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Go Grow it on a Mountain: extreme winemaking in Chile

Tabalí's winemaker Felipe Müller East goes to extremes in Chile: first he planted vineyards within spitting distance of the Pacific Ocean. Now he's also making world-class Malbec way inland and way up a mountain

The new vineyards at 1600 metres under snow in October

When Chilean winemaker Felipe Müller planted Tabalí’s Roca Madre vineyard five years ago, he settled on no fewer than 11 grape varieties. It sounds like a kid let loose in the viticultural equivalent of a sweet shop; either that or acute indecisiveness, especially as it was only eight hectares. In fact, it was simply that he didn’t know – couldn’t know ¬– what would work best. Roca Madre was virgin territory, a new frontier in Chilean wine. He could take some educated guesses but, whatever he decided, one thing was for sure: neither he nor his viticulturalist Hector Rojas would be driving back and forth at the drop of a sombrero to take a rain check. This place is a long way off the beaten track.

Roca Madre is in the Limarí Valley, a valley 450k north of Santiago, not all that far from the southern edge of the Atacama desert, but it isn’t in the part of the Limarí Valley that wine lovers have become familiar with. The familiar Limarí is the low-lying, coastal, but dry region that was first planted in the early 1990s. The vines benefit from the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean and, crucially, the pure, chalky limestone soils that are unlike the soils in any other Chilean wine region. In tandem with the cool climate, this limestone creates the characteristically elegant, structured, ‘mineral’ Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and, increasingly, Syrahs, for which the Limarí Valley is now renowned. But, as I say, Roca Madre isn’t there.

"When he saw the quality of the Malbec, he put the idea of a blend on hold and made a single varietal"

Roca Madre is at the other end of the Limarí Valley. Instead of being 12km from the Pacific Ocean, like Tabalí’s vineyards at Talinay, it’s 200km to the east, two and a half hours’ drive away and only 40km from the Argentine border. It’s not just distant, it’s high and mountainous: at 1600m above sea level (as against the 125m Talinay vineyards) it’s Chile’s second-highest producing vineyard. And it isn’t limestone. Roca Madre means bedrock and the bedrock here is volcanic. It’s barely more than a metre below the surface, so the soil (volcanic andesite) is meagre, but the rock is fractured, so the vine roots can penetrate it. The climate is extreme. You may have daytime averages of 28–29ºC in the summer, but it could be 6ºC at night. The photo above, with the vineyards in the mid-ground before the peaks, says it all. It was taken in October.

Winemaker Felipe Müller East in London for a first tasting of Roca Madre alongside some of Tabalí's Talinay wines over a dazzling lunch at Ametsa with Arzac Instruction

When Tabalí’s owner was offered Roca Madre in 2010 – a property of 2500, mountainous hectares – he thought he’d grow chestnuts where he could, but Felipe advised him that if there were slopes and mountains they could grow vines. Cabernet Sauvignon was the owner’s choice. The ten varieties chosen by Felipe were Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache. The last five have since been grafted over to give him a total of four hectares of Malbec from the 2017 vintage, because it’s Malbec that has been the big success. Perhaps it’s not so surprising when you think how near Argentina is.

The original intention had been a blend, but when Felipe saw the quality of the Malbec, he put that idea on hold and made a single varietal, the first one in 2013. I tasted the second: Roca Madre Viñedo Río Hurtado Malbec 2014. It’s an astonishing wine from vines that are just three years old: dense and intense, pure and precise, with violet, black fruit and mineral flavours, a creamy, velvety texture and a salty and peppery lift to the finish. Production was 2400 bottles, but the good news is that Felipe thinks they have another 40 ha plantable. Roll on.

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