“They thought we were loco,” says Giorgio Flessati, winemaker at Vina Mayu. A common story for pioneers and winemakers who push the boundaries. And fifteen years ago anyone would have thought Giorgio and his cousin Aldo Olivier and co-partner at Vina Falernia were crazy for planting vines in Elqui. A land of extremes, Elqui Valley is on the edge of the Atacama Desert, has over 340 days of sunshine a year, almost no rainfall, can reach the high 30s during the day with some of the purest sunlight in the world – almost 10 times more solar radiation than in Europe.
These diurnal extremes would make winemaking impossible if it wasn’t for the polar opposite nocturnally: the temperature plummets, a soggy sea fog rolls in, and the vines wake up cool and moist. During the daytime you might be in a shorts and T-shirt, but at night you’ll need a blanket as Elqui is in fact considered a cool climate for wine. “Climatically it’s extremely cold and windy,” says Paul Hobbs, a flying winemaker who consults for Vina San Pedro who make wine in Elqui. “It has very cold nights and there’s a wind tunnel coming in from the sea.”
This combination of pure sunshine, a large temperature variation between night and day, and the poor soils of Elqui make it ideal for grape growing. “The terroir fascinates me,” says Giorgio who has been making wine here since the first plantations in 1998. “It’s a unique opportunity to have it all together – the soil, the cool climate, the sun, and thermal amplitude.”
Fortunately for current day winemakers in Elqui some of the foundations had already been laid. The area is renowned for Pisco – especially the nearby village called Pisco – and for hundreds of years native people have been cultivating the land, nowadays being mainly table grapes, pisco grapes, papayas and avocados. The Incas constructed irrigation channels all around the valley which still function today in bringing snowmelt to the orchards and vineyards, and providing a life source for plants in this dry climate.
All of these factors create spectacular wines with great phenolic ripeness and good acidity giving you colourful, aromatic and structured wine with a crisp freshness. In particular Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc thrive here, but both Vina Mayu and Vina Falernia are experimenting with many different varieties including Pedro Ximenez, Malbec, Sangiovese and Carmenere. Their experimentation and great results (including Mayu’s recent Decanter International Trophy for Single Variety Under £15 for their Malbec) have turned the eye of many other wineries who source grapes in Elqui to make single vineyard wines for their own collections.
De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal makes single vineyard wines in Elqui and is working on a project with a family there to take Elqui to even further extremes, 2200 meters above sea level. As the highest altitude vineyards in Chile, this new endeavor is certainly exciting and by returning to traditional methods like foot pressing the grapes and not using oak influences they hope to capture some of the essence of Elqui Valley in the bottle. Part of this essence is the incredible luminosity and energy of the place, which is considered the Earth’s greatest source of magnetic energy. Elqui has many settlements of new agers who come in particular for the special energy found here.
Also known as the ‘Star Route’, Elqui is one of the most important destinations for star gazers with 8 major observatories and numerous touristic observatories in the area. While on a visit to Elqui you can see the stars in Vina Mayu’s own observatory, or spend a couple nights sleeping in specially designed observatory cabins with panoramic skylights or in a white space dome with open rooftops to the sky at Elqui Domos, where there is also an observatory to ponder celestial bodies.
While Elqui is a perfect getaway for star spotting and energy channeling, it is really in Elqui’s wines where a new star has been born.
Written for Wines of Chile, Dec 2013