Ritual Wines: Connected to the Land in Casablanca Valley, Chile

The casual wine drinker may not give dirt much thought, but rest assured winemakers think a lot about it. Every winemaker I have asked about the soil types in their vineyards knows the exact composition and variation within specific vineyard blocks. Talk to a winemaker using grapes grown organically or biodynamically and the discussion moves to a higher level. Terms like soil fertility, composting, tilling and cover crops become part of the conversation. Building the soil naturally to promote self-sustained fertility replaces talk of the use commercial fertilizers.

We recently sat in on a discussion with winemaker Rodrigo Soto, who is directing the organic (and ultimately biodynamic) conversion of multiple Chilean estates owned by Huneeus Vintners. Ritual Wines, located in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, was the focus of this discussion which included a tasting of three wines produced by Ritual Wines which we received as tasting samples. The informative discussion included a bit of history as well as details of the vineyard practices and techniques used by Rodrigo in the wine cellar.

Location, Dirt & Farming Practices

Map from http://www.winesofchile.org

Chile’s Casablanca Valley is a coastal region located west of Santiago. Summer days are warm and dry, evenings are very cool thanks to the cooling breezes blowing inland off the cold Humboldt current in the Pacific Ocean. A t-shirt will do nicely on a summer day, but you will need a sweater in the evening. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are very happy growing in this cooler region.

In the 1990s, when Agustin Huneeus purchased an 800-acre ranch in the remote coastal area, it was home primarily to sheep ranches and dairies. It was unknown which grape varieties would thrive in the area. Huneeus initiated plantings of a variety of grapes on his ranch to see what would succeed in this unmapped region. He built a winery and winemaking followed.

Decomposed granite is a major component of the variable soil types within the valley. Largely, these soil types are low in fertility. A farmer using conventional practices would enrich the soil with commercial fertilizers. Not so in the Ritual vineyards. Organic farming practices are followed which include composting, cover crop management and tilling. According to Rodrigo, conventional fertilizers cause rapid growth of the vines, which increases the vine’s demand for water, but does not promote the development of the vine’s root system. Hot weather and a lack of water can result in stress to the vines leaving them unable to respond accordingly.

Organic practices enrich the soil by recycling manure and pomace (from winemaking) into the soil to build soil fertility and encourage root development. That root development is the essence of the grape vine’s ability to not only respond to the stresses of changing weather, but to also reflect a sense of place in terms of flavor, according to Rodrigo.

He is quick to admit he has no hard science to back his claim, but he knows from experience that organically-farmed grape vines react better to the stresses of heat. As he puts it, “Organic vineyards age with grace,” resulting in vines that are naturally able to adapt to changing weather. And Rodrigo has noticed an increase in the number of hot days in the Casablanca Valley.

One more note on vine roots. With the exception of some experimental plantings made on various rootstocks, the vineyards at Ritual are own-rooted. Rodrigo feels that own-rooted vines have a greater capacity to produce fruit reflective of the site. This topic is an emerging science and one that has not escaped his attention.

The conversion to organic farming practices is complete in the Ritual vineyards. The certification process takes three years to complete and Rodrigo expects certification after the 2016 harvest.

Winemaking & Wine

The primary goal of winemaking at Ritual Wines is to produce wine that reflects the Casablanca Valley site. Rodrigo believes farming organically produces the best aromatics and preserves bright flavors in the grapes. Then, in the wine cellar he does his best to preserve the aromatics and build on the flavors. He utilizes only native yeast fermentations which tend to be longer and cooler than those initiated with a large dose of commercial yeast. The result, Rodrigo believes, is a softer wine (in the case of red wines less tannic) and wine more reflective of the site. Winemaking includes the use of stainless steel, concrete eggs and neutral oak for fermentation followed by judicious oak aging.

2015-Ritual-Sauvignon-Blanc2015 Ritual Sauvignon Blanclight yellow in the glass with complex aromas that are a blend of dried hay with delicate floral and tropical notes. The flavors follow the aromas and include pleasing minerality, dried hay and hints of white flowers. The finish is a bit salty, which is interesting, and flavors last a very long time with juicy acidity. 14% abv. SRP $17.99

Sauvignon Blanc thrives in the warmer areas of the Casablanca Valley. It is planted in three vineyard sites on the estate, each lending unique aromatic and flavor qualities. Fermentation takes place in 30% neutral oak barrels, 30% concrete eggs and 40% stainless steel. The combination of concrete and neutral oak builds texture in the wine and assures ageability in the bottle.

2015-Ritual-Chardonnay2015 Ritual Chardonnaystraw yellow in the glass with citrusy and toasty aromas. Mainly citrus flavors combine with a hint of ripe pear, nice body and weight in the mouth, bright acidity and a fairly long finish. 14% abv. SRP $19.99

Chardonnay is planted in the warmer locations within the Ritual vineyards – on north-facing slopes in the Southern Hemisphere. Soils are decomposed granite mixed with clay, so the roots can easily penetrate it. Warmer locations help develop flavors in the fruit, but the low fertility of the soil keeps the fruit from becoming too sweet.

Fermentation takes place in 20% concrete egg, the balance in neutral oak. Oak is used to augment flavor and develop texture, but without trampling the fruity character of the Chardonnay.

2015-Ritual-Pinot-Noir2015 Ritual Pinot Noirbright ruby in the glass with dark fruit and toasty aromas. Bright raspberry and blackberry flavors combine with nice acidity and a hint of vanilla. With time in the glass, this wine gains complexity with added flavors of dried alfalfa and subtle smoke. Tannins are smooth and well integrated into the flavors of the wine which is light to medium bodied. The finish is moderate, at least, in length. The longer this wine remained in the glass, the more I enjoyed the flavors. Give it time. 14% abv. $19.99

A variety of Pinot Noir clones are planted in the Ritual vineyards and Rodrigo seeks to produce a Pinot Noir with freshness and finesse. 20-25% whole clusters are used in open-top fermenters with careful attention to prevent over extraction. Less than 25% new oak is used in aging the Pinot Noir for 11 months. Over time, Rodrigo has decreased the length of oak aging, always tasting and learning in order to produce a Pinot Noir that is most expressive of the site.

Rodrigo returned to his native Chile four years ago after a number of years working in the California wine industry. During his time abroad he deepened his knowledge of the principles of organic and biodynamic farming, and learned a thing or two about soil. He is clearly very excited about the potential of organic and biodynamic farming, and thankful for the support of Mr. Huneeus in this venture. When the organic conversion is completed on all three of the Chilean properties Rodrigo currently directs, 1200 acres will be added to the total number of acres farmed organically in Chile. No small accomplishment.

One Last Point

It is not at all remarkable to me that Rodrigo succeeds in producing delicious wine in the Casablanca Valley of Chile, but I am very impressed he is able to do so at a price-point under $20 using organic and biodynamic practices. I admit a bias in favor of wines produced using these farming practices, but always the wine must be delicious as well – and affordable. When a winemaker succeeds on all three counts, it is noteworthy.

Many thanks to Rodrigo Soto for his time explaining the details of his farming practices and winemaking at Ritual Wines  and for the opportunity to sample the wines. As usual, the folks at Charles Communications Associates did an outstanding job distributing tasting samples and organizing the tasting.


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