A Conversation with Rodrigo Soto

It seems like the Wine of Chile people have been everywhere lately.  Since I’ve been writing Dallas Wine Chick, I’ve received invitations to a number of events including live Twitter tastings and wine makers coming through Texas who make the time to tell me their stories and let me taste their wines.

Last month, I participated in a live Twitter tasting of three pinot noirs from the Casablanca region of Chile.  Casablanca, which is located northwest of Santiago, was the first vineyard planted in the mid-1980s, and has 10,000 acres of vines in the region.  It is known for its cool climate coastal location and started the wine movement in Chile.  The wines tasted were as follows:

-          2010 Montes Alpha Pinot Noir – which was the first premium wine in Chile.  It was full of mushroom, cherry and had a meaty taste.  It would benefit for some more time in the bottle.  Ironically, I found a few bottles in my cellar of a different vintage that I will keep aging.

-          2009 Nimbus Pinot Noir – full of fruit, pepper, spice, mint and earth.  It is hard harvested and was the most elegant of the wines.

-          2011 Ritual Casablanca Pinot Noir – this wine had a cherry cola taste, wood and spice.  It was drinkable right out of the bottle, but lacked some of the complexity of the other two wines.

Ironically, Rodrigo Soto, the winemaker for the South American brands for Huneeus Vitners, which includes Veramonte, Preimus, Neyen and Ritual wines, sat down with me a few weeks later.   Agustin Huneeus, founder of Huneeus’ family portfolio of wines, focuses on wines in North and South America.  He founded Quintessa, Faust, Veramonte, Neyen and Illumination. He has partnerships with Flowers Vineyards & Winery and agreements to help market some iconic California wine brands.

Soto talked to me about his vision for his wines.  He has experience working at various wine regions around the globe including Chile, New Zealand as well as Napa/Sonoma where he served as head winemaker for Benzinger Winery.  Soto believes that while Chilean wines have evolved a great deal, there is so much room to grow.  His focus has turned to the more specialized portfolio of wines where he wants to make Chilean wines truly world-class.

There are a few factors that he still needs to overcome.   For example, wineries pay growers by the acre and he needed to find ways to find the clones and refine his grower portfolio to get the best grapes possible.  Primus wines are a great example of that – it took ten years to find the clones.

He believes the transformation of Chilean wine will come, but people need to embrace the differentiation of the wines.  Part of that is distribution, part of that is marketing and part of that is better wine making.

We tried the Ritual Pinot Noir and he talked about how he is going to overhaul the style beginning in 2012 to reflect his “thumbprint”.  You can tell his passion for wines with a sense of time and place.  He is a believer that wines should be a “map of the region” and he is dedicated to sustainable, organic, biodynamic wines that are authentic.

Our next wine was the 2010 Primus blend and he talked about how David Ramey, who consulted for Benzinger, taught him to pick grapes “when they taste delicious.”  It was lush with black pepper and berries.  This was a great wine.

The final wine was the 2008 Neyen “The Spirit of Apalta,” which is an estate concept with older vines.  This is an old vineyard that is deploying many of newer scientific wine techniques like drip irrigation.  It was a blend of carmenere and cabernet sauvignon with big notes of berry, flowers and vanilla.

His passion for wines with a sense of place and the continuing evolution of Chile’s place in winemaking is evident.  He said the key is changing the farming.  “It’s like choosing vegetables from the market. When you grow them, you have total control so you can ensure longevity and quality.”