Chile's Earthquake-Prone Regions Produce Wine Gems Worth Seeking Out

Vineyards in the earthquake-prone Limarí Valley in northern Chile
Vineyards in the earthquake-prone Limarí Valley in northern Chile
Image provided by Vine Connections for Merino Wines

Ground-rumbling quakes, buckling infrastructure, and impending tsunamis. While grandiose CGI depictions of these natural disasters prey on our primal fear of extinction for box office dollars, for example during Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s recent performance as a plucky, helicopter-flying firefighter during the epic eruption of California’s notorious San Andreas, the citizens of Chile confront these real threats more frequently than Roland Emmerich and his ilk can churn them out onto the big screen — and this, in Chile, includes the winemaking community, too.

On Monday night, another seismic shake stemming from last week’s 8.3-magnitude event — the biggest of the year and fourth strongest in recorded Chilean history — rocked the country yet again, to the tune of a Richter-scale 6.5. The quake-prone country, which sits on the circum-Pacific belt, or "Ring of Fire," has endured dozens of these aftershocks — they've ranged between a 5.5 and a 7.2 — driving city-dwelling Chileans to sleep outside. Fortunately, according to the National Tsunami Warning Center, the most recent quake was not strong enough to generate a new tsunami warning. 

The epicenter of the Wednesday, September 16, quake was near the town of Illapel in the wine-producing region of Coquimbo. The earthquake caused ten casualties and the evacuation of 1 million people from their homes. A statement issued by Wines of Chile managing director Claudio Cilveti expressed deep sorrow “for all the workers and families” affected by the event. “We are attentive to the situation of those working in the viticulture industry who may have been affected,” he wrote.

Unlike the devastation in 2010, minimal damage has been reported. The Coquimbo region encompasses the northern valleys of Elqui, Limarí, and Choapa, and has a reputation for producing mineral-edged, bright, cool-climate expressions of grapes like syrah. A few wineries near the epicenter experienced buckled and cracked tanks but little loss of wine. According to Wines of Chile, because earthquakes are a way of life, building infrastructure is designed to withstand heavy, repeated seismic activity.

Giorgio Flessati of Viña Falernia, located in the Elqui Valley, injected a little poetry into his good-humored update, noting at 3:36 a.m. that “we are still ‘dancing.’ Another very strong one two minutes ago! We are tired of [it] but we cannot manage nature!” Falernia’s staff remained safe, but the winery lost close to 1,000 hectoliters of wine (over 130,000 750mL bottles), and 70 tanks were damaged. Nonetheless, Flessati stays committed to the relatively remote region, despite the dangers posed by Mother Nature. He believes the area gives unique “terroirs” to “different grapes,” adding “we are still alone after being the pioneer of the area, and we understand why: It's difficult and risky. But we love it.”

Tamy Rofe, partner and wine director at Cómodo (58 Macdougal Street, 646-580-3866) in Manhattan and Colonia Verde (219 Dekalb Avenue, 347-689-4287) in Brooklyn, loves Elqui's potential, too. The majority of labels she sources for her two pan-Latin restaurants come from producers, like Falernia, who experiment with South America's diversity of soils and microclimates. "As a consumer, it's hard to find boutique wines from Chile; most are mass-produced, cookie-cutter wines at a very good price. My role is to find small producers taking more risks with terroir-driven wines."

As opposed to the saturated vineyard region of the Central Valley near Santiago, for example, Rofe looks to the less developed San Antonio area of the Leyda Valley due to the influence the Pacific coast and cooler weather have on the wines; also, the Elqui Valley, which delivers "crisp, clean expressions" due to the cold nights and sunny days deriving from its proximity to the Atacama desert. "There are definitely gems in Latin America, and while the prices for these high-quality, handcrafted wines may be more than the average bottle of Chilean wine in the store, they are still a steal compared to similar wines from France or Italy."

To show your support for Chile this week, pick up a bottle or two of wine, ideally from one of the affected valleys, if for no other reason than that they're delicious and distinct. Frankly Wines (66 West Broadway; 212-346-9544)Chelsea Wine Vault (Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Avenue; 212-462-4244), Astor Wines (399 Lafayette Street; 212-674-7500), and Brooklyn's Fermented Grapes (651 Vanderbilt Avenue; 718-230-3216) all carry Elqui or Limarí Valley examples. Alternatively, grab dinner at Cómodo or Colonia Verde to sample from Rofe's thoughtfully curated wine list — that's what the Chilean winemakers do when they come to town.

Lauren Mowery is a drinks and travel writer, and Master of Wine candidate, based in NYC. She blogs at Chasing the Vine. Follow Lauren on Twitter @ChasingtheVine and Instagram @ChasingtheVine.

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Astor Wines & Spirits

399 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10003

212-674-7500

www.astorwines.com

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Chelsea Wine Vault

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