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See You Sooner, Leyda

How long does it take a wine region to become famous? In the case of Chile’s Leyda Valley, it came almost instantaneously. 

Viña Leyda planted the first vines in Leyda Valley in 1997, less than 20 years ago. By 2001, Leyda Vally had already received its D.O.  When I visited Montes winery near Curico in 2004, the late Douglas Murray, one of the winery’s founders, was already praising Leyda as a cool-weather region.  My notes from that visit read: “Murray thinks Leyda can rival Casablanca in quality as a cool-grape area, but notes it will not have the arable acreage to produce volume.”  Today, no discussion of Chilean wines seems complete without a nod to Leyda, especially for its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Leyda is a somewhat upland, hilly area west of Santiago just off Route 78 and just east of San Antonio, almost adjacent to the cold Pacific Ocean. Its soils are largely loam and clay with granite underneath.  Previously, the area was known only as a place to grow grain and for its pasture land.  It looked promising for winegrowing except for one thing – there was not sufficient water to plant vineyards.

“We first needed to provide a source for irrigation,” says Viviana Navarrete, winemaker at Viña Leyda, “so we constructed a pipeline eight kilometers [about five miles] long to bring water from the Maipo River.” While the pipeline opened up Leyda Valley for winegrowing, its size also limits the amount of vineyard plantings that can be supported there for now.

Viña Leyda produces mostly, but not exclusively, wine from the Leyda Valley – Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Pinot Noir and Syrah from 230 hectares [about 570 acres] of grapes. In 2007, Viña Leyda became part of Viña Tabalí group and is now owned by VSPT. Winebow is its American importer.

“We have a lot of fog, so botrytis is the big problem in the valley,” Navarrete explains. “Everything gets damp in the vineyards each morning – your boots get wet if you walk there – then we have wind, then sunshine. Normally vines in Chile are planted north-south, but we plant ours east-west to take advantage of the wind.”

Navarette’s Pinot Noirs have concentrated, but not heavy, fruitiness, a touch of refreshing tanginess and defining bitters around the edges.  The 2013 Viña Leyda “Lot 21” Pinot (about $30) is especially nice, with dark cherries and hints of vanilla and cola. Syrahs and other Mediterranean grapes are receiving a lot of attention by several wineries in various areas of Chile, and Navarrete’s Syrahs are first rate – though Winebow doesn’t carry them at present. The 2014 “Canelo” single vineyard Syrah is delicious, with an opening taste of bright and spicy fruit, balanced by rich, earthy, savory flavors – the Chilean equivalent of garrigue.

“It’s challenging to ripen Syrah,” Navarrete says. “We began harvesting with Sauvignon Blanc on March 3 but didn’t finish with Syrah until May 15. Typically we have to do three green harvests to help ripen it.”  For Pinot Noir, she is working with nine different clones, mostly planted on their own roots, and uses 10-15 percent whole-cluster fermentation to give more structure.  She prefers farming Pinot on the areas of the valley with granitic soil to give the wine “more nerve.”

Although there are land and water limitations, there are several popular Chilean wineries that have joined Viña Leyda and Montes, either with their own vineyards in Leyda or by buying grapes from there.  In the glamorous world of winemaking, Leyda Valley has gone from being a precocious child to a sophisticated adult, right before our eyes.

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