THE ELQUI VALLEY, CHILE – FEBRUARY 2014
Note: I wanted to use this website to post occasional pieces that carry more information and detail than there is space for in the confines of print. So, a version of this has appeared in the Telegraph but this is more than twice as long and includes pictures that didn’t. I’ve moved it off the home page because it’s longer than a quick coffee-break-read but tecchy limitations mean there can only be one Long Read here at once, so it will go back onto the blog once I need to make space for the next one.
The Elqui Valley. I’d wanted to come to here for ages. On the southern edge of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, Elqui is a narrow canyon that chisels into the Chilean Andes. It’s papaya and pisco country. Astronomers flock here to peer through 8-metre wide telescopes at the exceptionally clear skies. Against all the odds, they also grow wine grapes: Elqui is one of Chile’s newest and most northerly wine regions, defying the laws of heat and latitude with its proximity to the equator to produce so-called ‘cool climate’ syrah that has created quite a buzz in wine circles.
Finally, I was here and an Italian called Giorgio Flessati was coming to pick me up in the seaside town of La Serena. I knew Giorgio’s wines from supermarket tastings back home but was curious to see the land they came from and find out more about the other growers in Elqui. Would their wines have the same inky intensity and that very particular bitumen and black peppercorn bite?
Giorgio was easy to spot; obviously European, resplendent in a fuchsia Lacoste collared t-shirt.
It didn’t feel too sticky as we piled into his Mitsubishi L200 truck but I knew it would get hotter as we drove into the mountains and away from the coast, which is cooled by the breeze caused by a strong ocean current (the Humboldt) that drags icy water here from the Antarctic and is the reason that viticulture is possible here at all.
The story of how he fetched up in this remote corner of Latin America began in 1953 when a branch of the Flessati family – a young couple and their seven children (another two would be born in Chile) – moved here as part of a deal made between the local Chilean and the Italian governments after the second world war. They flourished, acquired land –
“And then I came to visit,” said Giorgio, as if that was all there was to it, “and within 60 minutes of getting off the plane I tasted one of the grapes they grow here to make pisco and I said to my cousin Aldo, ‘This place would be brilliant for syrah.’”
I looked out of the car window. There were a lot of cacti in this cool climate. Not the first thing that makes me think, “Perfect for syrah.” There was no reason for it to be obvious to Giorgio either. True, he had done a winemaking stint in Australia’s Mclaren Vale but he had mostly worked in somewhat chillier Italy, most recently in Trentino, skiing country, where he had was general manager and winemaker of a big winery.
What was here before? I asked as we swung into the first vineyard, planted on cousin Aldo’s land in 1998. Giorgio gestured to the orange dust and hairy cacti beyond the wire fence that encircled it. “That.”
The shadows on the ground were very high-contrast. The sunlight in Elqui is dazzling; the UV radiation so intense that it’s illegal not to supply outdoor workers with sunblock. It’s rained just twice here in the last 18 months.
What sort of a person would try to make wine in what is essentially a desert? Was Giorgio a visionary? Or an energetic eccentric who’d got lucky?
“We irrigate,” said Giorgio, unruffled. “Sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, depending on the place. Water is like gold here. You buy water rights and you get a share of the channels that carry the melt-water down from the Andes. But now the channel is dry because the people before stole the water. What will we do about that? There’s nothing we can do. If next year is like the previous three, so very small snow on the Andes, it will be a big problem for us.”
We spent the afternoon exploring the Flessati vineyards, most of them planted under Giorgio’s supervision. I’d imagined a few scraps of land, reclaimed here and there from the pisco grape growers or from the steep Andean slopes. Instead there was hectare after hectare after hectare. So many it was almost as if Giorgio had painted parts of the valley green.
I wasn’t sure whether to believe him when he announced he never needed anaesthetic at the dentist. “I’m so relaxed, I just get in the chair and I go to sleep,” – but he drove me up to his highest vineyard, at 6,300feet above sea level, and I tasted the grapes for myself. The vines were old – PX and moscatel originally planted for pisco – with a dry Inca irrigation channel skirting down the edge. We got there by swerving off the road that went through the mountain pass to Argentina, scrambling onto a narrow track that climbed the slope in steep hairpins with no safety barriers. “Don’t worry,” – flashing a big grin –“Are you worried?” Well I wasn’t… “Don’t worry, it’s safe.”
