Casablanca grows up

Eduardo Brethauer charts the rise of Casablanca in Chile, which is navigating a quality revolution alongside water and labour shortages.

Valparaíso, Chile/Photo by Loïc Mermilliod on Unsplash
Valparaíso, Chile/Photo by Loïc Mermilliod on Unsplash

Nobody really knows why Casablanca is called Casablanca. The most plausible theory speaks of a large white house that watched over the lazy ruminations of dairy cows. While the house no longer exists, Casablanca is today recognised as a classic wine region. It’s a valley with almost 6,000 hectares of fine vines, recognised as the first coastal or cool climate D.O. in Chile. It’s also a tourist magnet and its port of Valparaíso is one of the 10 Great Wine Capitals of the world.

The town of Casablanca — baptised in 1753 as Santa Bárbara de Casablanca in honour of the wife of the Spanish king Ferdinand VI — represents the epicentre of the valley. Then it was a hamlet of right-angled streets and whitish adobe houses with coloured roofs and a church that kept the faith in better times. The town was a place of passage, a post to rest, drink mate and recover the horses, after a three-day pilgrimage along a dusty, mountainous track that connected the 100km or so between the capital Santiago and Valparaíso.

Although there was some winemaking activity, such as the small adobe cellars dedicated to the rustic País strain, the climate made viticulture highly challenging, maintained only by the thirst of priests and their parishioners. Commercial winemaking had to wait until the 1980s, when the former Concha y Toro winemaker Pablo Morandé went looking for a valley with the conditions to produce whites. Despite the warnings of the locals, he fixed his eyes on the Casablanca Valley due to its proximity to the capital and because the mountains and the sea breeze reminded him the landscape of Carneros in California.

“How is it going to freeze here if we are 18 kilometres in a straight line from the sea?” asked Morandé in 1982. He did not have to wait too long for his answer. Frost burned those first Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc plants to the roots.

A new region is born

A graduate in agricultural engineering, Ignacio Recabarren astonished his peers when they tasted the first wines he presented at the recently founded Viña Casablanca of Carolina Wine Brands. “They seem like wines from another country,” they said, used to the tired and rusty whites of the Central Valley. In the blink of an eye, Emiliana, Veramonte, Concha y Toro and Santa Rita established their presence. 

“The valley became an aspirational phenomenon. Now everyone wanted to be here. I went from dreamer to winner, from crazy to visionary,” Morandé would later comment.

In less than 40 years of existence, Casablanca can already be considered a sacred valley — perhaps even a modern classic — that set a new course for Chilean winemaking. To this day it maintains a distinctive personality, marked by the influence of the sea, the decomposing granite soils of the so-called Cordillera de la Costa and the temperature variation between day and night; it has a more continental climate compared with other coastal valleys, and is crossed by the hills that encase the sea winds and catch the morning mist.

The difference between Casablanca and other coastal valleys in Chile and the world is not only seen in its landscape, but it is also felt on the palate. “The wines of Casablanca give citrus fruit, a certain salinity and a sweetness that takes it away from the Old World,” said Ricardo Baettig, head winemaker at Viña Morandé, adding that the wines are more austere than is usual for a continental climate. “More elegant than showy. Perhaps a little more classic regarding varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They have their own character. An imprint. They could be considered as a middle way between New Zealand and Sancerre.”

Winemaker Gonzalo Bertelsen, general manager of Viña Casablanca, said the wines have more mouth-feel, with more mature fruit and lower natural acidity than the wines from Leyda or other coastal valleys. They are also less herbaceous. “We have, of course, to differentiate grapes from flat soils versus grapes from hillsides. The hills are more interesting, but they produce more expensive wines that we have to sell later,” he said.

The styles have also changed over time, from the days when the market demanded bigger and more alcoholic wines with a greater wood influence, to the more austere and fresh style of today, where the particular terroir of each vineyard is exalted. This is the case for the young Maurizio Garibaldi, who has chosen the valley to produce wines that are a long way from the status quo, with long cold fermentations and a more natural approach.

