I still can’t understand and define exactly, a kind of an inner force that had been with me from my intimate beginning. It becomes more and more evident to me it had always been there.
Something melted into my life and attracted me to pinot noir way before I saw any vineyards.
This for me, have happened quite late, at the age of 13 visiting Corsica: my first trip ever to Europe. I have to confess, vineyards were not at that time my main interest but the beauty of the Mediterranean countryside covered by these spectacular vineyards is still in my memory.
I was more of a city boy with, from my mother’s side of the family, strong rural roots but no vineyards at all in these roots.
Touring again in Europe for a few months on my own at the age of 19 I saw from far away more vineyards. Most of them beautiful and giving the impression they have been there forever. I could feel at that moment how big of a role the wine culture played helping to establish the fundamentals of our civilisation.
My third trip to Europe soon after, at the age of 21 was really dedicated to vineyards and wine. This brought me to Burgundy and probably because of that something this trip never ended. And now, my Burgundy anchorage makes me travel on different continents.
I had the chance, even before I finished the wine school, to be appointed “régisseur”, responsible of one of the great estate of the Côte de Beaune. This was not even 2 years after I came to Burgundy for the first time. I was totally immersed in pinot noir, surrounded by it from all sides, living in the place it comes from.
Quite rapidly while I was still learning a great deal about pinot noir and Burgundy, I started to look and study about other places on our planet where they were already growing some pinot noir or places with the potential to do it.
This brought me to Oregon, California, Alto Adige, New Zealand, Alsace, Austria at first. Later to Australia, to Niagara, Uruguay and some others.
It was always great to meet fellow winemakers working with the same variety as you, in a different environment, with other types of soils, most of the time only with young vines. Myself, working in burgundy, on these great terroirs that had been discovered and valued for centuries, I was envying the freedom and the creativity these vintners had in newer regions.
I was saying to myself that I would always make wines in Burgundy but I would like one day to be part of the creation of a new vineyard, why not in a new region, based on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Back then, that was just a dream, from somebody who is not a Burgundian deeply involved in Burgundy.
The first time I ever heard of Biobío was from weather reports was from and brief geographic descriptions. The region was officially registered as a wine producing area. I could not find details on the grape varietals that were grown there. I later found out, on my firsts travels there, it consisted essentially of Muscat d’Alèxandrie, mostly family grown, making a wine the Chileans call “payse”. A product completely out of the modern international standards that was only consumes locally, not even much in the rest of the country. I found out there was a few bigger vineyards that had seemed exploited to a certain extend with some prosperity but they seemed completely abandoned. I was really surprise, one day to see one of them being harvested.
The weather pattern, winter and summer temperatures looked good for pinot noir growing but I could not find any trace of that varietal there, unlike Rio Negro on the other side of the Andes in Argentina where I could find some pinot noir had been planted there about 50 years ago.
In Chile, in a big part because of the Humboldt cold current that runs along the coast from south to north, also because of the altitude that starts to rise quite quickly with the Andes, when you travel to the east, there is definitively a strong west to east difference in terms of more warmth in the west and more coolness in the east. Some coastal sites are also cooler because of the oceanic influence. This allows the development of cooler viticulture area varietals in northern valleys like Elqui, 500 Km north of Santiago or even Limari a bit south of there.
That Chilean characteristic west to east influence should not hide another strong one, which exists everywhere on our planet and goes north to south in the southern hemisphere, simple to understand, the closer to the poles you are the cooler it is. The Biobío valley spreads from about 500 to 600 km south of Santiago. In the summer time, you can have daytime temperatures slightly warmer then Burgundy and night time temperatures slightly cooler, comparable to Oregon with a bit of a warmer spring. If you look at the medium temperature chart, you realise the average temperature is cooler then Burgundy, Central Otago and Oregon, despite the warmer peaks in daytime.
When I first arrive to Chile, visiting wineries in the central valleys, I was asking the wine people I met about their impression of the Biobío valley. I soon realised the place had a very bad reputation, being considered rainy and cold. This was a big deception for me but I still had my doubts on what I heard. Looking at the rainfall chart more closely, I noticed it was recorded a yearly rainfall of 1100 mm/year, something that did not catch my attention that much before because this is really comparable to Burgundy. Looking at that closer, I could see a big difference about Biobío where it rains only in winter instead of all year around in Burgundy. When you grow vineyards in Burgundy, you learn fast about cryptogrammic disease pressure and the fact that Biobío had no rain during the growing season, maybe just a risk right before harvest, something that have not happened since my involvement there in 2004 even in a late ripening year like last year, was not going to impress me. Looking at the rainfall in the other Chilean central valleys, I could understand why these people were so afraid of rain; they are simply not use to it, unlike us in Burgundy where we have learned to live with.
The first time I went to Biobío, was in July 2001, middle of winter. We flew down from Santiago on a really bumpy ride. It was windy and raining like crazy. I could understand why the Chileans had that image of Biobío. We went to see some pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards planted a few years before, in 1988 along an arm of the Biobío River near the small town of Negrete. The ride from the airport was a bit more then an hour. We could see absolutely nothing from the car window. We arrived on the site and it was still pouring rain. The vineyard manager responsible of the site had dug some holes to look at the soil profiles. At least I could see that and the vine rows. It was absolutely impossible to distinguish the scenery all around. I noticed immediately the soils were formed of alluvial sands with a lot of volcanic rocks from projections. My first impression of these soils was not very good. To me they were way to simple with not enough mineral complexity. I expressed my impressions to the people around me working on that vineyard. They explained me the alluvial components were coming from the river nearby which I never saw that day. I said what about and how it is a bit further from the river? They told me there was some hillsides right there, where? Impossible to see nothing but apparently the hillsides were there. I said, without even seeing these famous hillsides, this is where you should had planted the vineyards.
