I have never seen bluer skies than the sky I saw in northern Chile’s Elqui Valley, high up in the Andes. The sky is so clear, the area of the Atacama Desert (the Elqui Valley is at the southern edge of this desert) is considered one of the finest spots for stargazing in the entire world. But as beautiful as the sky there is, that was not why we had come. We were there to visit a new winery that is so new it has not yet sold any wine. The irony? This new winery only uses age old techniques to create its wines.
Viñedos de Alcohuaz is a new winery put together by Patricio Flaño with winemakers Marcelo Retamal and Juan Luis Huerta high up in the Andes in the bone dry Elqui Valley, best known for its Piscos, the brandy like grape spirit that is the national spirit of both Chile and neighboring Peru. As part of a media tour through the Foods From Chile program we flew from Santiago to the northern coastal city of La Serena and took a bus from there climbing higher and higher up into the Andes.
Once we arrived, we had to go higher yet. Getting out of our bus and geting into a series of smaller vehicles, we drove upwards through glorious vineyards ever closer to the bold blue of the big sky above us. I hopped into the back of a pick-up along with a few of fellow travelers. We reveled in the ride and the scenery and admired the fortitude and endurance of the winery’s dog, a mature golden retriever, who ran all the way alongside and behind us at 7200 ft in altitude.
At the top we had amazing views and saw their reservoir, which came from an underground spring. We hiked down a steep, rocky slope to make our way to an area of extreme magnetic energy, where they had set up a special shaman like circle in which to parlay that energy internally. I’m not sure if it worked on me, but it did make my iPhone go a bit haywire. Just outside the circle were some of the most beautiful grapevines I have ever laid eyes on.
At Alcohuaz the winemaking process harkens back to an earlier era. They don’t use ultramodern machinery. The grapes are hand harvested. They are also crushed in time honored fashion – stomping with feet! We got to do that with some freshly harvested grapes. After rinsing our feet, a few of us got in the large in a lagar made of rock and created a line to stomp the grapes over several passes. It was an amazing sensation and one of the most fun things I have done in quite some time. As we got out of the lagar, we all took pleasure in washing off our purple feet.
The wines of Viñedos de Alcohuaz don’t see oak or any other kind of wood, new or old. Instead they are aged in biodynamic concrete eggs for two years in a process that reminded me of the wines of Chateau Musar in Lebanon.
The winery is still new and the facilities are not yet complete. They are still working on building their wine cave directly out of the mountainside so the wines remain cool and age well.
We eventually made our way back down to the main building for a reception and a lunch prepared from strictly local ingredients. Sr. Retamal started us all off with his outstanding Pisco Sour made from his own Pisco. We enjoyed a number of snacks along with this including amazing local rasins, figs, Chilean tomatillos (totally unlike Mexican tomatillos), cheeses and fruits. These were all superb, but we had to refrain from eating too much as lunch was going to be served shortly.
Lunch was just marvelous. The main focus was a spectacularly delicious roast pork that had been cooked over the winery’s own vine cuttings. Along with this they served an array of salads, vegetables and sides, all of outstanding quality.
Retamal also poured the not yet released wines of the property, I don’t know whether it was because the specific techniques used made a difference or if it was just the quality of the grapes or the Retamal’s winemaking skills, but the wines were superb! We got to sample their two reds, the 1st label RHU and the second label, GRUS. The RHU from the 2011 is a blend of syrah, grenache and petite syrah. This wine will be bottled in a few weeks. In five years or so, they expect to be making white wines as well.
The wines were not high in alcohol nor over-extracted. They had good acid and excellent fruit structure that wasn’t overshadowed by wood, since the juice hadn’t been in contact with any. This is a wine that will be difficult to get, but which I would love to experience again…and again. Viñedos de Alcohuaz is a winery to keep an eye on in more ways than one.