“Our history is very recent, since we started harvesting in 2015 in Casablanca,” he said. “But clearly we have been changing the style to wines with a lower alcohol content, harvested earlier and favouring a production of fresher wines, with greater acidity. We do not need to make corrections, a very important factor for the quality and longevity of the wines.”

The relationship between the vineyards and the different terroirs of Casablanca has been deepened with the incorporation of organic and biodynamic practices. Emiliana is one of the organic pioneers and is now probably the largest organic vineyard in the world, with more than 1,200 certified hectares, which are mainly in Casablanca and Colchagua. It is also the case with Viñedos Veramonte, today controlled by the Spanish group González Byass, which is now exclusively governed by organic precepts.

“We believe in the expression of our soils. They nourish our vineyards, give them character and make them unique. Organic work contributes to their recovery and enrichment, it strengthens the roots, which today have more depth and therefore absorb more nutrients. That is why we speak of living soils,” said Sofía Araya, head winemaker of Viñedos Veramonte. “We believe in minimal intervention and use native yeasts. This gives us elegant wines, where fruit is the protagonist. Without a doubt, they are kinder and fresher wines.”

Pricing issues

Everything has happened so fast that Casablanca is already suffering growing pains. The fluctuations in the price of its grapes, the increase in energy and labour costs, the inefficiency of its water wells and the loss of productivity of its older plantations because of viruses and nematodes, are undoubtedly the unwanted guests of this anniversary party.

“While it is true that the Casablanca grape has increased its price level over the years, the margins have decreased for the producer,” said Cristián Rodríguez, general manager of Emiliana, noting that the prices of Chilean wines have not risen in line with the costs of producing in the valley. “The product mix that Chile offers continues to be low- and medium-priced wines. We have a hard time selling high-end wines, especiallywhen they are white varieties.”

The increase in the cost of energy — specifically that used in frost controls — and the drop in production due to lack of water, means the grape prices are not always economic. “The key is to be able to produce products with a better margin that can be sold at a better average price than we were used to,” he added.

For Ricardo Baettig, Casablanca has the problem of being the first: the older brother syndrome. “Many successes were made, but also mistakes. Work was done with the knowledge and resources of the time, such as plant material that we now consider ancient or with problems, among them Pinot Noir from Dijon clones with viruses or Chardonnay from a selection called Mendoza that did not give the results in terms of quality,” he said.

The vineyards have been affected by frost and the diseases typical of ungrafted old vines, but also by a shortage of labour. “But without a doubt, the most difficult problem in recent years and critical for the future is the availability of water and the efficiency in its use,” said Paul Konar, general manager of Viña Cono Sur. “The great drought that has affected the country for more than 10 years has impacted this area strongly and the continuity of many vineyards will depend on the future availability of this resource.”

Nevertheless, Casablanca has also been the site of a quality revolution. Not only have many hectares been replanted with French clones and nematode-tolerant rootstocks, opening up the potential for different varieties, particularly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the range of grapes has also widened. Today Casablanca not only produces Sauvignon Blanc, but also Riesling, cold-climate reds such as fresh and spicy Syrah and Merlot, and a new generation of sparkling wines.

“Casablanca is going to establish itself as a high-quality valley for whites, Pinot Noir and some other red varieties,” said Rodríguez, imagining the next 40 years. He predicts there will be fewer hectares planted, because of water scarcity, with much more focus on higher-priced wines. “The tourism sector will also continue to be professionalised and the wineries will be able to show a great diversity in terms of tours, tastings and restaurants.” 

However, Bertelsen of Viña Casablanca sees a more complicated, difficult future. “I think the valley is going to reduce its planted hectares very strongly,” he warned. “We are losing power and planted areas. Tourism is a very good source of income, but what we need is to sell wines rather than tours.”

Baettig of Viña Morandé added: “I see the valley in a renaissance. More limited in volume, but with more projects that reflect the quality of its grapes.” 

Today Casablanca is being rebuilt with new materials, colours and possibilities, but ultimately it’s still the same story: a fight for transcendence — lifting Chile’s wine to the next level. 

Eduardo Brethauer

In figures

This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available online or in print by subscription.


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