Friday, December 17, 2010

An introduction to Casablanca Valley, Chile.

For many exploring the Chilean wine regions, Casablanca will be a first stop. Its proximity to Santiago and simple layout are quite attractive to those just arriving to the country. Though it is dominated by large commercial producers and has a history of barely 30 years there are many curious things about this valley, and many purport that it is the birthplace of international recognition of Chilean wines.

Although I have sold and tasted many Chilean wines from Casablanca, I was unfamiliar with its history and unique geography. So here’s a little I have learned from various sources throughout my time in Casablanca:

morning fog in an undeveloped part of the valley

Casablanca valley’s vineyards are extremely young. Vines were first planted in the 1980’s after the Leyda valley, further south, was examined and found suitable for viticulture but with no water supply. Casablanca is close to the Pacific but sheltered from its moderating influences by the Coastal range that blocks some of the ocean air. This results in cool conditions with large day-to-night temperature variations and occasional frosts. Morning fog in addition to the climate favors slow ripening in the region. Harvest occurs in late February to May.
a view of Casablanca from Indomita

Before irrigation Casablanca was a desert valley. In the 1970’s, the large Concha y Toro winery hired Pablo Morandé to find a suitable place for groundbreaking whites to be produced. Though he initially favored Leyda, lack of easy irrigation turned his eyes toward Casablanca Valley. The valley reminded him of regions in California, even down to the types of natural flora and fauna - long, tough grasses; brittle, dry shrubs; rabbits and game birds. Concha y Toro pulled out of the project but Morandé stayed and began farming 20 hectares with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Within the next decade over 4,000 hectares were planted, and Morandé was named "King of Casablanca" by Wine & Spirits Magazine and "Professional of the Year" by the Chilean Wine Corporation. Casablanca was awarded the status of DO in 1995. Now the valley is planted with around 2000 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, 2300 hectares of Chardonnay, 700 hectares of Pinot Noir, and 100 hectares of Syrah.

The soils of Casablanca are variable, but are typically a sandy loam on top of clay, sand, and gravel. Though phylloxera has not made it to the region (and some argue could not survive in the area) the valley does have an issue with nematodes, thus requiring the vines to be planted on tolerant rootstock. Casablanca is the only region in Chile that demands rootstock. Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay thrive here; most of the other red grapes contributing to wines produced by Casablanca wineries are grown in other DOs such as Colchagua.

Wineries in Casablanca tend to be relatively easy to visit. The valley only spans approximately 24 kilometers with the Highway 68 running straight through. The wineries are located along the 68 or along the wine route near the city of Casablanca. Most accept visits without reservations, but if you'd like a more personal tour reservations are highly recommended. Everything is closed for a 3-day period in December from the 7th to the 9th. This is the religious festival of Lo Vásquez, during which more than one million people make the pilgrimage from Valparaíso and Santiago to the Vásquez temple located just west of Casablanca Valley. Alcohol is not permitted to be sold or even shown during this time… they even cover all the wine in the tasting room with sheets!

The church of Lo Vasquez, the endpoint of the Chilean pilgrimage.

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