrate deep into the soil. The Altos de Talinay, a high mountain range, regulates the climate, stopping heavy fog from settling in the valley and casts a rain-shadow effect over the region. To the west is a national park with forests more like those found in southern Chile, almost incongruous this close to a desert and, finally, the Limarí river provides water.
The vineyard had been planted in 2006 by grape growers who must also have realised the special nature of the land as they had chosen to grow top-quality vines – sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir. They were well-made vineyards planted out on lovely rolling slopes and using the best clones,'said Felipe, 'I told them I wanted to buy the whole lot.' Felipe explained that it was important to set up a long-term agreement with the growers and asked for a 12-year contract; his boss said he should make it a year, but Felipe managed to persuade him to come and visit the area and even get down into the calicata to see for himself. 'After a few pisco sours, he was persuaded that this vineyard could make the best sauvignon blanc in Chile and he agreed to buy the land.'
The 2009 sauvignon blanc was the first vintage released (Society buyer Toby Morrhall snapped it up for last year's South America offer, the 2010 is due to arrive shortly; ref N-CE5841, £8.25). Winemaker Felipe says that the wine is totally different from other Limarí sauvignon blancs and indeed any other Chilean sauvignons, having more in kin with European wines. What gives it the edge is the brisk, invigorating, mineral character combined with vivid, intense flavours. Finally, Felipe told me that, shortly after acquiring the Caliza Vineyard, his boss had presented him with a silver platter, saying, 'if this project fails, your head will be on it…if it's a success…well, that's your job, isn't it?!'
An offer of South American wines will be published next month, including the latest vintage of Caliza Sauvignon Blanc.