With a global footprint that stretches from Burgundy to New Zealand, Pinot Noir is among the world’s most prized grape varieties. Despite the variety’s notoriously finicky reputation, winemakers are expanding their Pinot Noir plantings, bringing light reds to more tables worldwide.
Historically, France, California, and Oregon tended to dominate conversations about Pinot Noir, while South American versions were used in bulk production, familiar to those of us indulging in $5 boxes or dorm-room magnums.
Now, however, some of the best, refined, and most affordable Pinot Noirs are emerging from South America’s jagged coastlines and high-elevation deserts.
All the best Pinot Noirs across the globe, including those from Napa, Sonoma, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and Chile, have a maritime influence, whether it comes directly from the ocean or via another large body of water. In Chile’s Casablanca and Elqui Valleys, the Pacific Ocean and Elqui River moderate an otherwise harsh climate.
Standing in Chile’s Leyda Valley on a summer morning with winemaker Matias Cruzat, I noticed a thick fog enveloping the vineyard, and was immediately reminded of Sonoma. By noon, the sky was clear and the chill was gone, replaced by sunshine so bright it demanded sunglasses and SPF 30 (minimum).
And on clear afternoons in the Leyda, Casablanca, and Elqui Valleys, you can see out to the ocean, not unlike areas of Napa and Sonoma. The morning fog-afternoon sun weather pattern almost perfectly mirrors the weather in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.
Cruzat, winemaker for Chile’s Vina San Pedro 1865, believes these patterns and geographic parallels make South America perfect for high-end Pinot Noir. In Elqui, where 1865 produces its single-vineyard Pinot Noir, moderate temperatures ensure slow, even ripening. Its 2016 bottling, a bright, cherry-hued red that’s refreshing with steak or chilled on a hot summer day, is a perfect example of this top quality. Better still, it sells for a mere $16 in the U.S.
Because the Southern Hemisphere harvest occurs during North America’s winter — quiet time in the winery — an incredible exchange of winemaking expertise has developed between Northern and Southern Hemisphere producers. Such prominent Old World and California wineries as Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, Napa’s Paul Hobbs, and others have explored the unique terroir of these emerging South American regions.
Cruzat, the hands behind that 1865 Pinot Noir, benefited directly from this North-South sharing of winemaking expertise. He worked harvests in California’s Central Coast — another budding Pinot Noir region — before returning home to craft these wines. The label highlights exceptional vineyards across Chile’s winegrowing regions, and is fighting Chile’s bulk reputation at home and abroad with its brightly scented, juicy bottles.
Kingston Family Vineyards, a fourth-generation family estate in Chile’s northern Casablanca region, also produces beautiful Pinot Noirs. It’s guided by the Chilean-American team of Amael Orrego and Byron Kosuge, both of whom bring expertise from Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Smooth and filled with wild berry aromatics, Kingston’s Tobiano Pinot Noir is half the price of many California bottles.
On the other side of the Andes, Pinot is flourishing in the dry, high-desert climate of Argentina’s Patagonia and Rio Negro regions. Less spicy than their light-bodied Chilean neighbors, Argentina’s Pinots are fruit-driven and medium-bodied, making them a perfect match for bold flavors. They too offer considerable value over North American equivalents.
Because South American Pinot Noirs are often overshadowed by Americans’ thirst for Malbec, or relegated to “value” bottom shelves, these wines often offer the complexity of a $50 bottle at less than half the price.