I loathe winter in Britain, and I’m not the only one. Even the seagulls sitting on the roof outside my window look grumpier than usual.
As the clouds descend on the grey snow, and the light fades at three o-clock, it’s with even greater feelings of longing than usual that I consider that a week ago, I was sitting in the most extraordinary vineyard it’s every been my pleasure to visit.
It was in the eastern half of Chile’s Elqui Valley – an area that, with 300 days of sun a year and next to no rainfall, is essentially a conurbation of the Atacama Desert.
Down in the valley floor, where it gets sappingly hot, the land is carpeted with grapes growing for pisco and the Sainsbury’s fruit aisle.
But I’m not down in the valley. I’m in a narrow off-shoot that climbs up to 2,000 feet. All around me are towering walls of rock the colour of caffe latte, sheer, baked and imposing. The soil is parched grey dust, and, apart from the gentle sound of the wind and the rustling of the bush vines, it is dead silent.
This is Vina Falernia’s Huanta vineyard and while at the moment it is only planted with PX and Moscatel grapes, the winery is experimenting with Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. The former, in particular, could give something pretty exceptional here. For while temperatures climb to 32 degrees during the day, there is always, always a breeze – and at this altitude half way up the Andes you can imagine how the mercury drops at night.
It’s places like this that, I think, make Chile the most exciting wine country on the planet just at the moment. Ten years ago, when I first started coming here, it was still very much about the vineyards of the Central Valley: your Maipos, Rapels and so on, with Casablanca the sole cool climate representative (and a somewhat patchy one at that).
The last decade, though, has seen the renaissance of Bio Bio to the south, and the appearance of Leyda and San Antonio to the West and Limari and Elqui to the north. They are all sunny but cool – a combination that can be truly magnificent in the hands of the right winemaker, as Vina Leyda’s enviable portfolio (Enotria) shows.
If the wines from the older areas are riper, rounder and more crowd-pleasing, those from the chillier, fog-, altitude-, and wind-affected fringes have that lighter, edgier character that sommeliers crave. They are fresh and structured enough to work with food, but soft enough that your customers will still fall in love with them. And they are still exceptional value for money.
The truly astonishing about Chile is that every time I go, winemakers are talking about new areas, with experimental plantings in places I’ve never heard of. Two years later, they have a first vintage. Two years after that, a small production.
In the week I was there I tried next to no Cabernet or Chardonnay – but loads of good Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir. Even the odd decent Riesling and, astonishingly, given what I wrote about the varietal a couple of months back, a Gewurz that I could actually drink.
It made me rethink my prejudices a bit. And if you think that Chile’s place on the wine list is limited to a cheap Sauvignon and a £20 bottle of Cabernet, then perhaps it’s time you did the same.