Vines creep closer to the South Pole

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Wine production being a particularly sensitive barometer of climate change, it seems that hardly a week goes by without a predicition that before long English vineyards will be rivalling those of Champagne – or is it Bordeaux? Vines are being planted in such unlikely countries as Norway and Poland, and the Canadian wine map is gradually being extended northwards. But what about the poleward spread of viticulture in the southern hemisphere? Presumably as the planet warms up, wine producers there are prospecting for ever more southerly terrains?

In fact, in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the vine has already crept so far south that it seems unlikely it can go much further without finding itself underwater. Most of South Africa’s coolest vineyards already hug the continent’s southern coast. Australians have been prospecting for suitably cool pockets of land on the southern coast of South Australia and Victoria while Tasmanian wine is coming into its own as temperatures rise. New Zealand’s southernmost wine region Central Otago is booming although there is, just, a possibility that a little bit of land even further south around Invercargill may some day be dry enough for successful vine growing.

But it is in South America where there is the most available land for a southward extension of the world’s wine map – even if there are other ways of coping with lower latitudes such as planting vines at high altitudes as is so common in north-western Argentina, or choosing sites that are reliably cooled by Pacific fog such as the growing number in northern Chile. Land values in the sparsely populated wastes of the south of Argentina and Chile are relatively low, however. Indeed the most southerly vineyard and winery in Argentina is surrounded by several thousand hectares of land owned by Benetton and dedicated to providing the raw material for their woollie jumpers.

El Hoyo (literally ‘the hole’) is an isolated outpost of the vine in Chubut province planted in 1999 but the climate is so marginal that the first wines are not expected until next year.

Much more commercially successful have been the wines of the two Patagonian provinces to the immediate north of here. Humberto Canale was founded in Río Negro’s fruit farming country so long ago that it celebrates its centenary next year, but the region and its impressively mature vines have had a huge shot in the arm recently thanks to the establishment of two Italian-owned wineries with wines made by a Dane, Hans Vinding-Diers. Noemi Cinzano owns Bodega Noemia, whose Malbec has been rapturously received, partly because it offers more obvious refreshment but no less intensity than Malbecs made in Mendoza to the north. Meanwhile Bodega Chacra, owned by the owner of Italy’s famous red bordeaux blend Sassicaia, has delivered the rather dazzling fruit of Pinot Noir vines planted in 1932 to the outside world. Yet more outsiders, Hervé and Diane Joyeaux, originally from Bordeaux, have established the Infinitus winery here with great success, complementing their Fabre Montmayou winery in Mendoza.

But the Argentine government has been determined that the vine should also definitively invade the more mountainous province to the west, Neuquén, and introduced a series of financial incentives in the mid 1990s that have already transformed San Patricio del Chañar into a wine centre. This area is quite cool enough to produce sparkling wine, aromatic Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, as well as the backbone of Argentine wine, Malbec. NQN, Familia Schroeder and Bodega del Fin del Mundo are some of the leading lights.

The vineyards of the long thin country on the other side of the Andes have also been extending south in recent years – less in response to climate change and more because Chilean winemakers have been seeking cooler climates in which to grow a wider range of grape varieties than the Bordeaux red wine grapes that have dominated Chile’s vineyards for more than a century.

The very new Lechagua wine operation on Chiloé Island south of Puerto Montt is even closer to the South Pole than El Hoyo, but the most obvious new, southern additions to Chile’s varietal palette have been a few aromatic Rieslings and Gewurztraminers grown in Bío Bío well to the north of here, notably those of Concha y Toro and its subsidiary Cono Sur. Both labels offer their particular rendition of Riesling grapes from the Quiltraman vineyard here. Concha y Toro’s Winemaker’s Lot 158 2007 is a stunningly good copy of that vanishing commodity Rheingau Kabinett selling at just £6.99 in the UK. At £2 more, Cono Sur’s superior Vision bottling, also from the 2007 vintage, should turn into a fair copy of a Spätlese in a couple of years. That such wine styles might be made in Chile would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Southern Chilean Gewurztraminer seems rather less convincing to me, but Cono Sur’s 2007 is fair value at £6.99, even if not as intensely reminiscent of rose petals and lychees as, say, Tesco’s own label Alsace version at a similar price.

The principal problem with most Chilean whites from southern vineyards, including all those from Curicó south, is a lack of fruit concentration. This is presumably because vines are relatively young or because they are cropped too heavily, or possibly both. By far the most impressive white to have come from Chile’s deep south comes from Malleco south of Bío Bío. The small, isolated SoldeSol vineyards are owned jointly by Paul Pontallier of Château Margaux, Bruno Prats who used to own Château Cos d’Estournel also in Bordeaux, Ghislain de Montgolfier of Bollinger and Chilean Felipe de Solminihac, whose wife’s family owns large tracts of land down here. The vines were planted in 1995 and 1998 and the Chardonnay has been garnering prizes since the 2003 vintage. Their Pinot Noir, first vintage 2008, should be interesting.

One would expect Pinot Noir to be the red wine grape with the best chance in the cooler corners of the Bío Bío region (which means in those places where there are no hills to block out the Pacific fogs), although this part of southern Chile can be blighted by rain. Veranda’s 2007s are reasonably true to the delicate nature of this varietal. Agustinos’ 2005 was very promising but the 2007 seems to have been picked too late.

In Maule north of Bío Bío there is some decent Merlot such as the delicious, unusually artisanal, ‘natural’-tasting wines from Botalcura (whose Nebbiolo is not bad at all) in their delightfully named El Delirio 2007 and the most impressive debut Urban 2007 blend of Merlot with Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon from O Fournier, who already make great wine in Spain and Argentina.

Maule is the home of some really interesting old Carignan vines, as witness Odfjell’s Orzada, and Miguel Torres Cordillera, although the tannins are pretty fierce on the current, 2004, vintage. Much more harmonious is Torres’ Manso de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – but it is grown in Curicó to the north and is hardly the product of an obviously cool climate. There is clearly still much to explore, even for winemakers, in southern Chile.

See my tasting notes on more than 60 southern Chilean wines with a map of Chilean wine regions.