Elqui: a desert vineyard in the driest place on earth

Date:22-02-2014 08:58:12 read:2

Elqui: a desert vineyard in the driest place on earth

The fringes of the Atacama Desert might not sound like a suitable spot for a vineyard, but Giorgio Flessati disagrees...

One-man show: the vineyards of the Elqui Valley, irrigated by meltwater from the Andes  Photo: Alamy

The Elqui Valley. I’d wanted to come here for ages. On the edge of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, Elqui is a narrow canyon that chisels into the Chilean Andes. It’s papaya and pisco country. They also grow wine grapes: Elqui is one of Chile’s newest wine regions and the most northerly, defying the laws of heat and latitude with its proximity to the equator to produce so-called “cool climate” syrah that has created quite a buzz.

After three flights from London, I finally arrived at La Serena, where an Italian called Giorgio Flessati was to meet me. I knew Giorgio’s wines from supermarket tastings but was curious to see the land they came from and find out more about the other growers in Elqui. Would their syrahs have the same inky intensity and black peppercorn bite?

Giorgio was easy to spot, obviously European, wearing a fuchsia collared T-shirt.

It didn’t feel too sticky as we piled into his Mitsubishi L200 truck but I knew it would get hotter as we drove inland, away from the sea breezes cooled by Antarctic currents, and into the mountains.

The story of how Giorgio fetched up in this remote corner of Latin America began in 1953, when two Flessatis and their children moved here as part of a post-war deal between the Chilean and Italian governments. They acquired land — “And then I came to visit and within 60 minutes of getting off the plane I tasted one of the grapes they grow to make pisco and said to my cousin Aldo, 'This place would be brilliant for syrah.’”

I looked out of the car window. There were a lot of cacti in this climate. Not the first thing that makes me think, “Perfect for syrah.” There was no obvious reason for it to be clear to Giorgio either – yes, he’d consulted in Australia but spent most of his winemaking career in Italy.

What was here before, I asked as we swung into the first vineyard, planted on cousin Aldo’s land in 1998. Giorgio gestured to the orange dust and hairy cacti beyond. “That.”

The sunlight in Elqui is dazzling; the UV radiation so intense it’s illegal not to supply outdoor workers with sunblock. It’s rained just twice here in the last 18 months.

“We irrigate,” he said, shrugging. “Water is like gold. You buy rights to a share of the channels that carry the meltwater down from the Andes.”

I’d imagined a few scraps of land, reclaimed here and there from the Andean slopes. Instead there was hectare after hectare of vines: it was as if Giorgio had painted the valley green.

I wasn’t sure whether to believe him when he told me he never needed anaesthetic at the dentist. “I’m so relaxed, I just go to sleep,” – but he drove me to his highest vineyard, at 6,300ft, and I tasted the grapes for myself. The vines were old – PX and moscatel originally planted for pisco – skirted by a dry Inca irrigation channel. We got there by swerving onto a track that ascended in steep hairpins with an even steeper drop. “Don’t worry,” – flashing a big grin – “Are you worried? Don’t worry, it’s safe.”

The logistics of the operation were mind-boggling. Even lower down, Giorgio said, the cost per case was an extra $2 in transport – of dry goods from Santiago and bottles of wine back.

At the winery – vast, and crammed with huge stainless-steel tanks — the crazy scale of his project became clear. Why had it not occurred to me that if he was selling to Majestic, Waitrose and M & S then there must be a lot of wine?

It was slowly dawning on me that Giorgio wasn’t just the pioneer who had put Elqui on the Wines of Chile map. This whole valley was a one-man show. I Googled and found a Danish guy had set up a small outfit in 2011. And then I called Anita Jackson at Wines of Chile. She hadn’t even heard of the Dane. “Yes, it’s just Giorgio as far as I know. No one else actually makes wine there. A few have vineyards – de Martino, for example – or buy grapes.”

And what a one-man show. Giorgio was making 1.6 million bottles a year and said he could plant another 200 hectares — but couldn’t get the staff. “You have no idea what it’s like being a European trying to work here. No idea.”

We tried his wines. I wanted to like them more but the viognier was flat, the chardonnay tasted wrong. I only liked the syrahs and a PX.

I also liked Elqui. Like Giorgio, it had a kind of magic. Especially at night when the stars come out. You can see the Southern Cross, blue-tinged Sirius, and Jupiter, bright as a car headlight. “The real reason I came here,” said Giorgio as we stood in an observatory that night, “is pollution. I’ll show you a map later. All of the world’s pollution, all of it, is headed to the northern hemisphere.”

The next day I got ready to leave, still a little unclear about the reasons for this huge, quixotic enterprise. You still haven’t explained what made you believe syrah would work here, I said to Giorgio as the truck careened downhill. “Call it intuition – just a feeling,” he smiled.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013