Tasting Room with a View
Chilean wine is often thought of as a big-guys’ business, companies with thousands of hectares producing a huge volume of different well-known brands. Things are changing. The little guys are shouting about their hand-crafted wines too. A collective of small, quality orientated, producers have recognised that together they can be heard, and achieve more in their wineries plus push the boundaries for more personal, vineyard driven style of wines. (See also my Grandes Pagos de España article similarly regarding a group collaborating to find a louder voice) Known as MOVI, the movement for independent winemakers, their logo features a single barrel with wings.
Recently, just before the 2016 harvest, I was lucky enough to visit one of the MOVI vineyards, Polkura in Colchagua, south west of Chile’s buzzing capital, Santiago. Its wines have been receiving attention from the likes of The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. Little evidence of a vineyard existed at the scenic roadside; without the help of my guide, Jeremy Shaw from Iberian Wine Tours, you would not think to turn off to head up a long, bumpy, lane flanked with dottings of trees and some local wildlife. A barrel with wings would have been useful, since the tasting room was further on atop a hill, a steep walk between the ungrafted vines.
On the way up we passed layers of golden and red stones. The complex mix of soils is poor in nutrients, some is old volcanic, others yellow granite, with clay of different colours too. They were formed without river influence. As well as giving the name to the vineyard, Polkura means yellow stone in the native Mapuche language, they also give the wines ‘minerality’ and elegance with the heavier clay adding structure and body.
As we reached the top, we turned round; our breaths were taken away, literally, by the huffing and puffing needed for the climb, as well as dramatically by the extensive views. It was worth the ascent for this alone. South America with its big, cloudless, blue skies knows how to do huge, expansive vividly coloured vistas. We were about to taste some of the Polkura red wines here too.
Most of the 12 hectares of vineyard is planted with Syrah*; different clones of the variety add depth to their wines. A sprinkling of other red grape varieties is grown in their ‘A’-Parcel called the garden-of-varieties, along with a tiny amount of fragrant white Viognier grapes. As in Côte Rôtie in France’s Northern Rhône, a splash of Viognier is used to lift the wine with perfume and to help retain colour. The other red varieties, like Tempranillo and Grenache (Garnacha Tinta) are blended into the wines adding further layers of complexity. Vines are orientated in rows to reduce the effect of the bright Chilean sun on the grape which is important here to help balance in the final wines: alcohol levels are 14 percent plus, though the layers of flavours easily stand up to this. Altitude enables the grapes to benefit from cooler nights, and being less than 30km from the coast in this narrow country brings freshness from the cooling Pacific Ocean breezes that make their way past the Coastal Mountain Range to the hillside vineyards.
Winemaker and joint owner Sven Bruchfeld was away so assistant winemaker Ricardo Escandón showed us round the modest looking winery, with the surprise being that a transport container was home to their office and laboratory. There was a frisson of excitement as the grapes were being analysed; so far progress looked good. Although I have since heard it rained closer to harvest time which speeded the necessity to pick; who says Chile doesn’t experience vintage variation?
The wines are mainly red, focusing on the Rhône variety Syrah, but not exclusively. We are told that all the wines are made using destemmed grapes and begin with a long maceration, a cold soak to draw out the fruit flavours. They take their time, always tasting and smelling. After a 10 to 15 day fermentation the wine is left a further month with its skins which helps with tannins and body in the final wine.
Lot ‘d’ is Polkura’s ripe, fruity cherry and red plum unoaked pizza wine, named after the North facing ‘d’ parcel, one of the hotter sites, as we are in the southern hemisphere.
Only 1600 bottles of Polkura’s richer Southern Rhône styled wine called GSM+T are produced. It is not uncommon to find GSM blends (Garnacha Tinta/Grenache, Syrah, Monastrell/Mourvedre), but here the wine has been softened by allowing the Spanish Riojan grape variety Tempranillo (from the three rows that are grown) make up 30 per cent of the blend. The aim is that no one variety dominates. The Monastrell brings in a darkness to the fairly full bodied 2013 wine, a touch of tar, while there is spice and light pepper comes from the Syrah. Red cherries and blackcurrants mingle with a menthol note, hinting at the sunshine, along with soft tannins.
Argentina is known as the home of Malbec wines, but it is not unknown in Chile. Polkura make a cheeky 100 cases which is mostly sent to the US – gradually more of their wine in general is going east hence wine being parcelled up addressed Hong Kong while we were there. It’s a touch more floral than an Argentinian Malbec with a whisper of violet mingling with mineral talc like notes and the soft chalky tannins.
The heart of the project is a deeply coloured Syrah. It includes a trace of Malbec, Viognier plus other varieties, which varies by vintage. The 2012 had a rich intense nose of black and red licorice, tar, black plums which followed through onto the fresh, velvety palate. The tannins again are soft, there is a touch of vanilla from the 15 months’ French barrel aging. It had mouth filling presence combined with some finesse plus complexity from the wood and ageing.
The big brother of the previous wine, was a full bodied 2012 Syrah from Blocks G & I which face to the cooler South. It spends longer, around 24 months, maturing in 30 percent new French oak barrels. It has more elegance and complexity in the form of a touch of roses, very ripe red as well as black fruits plus licorice again. Dark cherries and blueberries mingle with a chocolate layer.
The Polkura ‘au naturelle’ tasting-room-with-a-view will live with me forever, I only hope that between the US and the East a few bottles make their way to the UK as these are wines I look forward to revisiting.
Useful contact and other details
I’d love to hear your comments about this article via firstname.lastname@example.org: If you ever have a chance to visit South American wineries, grasp it as you have to see the big luminous skies and omnipresent Andes for yourself; no words can adequately describe what they are like.
polkura.cl, * they also make Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines closer to the coast at their Aylin vineyards closer to the Pacific Ocean in Leyda the San Antonio Valley.
movi.cl: iberianwinetours.com Sarah is the author of The Periodic Table of Wine.