Aside from Burgundy in France, we, in California, enjoy the finest pinot noir in the world, sourced from five major appellations: Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, The Carneros, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. Without borders, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, north to south, would be a fitting sixth.
Although imports from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have challenged the myth that all quality pinot noir must be expensive, the consistently luscious and textural releases from northern Oregon to northern Santa Barbara keep us loyal with resolved acceptance of their price points.
Another challenger, south of the Equator, may be on the horizon. Chile, geographically, is a long, thin strip of land along the South Pacific Ocean coast and, in the past decade, there are a growing number of vineyard plantings of pinot noir in the central and northern regions, that offer similar cool-climate growing conditions as those in California and Oregon.
Regions like the San Antonio and Casablanca Valleys, west of Santiago and the Elqui Valley, 250 miles to the north, have generated some excitement with pinot noir releases that are complex, fruit forward and affordable.
San Antonio and Casablanca are relatively small areas where vineyards are blessed with rocky soils and direct exposure to the cooling forces of the ocean. By contrast, the Elqui Valley lies at the southern end of the Atacama Desert and while enjoying maritime influences, is hotter and, in recent years, been in a drought.
Known for producing pisco brandy and table grapes, the Elqui Valley vineyards are now focusing on certain varietals like the San Pedro 1865 Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($17), an intense, fruit forward release that I recently tasted.
The color is lighter than most California pinots, but the bouquet was deep red fruit, earth and even had a forest-floor quality. The flavors were acutely red fruit and earthy with evident, but balanced tannins.
I compared the 1865 with a 2014 Lemelson Vineyards “Thea’s Selection” Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, at three times the price, and found it elegant, but more restrained than the Chilean wine.
Among many Casablanca Valley releases, the Casas del Bosque Pinot Noir Gran Reserva 2016 ($18) offered typical intense aromas of red fruit, but it was more medium-bodied with refined fruit, spice and earth flavors with soft tannins.
With deep mushroom and forest floor tones in the aromas, the Cuvelier Atanea Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($15) bursts on the palate with dark fruit and a myriad of earth and savory impressions. I would pair this wine with lamb as well as salmon.
From an organic winery in the San Antonio Valley, the 2015 Matetic “Coralillo” Pinot Noir San Antonio Valley ($18) is a very accessible, balanced wine that most palates will enjoy. In awarding this release 90-points, critic James Suckling described it as “fruity and fun” with ample, but forgiving tannins.
I have not yet tasted the 2017 Apaltagua Pinot Noir Reserva San Antonio Valley ($15), but the winery has a reputation for brighter fruit driven flavors and descriptions of “roasted coffee bean notes,” along with the price, has me intrigued.
For the price, I found the Ritual Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2015 Casablanca Valley ($20) to be an intriguing and delightful wine with pleasant floral hints on the nose, an extraordinary rich mouthfeel and some cranberry fruit on the palate. In addition to the full structure and fresh fruit, James Suckling, after awarding it 93-points, aptly described a light chocolate and berry aftertaste.
Most of the Chilean pinot noir releases are expressive and ready to drink now. As production continues to grow and availability in wine shops and outlets increases, the wines can become an accepted, reasonably-priced alternative for those choosing to explore the alluring “Heartbreak Grape” outside of the grand California and Oregon releases.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at email@example.com.