Since then, my opinion has evolved on the first soils I saw along the river. With a correction of the biological activity we turned it into a good terroir that expresses itself beautifully.
In 2004 we started to plant these famous hillsides. This program ended in 2007. Quite an ambitious one, the total plantations are close to 300 has on 3 sites close together and consists mainly of pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. We conducted serious soil studies, because we soon realised there was a lot differences and diversity on short distances on these sites. We wanted to know what to plant where. These studies were completed by a big work from Yves Herody, a famous French geologist. This really helped us to understand the different potential of these sites. Everything there is from volcanic origins, a mixture of projections and irruptions with different type of clay on the different micro sites and also a lot of diversity in terms of magnesium, iron, potassium and silica. Finally, to resume in a simplistic way, on the foothills where the soils are deeper and the clay more simple, we planted sauvignon blanc, on the hillsides, depending on the type of clay and mineral complexity, we planted chardonnay keeping the most complex sites for pinot noir.
For pinot noir, the material we used for the first plantations was a mixture of classic Dijon clones available back then in Chile, 115 and 777. We also used 2 of the Chilean selections that had been introduced in the country a few decades ago probably back then to make sparkling, but they do not have much sparkling characteristics since they are quite low producers. At the beginning, I was snubbing a bit these Chileans selections, thinking the newer clones that came out from the Burgundian research would be superior. With time, I realised they had other advantages in terms of how they were ripening, slower with more balance. Finally one of these selections ended up being the only ingredient in our top “Veranda Millerandage Pinot Noir”. In fact, that selection, no matter what the weather conditions are when the vines are blooming, always ends up with a bad flower set, with a lot of seedless very small berries that are very concentrated at the end. Most of the growers in Chile are currently pulling out that selection and we decided to make a speciality from it, with a lot of success.
Since then, we are conducting a clone importation program in a partnership with Talca University. At first we wanted to do that with the French authorities but it was way to complicate. We finally concluded an agreement with Davis University from California to import, put in quarantine and develop 6 different clones, most of them known as the suitcase clones that were introduced to America in the 60’s and the 70’s by some Californian growers. These clones are now cleaned up virus wise and controlled by Davis. The objective of that is to improve the genetic diversity for pinot noir in Chile.
These new clones will soon get into production. It will be very interesting to see how they will perform in a new environment. They were selected looking at their behaviour in California and also tracking down their Burgundian origins. This does not mean, because they are considered good clones in one part of the world, they will have similar performances in Chile. There is a part of gambling there but the most important is to improve the diversity.
The latest 50 has site we have planted has a bigger density of plantation, around 7500 plants/ha instead of the 5500 plants/ha we have in the initial plantations. On the most complex part of that site we even have 5has with 10 000 plants/ha. This will come into production next year and we are really looking forward to that.
One of the advantages, some people would consider that only a particularity, of creating a new site in a region like Biobío is the fact you can plant the vitis vinifera directly in the ground on its own roots. On the panel of the “Old World vs New World inspirations” session of Master of Wines Forging Links symposium last June in Bordeaux, one of my eminent colleague said he had conduct some experiments comparing the same site planted with the same varietal partly on rootstocks, partly on its own roots. The 2 blocks were vinified separately and it was claimed the 2 wines were similar, impossible to distinguish them from each other. I personally never conducted such an experiment, but I find that hard to believe, especially with a varietal that has more availability to conduct the terroir expression like pinot noir. Different rootstocks implicate a different development of the roots, a different way to explore the soils. I think on some type of soils where you have problems like phylloxera or nematodes; a rootstock is definitely necessary. If you have a place free of these bugs, that as good drainage because it is a great vineyard site, I really like the idea to deal with a pure pinot noir for example. I am convinced you are closer to a purer match of the terroir and the varietal
The first wines we made from these new sites are from 2007. Since then, thanks to team in place, every year had been an improvement with big steps each time that were crossed. We new from the geological studies we had a lot of diversity. Looking at the topography of the sites also, these are beautiful soft rolling hills; with the different exposures and slopes we could see there was the potential to express different styles of wines with different personalities. Very quickly, after 2 vintages we had the confirmation of that. We decided to forget about the numbers of our different blocks and started to give them names. A bit like it was done in Burgundy centuries ago, the names are related to the sites. It can be the name of a volcano you see from this particular site or related to some animals that lives around there, the wind, etc. Anything that can give in one or a few words an image of the vineyard. This took quite a while but we are very proud of the results. In the near future, we would like to introduce our own classification of these vineyards with on top the “prima Collecion” and the “Gran Collecion”.
Of course, for now this is our own creation and it is not controlled or regulated by any official organism. It was the same in France before the creation of the I.N.A.O. in 1936 that controlled and regulated customs in used for centuries.
I do not know if the monks in the Middle Ages had in their mind the future developments of their creation when they crafted Burgundy the way it is today. Looking at their heritage from our side of the time scale, we can see and benefit from the huge job they had done. What was their philosophy back then, what did they have in mind. For sure they were after some pleasure we can get while down on the Earth. I bet though, some of them new the impact their work was going to have on our civilisation and that it was going to be still there, in pretty much the same way centuries later.
More modestly, this is what we try to do in Biobío. If we can bring some development in that part of the world, a stronger piece of the noblest part of our civilisation and if it is still there in a few generations, we could feel like we had done something good.