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Terroir alert

Published:  23 July, 2008

As part of its campaign to increase awareness of Chile's potential for diversity in making premium wine, last week Wines of Chile hosted a visual presentation that included dramatic photographs of 10 Chilean wine-producing valleys, as well as scores of photographs of the different soil types and climatic conditions that can be found in the country.

Presented by Marcelo Retamal, who was named Winemaker of the Year in 2004 by Gua de Vinos de Chile, the photographs were intended to capture some of the key findings of a 10-year study, sponsored by the De Martino winery, where Retamal is the winemaker.

Retamal explained that while De Martino is based in the Maipo Valley, it became increasingly evident to the De Martino family that not all grapes were being matched to the most advantageous soils, and that an in-depth study of Chile's soils would help rectify this. I realised that Maipo was good for Carmenre, but terrible for Syrah and Pinot Noir,' Retamal admitted of his early viticultural experiments at the winery.

More comprehensive visually than factually, the slide presentation was nonetheless entertaining and made a convincing case for diversity, especially for people who have not had a chance to visit the country. Highlights included pictures of the extraordinary, almost unnatural-looking Elqu Valley, Chile's northernmost winemaking region. An extremely narrow band of vineyards that slashes through rocky mountain tops, it looks as if it might have been masterminded by a committee comprised of IM Pei, George Lucas and senior NASA engineers.

In a description of what could be the most bizarre challenge facing winemakers anywhere, Retamal embarked on a real-life saga about the prevalence of indigenous witchcraft in the Choapa Valley, Chile's third-northernmost winemaking valley. Among the characters were local women who hurled stones at a visitor; a man who fell into a 16-year witch-cast coma; and the capo di tutti capi of witch doctors, summoned from Santiago to reverse the hex. Witches are clearly not a viticultural challenge Retamal relishes - give him oidium any day - so Choapa's future as a purveyor of terroir, at least in the De Martino stable of wines, might be uncertain.

Sebastian De Martino, who accompanied Retamal, later told Harpers a bit more about the study's methodology and evolution. We decided to conduct the study for two main reasons,' he said. The first one is that 10 years ago we realised that while we had an incredible terroir for certain varieties in our estate in Maipo, the other varieties weren't growing that well. So we decided to find the best growing places in Chile, and have to date vinified over 350 vineyards! The second reason is that, however costly, it has always been a policy in our winery that our winemakers visit wine-producing areas around the world.'

De Martino explained that on one such visit, when Retamal was in Burgundy, he was so impressed by how they work in terms of the precision of talking of a producing area', specifically the terroir concept', that he wanted to duplicate this back home. So we started in a New World way to apply this concept in Chile in the different vineyards in which we work,' continued De Martino. What we want to accomplish is very simple, which is to produce from a particular place a really honest and clean wine. This wine has to have a typicity which differentiates it from the rest of the wines. For us it is not really important to produce the best wine in the world - we want to produce a wine from a specific place in time.'

While in the beginning, the study was based on Retamal's observations as he drove a truck around Chile, De Martino explained that five years ago his family realised this was impossible for him to do everything on his own'. The De Martinos therefore invited Dr Pedro Parra PhD, whose specialty is terroir studies, viticulturist Renan Cancino and wine consultant Adriana Cerda, among others, to help conduct the study.

De Martino explained that the study's methodology is the one used at France's Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon', which has spearheaded similar studies in Champagne and the Ctes du Rhne.

Retamal told Harpers that the conclusions of the team so far include the following:

great wines always come from the same geomorphological systems (Dr Parra);

plantations in foothills are sometimes risky in Chile because they are planted in volcanic soil (Dr Parra);

the climate is a limited factor because the world is getting warmer, which is why De Martino tries to plant in fresher sun-exposure areas' in order to slow the ripening process (Marcelo Retamal);

orientation of vineyard rows is a very important factor, as bunches of grapes can burn if facing the wrong direction (Renan Cancino);

the great wines in the future will likely be produced in cooler areas. The hypothesis is that the Andes Mountain might be a great place for future plantations, because of their great diversity of geological soil profiles and lower temperatures. The south of Chile might also have potential, but so far the high rain average and the wind seems to be a problem (the whole team); and

Chile has many different high-potential meso-climates yet to be discovered (the whole team).

A great deal of in-depth and costly work has been done by the De Martino family, and hopefully, further presentations and published results will be made available to the wine trade in future. While pictures are worth a thousand words, a few well-placed words can go a long way to providing a necessary context, especially when it comes to explaining viticultural, geological and climatic complexities.