Chilean Wines on the Rise - Winemaker Rodrigo Soto embraces bio-dynamic farming
By Michael Hepworth
The perception of Chilean wines is that they are of the cheap and cheerful variety, so Chilean winemakers have been struggling with that image for at least 25 years. However that might be a situation gradually changing, and a lunch time meeting with winemaker Rodrigo Soto at AOC restaurant in West Hollywood recently gave me an insight into the future.
Soto actually spent some time in New Zealand learning his craft at the 1999 harvest at Wither Hills in Marlborough. He then moved on to California working with Ceago Vinegarden. Next he spent six years at Matetic Vineyards in the San Antonio region of Chile, building up the terroir driven Pinot Noir that is now so popular. In 2006 he returned to California as head winemaker at Benziger Family Winery, producing bio-dynamic single vineyard Pinot Noir’s.
Bio-dynamic farming returned to Chile in 2012 along with the homesick Rodrigo and he returned to take charge of four properties—Veramonte, Primus, Neyen and Ritual. Although the country is known primarily for its Sauvignon Blanc which is different from the sensational New Zealand versions, the Casablanca appellation is leading the way. The region is a cool climate area on the northwestern side of the coastal range less than 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The estate is known for gentle Pacific breezes and early coastal morning fog making it sound pretty idyllic to me, but perfect for producing cool climate varietals.
The brand is called RITUAL, and the first wine tasted was the Sauvignon Blanc 2015, a very low yield and a very wide range of temperatures between day and night. The result is a wine that hints citrus flavors with white peaches and nectarines with a nice clean finish. The estate has three distinct areas where these grape can grow and ripen separately. He ferments one parcel in neutral oak barrels and another in concrete eggs, and the other grapes in the coolest part use stainless steel with the appropriate skin contact. He only uses organic yeast nutrients, and cuts down dramatically on the Sulphur Dioxide. And of course, the grapes are only harvested at night, which sounds like pretty chilly work to me.
The Ritual Pinot Noir 2015 is a lively wine that spends ten months in French Oak Barrels, and In this case the grapes are harvested in small batches in the early morning when temperatures are very cool. Then whole cluster fermentation takes place to increase structure and complexity followed by fermentation with wild yeast. This fermentation is of the Malolactic variety and 10 months in French Oak produces a wine with a touch of elegance and richness.
The best wine I tasted however was probably the Neyen from the Apalta Valley with 55% Carmenere and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The 2010 vintage we tasted was an intense ruby red wine with a touch of purple with a complex aroma of several fruits like strawberry, raspberry, plum and cassis. This wine had very low acidity, a very long finish and was a perfect way to end a mini update on what is happening with wines from Chile today.