The logistics of this part of the operation in particular seemed mind-boggling. We were in the middle of nowhere. Even lower down, closer to the cooler coast, Giorgio said it cost an extra USD2 per case of wine in transport – of dry goods from Santiago up here and bottles of wine back.
- Cousin Aldo: Did you like it when you first came here in 1953, aged 12? “Immediately. But my mother cried for 30 years.”
At the winery I realised the full, crazy scale of Giorgio’s project. It was crammed with huge stainless steel tank after stainless steel tank, dozens of them all rammed together. “Every square metre of roof is a cost so we put in as many as possible. It’s not for show.”
Why had it not occurred to me before that if he was selling his wines in Asda, Majestic, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer as well as to restaurants then there must be really quite a lot of it?
It was slowly dawning on me that Giorgio wasn’t just the pioneer who had first put Elqui on the Wines of Chile map and won a slew of medals and trophies from international competitions for his wines. This whole valley was pretty much a one-man show. I googled and found a Danish guy and his girlfriend had set up a small outfit in 2011. And I called Anita Jackson at Wines of Chile. She hadn’t even heard of the Dane. “Yes, it’s just Giorgio as far as I know. No one else actually makes wine there, though of course a few others have vineyards or buy grapes.”
I checked the others out. The huge Vina San Pedro told me they began buying grapes in Elqui only four years ago – relative newcomers compared to Giorgio. They now buy in grapes from around 100hectares of Elqui vineyards, mainly sauvignon blanc to go into their Castillo de Molina line and syrah for the 1865 range. They have also put in new plantations of their own and are experimenting with chardonnay and viognier but no, they don’t vinify in the valley.
I also tasted an Elqui wine made by De Martino, one of Chile’s most exciting, forward-looking and high-quality producers. It was called De Martino Alto los Toros Single Vineyard Syrah 2011 (various vintages are stocked by Averys, Berry Bros & Rudd, The Wine Society, Les Caves de Pyrene, Virgin Wines). Made from syrah with 15% petit verdot, all grown in a place called Alcohuaz – the vineyards were planted in 2005 an astonishing 2,000m up in the Andes – it’s an incredible wine, very deep and rich and long. It reminded me of Oxo cubes and pink peppercorns and licorice. I loved it.
But even so. The scale of what Giorgio was doing was vast, highly organized and incomparable. And it was quite a one-man show.
He was making 1.6million bottles a year, with the capacity to go up to 5million. He’d got 300 hectares of vines, and, he said, plenty of room to expand with another 200 hectares to plant – his only complaint was that you can’t get the staff up here. “You have no idea what it’s like being a European trying to work here. No idea. I’m not even Italian, I’m more German, my grandfather was Austrian so we’re quite strict. Here? They don’t want to work. They tell you 8am, it might be 10, 11, 12, never.”
We tried the wines. I wanted to like more of them more but the viognier was flat, the chardonnay tasted all wrong. There was an immense and immensely strange carmenere made using dried grapes in the style of amarone from north-east Italy, delicious in its way, idiosyncratic, but not my kind of thing. I only really liked the syrahs. But I did really like them. Also the dry PX was pretty good.
I also liked Elqui. It has a kind of magic. Especially at night when the stars come out. I’ve never been to a place where the stars were so present; staring at you. You can see the scatter of the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, not just Orion’s belt but also his bow and his orange coloured shoulder, as well as blue-tinged Sirius, and Jupiter – bright as a car headlight. We stood that night in one of the observatories – swaddled in jumpers and scarves, there’s a big diurnal temperature difference, helpful for grapes. And we peered through a telescope at Jupiter’s bright red stripes. “The real reason I came here,” said Giorgio in my ear, “Is pollution. I’ll show you a map later. All of the world’s pollution, all of it, is headed to the northern hemisphere.”
He never did show me that map. You still haven’t explained, I pressed the next day in the car back to the airport, what made you believe syrah would work. “Call it intuition, just a feeling.”
In some ways, I left Elqui none the wiser.