It takes an incredible amount of courage, vision, and conviction to extend yourself and your reputation beyond the safe and revered confines of what you know. When you are Piero Incisa della Rochetta and your family produces Sassicaia, one of the world's most famous red wines, this becomes even more magnified.
Bodega Chacra produces delicate, soulful Pinot Noir from Patagonia, the southeastern wilderness of Argentina. Having tasted them several times, I can say with authority that they are easily the most impressive, most finessed and transparent (the most Burgundian!) Pinot Noirs outside of Burgundy. Piero never doubted the quality here because he found an incredibly tiny, very special vineyard with ancient pre-phylloxera vines. It's ironic that something which is so "new" is in fact very old.
The wines of Bodega Chacra send a message to Pinot Noir lovers and collectors everywhere: It's time to broaden your view and add another superb "terroir" to your file for world class Pinot. Though Piero has obviously had many wine insiders watching his moves in Patagonia, the reputation of his small Bodega Chacra project here has spread quietly and almost entirely through word of mouth. Critics like Stephen Tanzer have been quick to brand Chacra as Argentina's greatest winery, writing that the 2006 Treinta y Dos was "without question, the finest bottle I've tasted to-date from Argentina" (Note: the 2007 is even better). James Molesworth of the Wine Spectator praised the wines on his blog after a recent visit to the winery and the November 15th edition of the magazine has a profile on Patagonia as one of the more exciting wine regions in South America.
The Bodega Chacra practice is minimalist, though no expense is spared in the vineyard or in the cellar. The land is farmed biodynamically as Piero's mantra is to "let go of your need to control and trust that things are in nature's hands." Granted, having such faith is easier when you have extraordinary terroir, and as Piero notes, a distinct lack of pollution. This can't be over-emphasized: 76-year-old vines growing on their original rootstock without ever being abused by phylloxera.
The winery itself employs a style of vinification that combines modern materials with traditional and non-interventionist methods that have been used for centuries. As "laissez faire" as the winemaking itself may be in some ways, the attention and care given to the grapes on their way from the vine to the barrel borders on fanatical. To protect the grapes, they are hand-picked and gently placed in small boxes and refrigerated on the way to the winery to guard against high temperatures. Once there, Piero says: "We destem by hand - not one stem, not one leaf, not one bad grape gets through. It's me and thirty Argentinian women going through grape-by-grape. It's like caviar - you have to be very careful."
To be sure, the Bodega Chacra Pinot Noirs are NOT "high-octane". Rather, they have a higher pitch and shimmer with a finesse and balance with Burgundian grace (Piero's ultimate dream). Despite the fact that Patagonia has the longest luminosity anywhere in the world, the grapes don't get overripe thanks to a shocking diurnal cycle. The vineyards are located in what is essentially high desert with a river running through it. In a single day during the ripening season the high temperature will be 82 degrees while the low will be 48! The flagship single vineyard wine, the "Treinta y Dos," is a mere 12.5% alcohol, the true 'sweet spot' for all Burgundy producers.
More about Chacra
Bodega Chacra began as a dream in Piero Incisa della Rochetta's mind after tasting a Pinot Noir made for Humberto Canale by Hans Vinding-Diers. According to Piero "I became obsessed -- I woke up and went to sleep thinking about this wine". His obsession led him to try to replicate his experience on a larger scale.
Using his experience at Sassicaia ("the right terroir is all that you need") Piero scoured Northern Patagonia for a vineyard that could recreate the magic of the wine he had tasted from Hans. With a good deal of effort and a little bit of luck, he found a nearly abandoned vineyard with beautiful old vines -- 76 years old! -- all on its original rootstock.
The vineyard's owner initially refused to sell Piero the land, sensing that any commercial venture would fail. After a vintage of buying fruit from the gentleman, impressed with the results, Piero respectfully ignored the threat of bankruptcy and made a full commitment to pursue his dream by purchasing the vineyard.
This tiny vineyard (a mere 2.5-hectares) planted in 1932 is the foundation for the winery. A slightly larger 8.5-hectare parcel planted in 1955 provides for another single vineyard effort, while 15 additional hectares of new plantings near the 1932 vineyards create the raw material that go into the winery's Barda bottling.
While the rootstock was healthy, some of the vines themselves were in poor health. Piero and his team have begun the painstaking process of rehabilitating old vines so that they are more in balance. Vine-by-vine attention is given, whether trellising or replanting is needed. This is literally vineyard 'micro-management'.
Now on their fourth released vintage, the voraciousness of the birds, or "palomas", in the vineyard in 2004 destroyed much of the fruit. Piero and his crew tried a few different tactics but are are proud of the 'high-tech' response they settled on to keep the hungry birds away: local children with slingshots!
The Argentinian definition of Chacra directly refers to the local plots of land surrounded by poplar/Alamos trees, though the wines' relationship to the energy centers cannot be denied. Speaking of Chakra, all things have come full circle as the winemaker that sparked the dream in his mind (Vinding-Diers) makes the wine today at Chacra.
Indigenous yeasts are used for the initial spontaneous fermentation in 200 liter cement vats that minimize heat exchange during fermentation. The wines are aged for around 12 months in oak barrels, only 20% of which are new and whose toast is light to emphasize terroir.
Where in the World?
Rio Negro (Black River) refers both to the eponymous river as well as the Argentinian province in Northern Patagonia where Bodega Chacra is located.
620 miles south of Buenos Aires, 1240 miles north of Tierra del Fuego, and laterally equidistant from the Andes mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, according to Piero, this is "not postcard pretty terrain." It was, however, a haven for Europeans kicked out of Buenos Aires in the early 1900s, and Italian ex-pats planted grapes here that included Pinot Noir -- however just a handful of wineries remain and many vineyards have been abandoned.
Notably, the province also produces almost 70% of the apples and pears of the country as well as tomatoes, onions, and berries ... and the Rio Negro River is the host to the longest Kayak race in the world, the Regata del Rio Negro.