Wine and mysticism merge in the impressive wines of the organic and biodynamic Argentine estate, Chakana. For publication in the week starting 25 March 2019.
On a road trip to Peru Juan Pelizzatti discovered the peoples of the Andes mountains and its wild landscapes. It was soon after the Pelizzatti family had founded a wine estate in May 2002. He and his wife decided their winery would be named Chakana, an indigenous Quechua word for the stars of the Southern Cross but with a range of other meanings.
“The Inca empire was based on the stars,” Pelizzatti told a group of wine journalists at a London tasting of his wine organised by the Circle of Wine Writers. Pelizzatti (shown below) said he had experienced major change in his life, moving from being an engineer focused on business to a man who loves agriculture and who has embraced organic and biodynamic grape-growing methods.
Viticulture in Mendoza in Argentina, where Chakana is based, had become too industrialised, adding too many chemicals. Hence the decision to become organic in 2012. The estate was certified organic two years later, and became certified by Demeter and fully biodynamic from the 2015 vintage. “We want to challenge the industrial way of making wine.”
In 2016 winemaker Monty Waldin published a book called Biodynamic Wine. It is reviewed here. “Biodynamics gives wine a unique sense of individuality,” Waldin told me during a Skype interview prior to publication. “The fewer external elements you bring into your vineyard, the more you have a chance to represent your terroir. Biodynamics produces healthier soil with more disease resistance, and deeper rooting plants.
“Terroir is about the micro-biology of the soil as much as it is about climate and location. Soil is held together by micro-organisms and if you distort or kill them [with pesticides] you lose the influence of terroir, that ‘somewhere-ness’ that makes a wine stand out.”
Chakana’s winemaking style involves minimal intervention in the winery. They use indigenous yeasts, minimise the level of sulphur and other additives, and age wines in foudres (5,000 litre barrels) and un-lined cement vats to preserve the grape’s character. “Our goal is to produce authentic wines that express the character and identity of the Andean soils,” Pelizzatti said, noting that working with low levels of sulphur was a challenge because it has become so much a part of modern winemaking.
The estate also practises Ayni, the Andean principle of reciprocity. “To receive something, you must first give.” Ayni is the name of two of his wines tasted in London. All Chakana’s excellent wines are a return to traditional methods, before winemaking became too “industrialised” to use Pelizzatti’s word.
The Chakana, also known as the Inca cross, is a structure that looks like steps on an equal-armed cross. These show the cardinal points of the compass. Pelizzatti said the Chakana was also used for navigation.
The winery is located in Agrelo in the province of Mendoza, with 80 hectares under vine around it. The company has four other vineyards all on the slopes of the Andes at an average elevation of 950 metres, though some are at 1300 metres. The height influences the number of hours of sunshine and the way grapes ripen.
The vineyards were planted with Malbec, Bonarda, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc between 2002 and 2011, along with several recent re-plantings. Gabriel Bloise is the winemaker.
Chakana wines have evolved to associate with their source, a connection to the mountains, local people and traditional values.
The Incas also called the stones used to divert water in their canals a chakana. Water has become a fascination for Pelizzatti, the son of an Italian who as a young man escaped to Argentina after the World War 2 . In a way Juan Pelizzatti was reviving a family legacy because his ancestors made wine around Valtellina in Italy in the nineteenth century.
Many of the clones on the estate have been chosen because they are drought resistant. The region only gets 200 mm of rain a year. Agriculture needs at least 600 mm to be sustainable. Water for the vines comes from melting snow. Vines are drip irrigated.
A blog on the Chakana web sites notes that Pelizzatti hired a Chilean consultant, Pedro Parra, to study the soils of the Agrelo estate. Parra recommended the work of Alan York, which led to the conversion to biodynamics. Alan York died in 2014 but left an indelible mark on Chakana, Pelizzatti said.
That year Pelizzatti went to the small village of Dartington in Devon in western England to attend a course at Schumacher College, a holistic school founded in 1990 by a group of ecologists. There, he wrote, he experienced “a change at all levels: spiritual and human”.
Perhaps this explains the names of the vineyards which provided some of the wines tasted in London. The 2018 Chakana Nuna Vineyard Malbec from the Lujan de Cuyo region is designed for everyday drinking. Nuna means soul in Spanish. The company makes 200,000 bottles of this juicy delight. Most other wines tasted are made in much smaller quantities.
Chakana makes two delightful reds from single varieties: The 2018 Sobrenatural Bonarda and the 2018 Sobrenatural Tannat, both grown in the Lujan de Cuyo region. Sobrenatural translates as supernatural, and the label offers a cute visual pun about the lack of sulphur. The 2018 Estate Selection Torrontes is an orange wine. Think of it as a white wine made like a red. Grapes are macerated for eight months. It has a superb nose of ginger and tropical fruits like passionfruit and lychees. Only 3,000 bottles were made for this first vintage, though I hope more will appear next year.
The 2018 Ayni Chardonnay (see earlier discussion about Ayni) is textural, smells like fresh bread and has a zesty freshness that reflects the calcerous and limestone soils of the Paraje Altamira region, where vines were planted at 1100 metres. Only 3,000 bottles were made.
Argentina is much better known for reds, especially those made from Malbec, but Pelizzatti believes white wines have a great future in the country, especially given the range of drought-resistant clones available. “I believe the future for Argentina is to show the regional differences associated with our range of terroir.”