Cool Climate Wines from Viña Leyda: A Dynamic Pioneering Wine Producer in Chile's Ultra-Cool Leyda Valley

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It is not everyday that I exclaim "oh my goodness" when I visit a wine region for the first time. Well it happened recently when I visited Viña Leyda in Chile’s ultra cool (or should I say cold) Leyda Valley. The Leyda Valley is rapidly, and deservedly so, gaining a reputation as a leading producer of refreshing, cool climate Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah wines.

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As we pulled up in our little mini-bus, the cooling afternoon misty fog had just come in from the sea and settled over the vineyards, which overlook the estuary of the Maipo River as it enters the ocean. As the photos depict, the scene was hauntingly beautiful and serene. We all clambered to find a jacket, a sweater or anything at all to feel warmer!

The first Leyda wine pioneer: Viña Leyda was the pioneer, the first to set up shop, plant vines and make its own wines in this ultra cool coastal region, which is just nine miles inland from the port of San Antonio. In fact Viña Leyda was responsible for the creation of the Leyda Valley D.O. Today Viña Leyda cultivates about 250 acres hectares of vineyard, out of a total of 5,000 acres planted in Leyda.

Cool, cool climate: The climate in Viña Leyda’s vineyards is definitely cool. The vineyards are situated on the west facing (toward the sea) side of the coastal mountains, so they are strongly influenced by the Pacific Ocean and particularly the Humboldt Current – a strong, cold ocean current that come inland along the coast of Chile and Peru. These significant cooling influences bring both early morning as well as afternoon fogs, creating an ideal growing environment for cool-climate grapes with bright flavors and crisp, refreshing natural acidity.

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The Viña Leyda Team: At Viña Leyda we were warmly welcomed by the energetic team comprising Viviana Navarrete, chief winemaker, Tomás Rivera, in charge of all things viticultural and Leandro Remedi (originally from Uruguay) who heads up their export business to the Americas. Ever the gentleman, Leandro, even offered up his jacket to one of our shivering ladies, Alyssa. Proof that chivalry is still very much still alive and well in Chile.

As we struggled to stay warm, Viviana, Tomas and Leandro explained the history of this region and the unique growing conditions that enable it to produce such excellent wines. We didn't doubt the cool climate claims – we could feel the it solidly in our bones!

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Understanding Leyda Soils: Tomas, who you can see in the dugout photo above, explained how the vines have to root deep in the soil to pick up important nutrients as well as the very interesting soil research they have undertaken to better understand its diversity. While their soils can generally be described as red clay over granite, Vina Leyda has identified and parcelated out 35 different individual blocks, each with its own unique micro-terroir.

Viviana explained that when the first planted vines, the rows all had a similar north-south orientation and a density of 3,000 vines/hectare. Today, based on their better understanding of the 35 different plots they have a whole mix of orientations, and planting densities have increased to 10,000 vines/hectare.

To further illustrate the coolness of the Leyda climate Tomas mentioned that Sauvignon Blanc is harvested three weeks later in Leyda than in neighboring Casablanca 23 miles to the north. To put this into context, Casablanca has become synonymous with Chilean cool-climate wines!

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The Leyda Train Station – A Symbol of History and Sensibility: I could not finish this post without due reference to the depiction on the Viña Leyda wine labels. No, it is not the winery, nor a famous house. Rather it is an authentic image of original Leyda train station. The station was the very lifeblood of this poor tourist town of circa 600 inhabitants. For decades the train brought bustling tourists and visitors from Santiago out to ocean beach just beyond Leyda. The Leyda train station was the last stop before the ocean.

Unfortunately the Leyda train station burned down in 1987 and has not been restored. Leyda is no longer a train stop; now the tourists pass by and the small town of just 600 inhabitants has significantly suffered.

Such was the beauty and renown of Leyda that the Chilean poet Luis Diaz Muñoz wrote a love poem about Leyda and the great Chilean writer Eduardo Barrios mentions Leyda in his book Gran Señor Y Rajadiablos.

Sadly, this is all in the past. But hopefully as the wine community grows the little town of Leyda will be revitalized. Ideas for projects are in the works at Viña Leyda projects to try rebuild the vibrancy, energy and life that symbolized the town before the fire. Perhaps, little by little, Leyda can regain some of its sense of importance.

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And now to tasting the Viña Leyda wines! Later that evening, in the warmer confines of a lovely restaurant in Santiago, we had dinner with Viviana and Leandro and tasted through their wines available in the United States.

2013 Viña Leyda Classic Sauvignon Blanc, Leyda Valley, $12: Pale, youthful color, the nose is an explosion of citrus, tropical and stone fruit aromas that pop from the glass with an attractive note of dried herbs and celery seed interwoven. On the palate the wine is packed with nicely defined juicy flavors that mirror the nose, with perhaps slightly more zestiness to the fore. The firm spine of crisp acidity makes for a very refreshing mouth feel and anchors the wine, reining in ever so slightly the frisky exuberance of flavors. Moderately long juicy finish.

2013 Viña Leyda Single Vineyard 'Garuma', Leyda Valley, $22: Minerally, racy, energetic and lithe were the first four words I wrote when tasting this single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc. Taut with a very fine-boned structure, the wine is elegant and lean but not mean. Ample aromas and flavors of citrus, stone and tropical fruit continue to unfold as the wine opens in the glass. They are intense but not loud. Pure with nuances of fresh nettle and sorrel and a distinctive stoniness that prevails all across the palate. It has a long, minerally, refreshing finish with an appealing spicy kick.

2012 Viña Leyda Pinot Noir Classic, Leyda Valley, $12: Refreshing, bright and lively with aromas and flavors of raspberry, cherry, wild strawberry. There is a lot of playful energy and flavor purity on the palate. Supple tannins are fine-grained and satiny. They perfectly frame the fruit, which is intense, focused and vibrant. Hints of wild herbs and a subtle earthiness add complexity. This wine shows lovely Pinot varietal typicity.

2012 Viña Leyda Single Vineyard Las Brisas, Leyda Valley, $22: Deep ruby in color with a compelling, complex nose – bright and nicely perfumed showing a medley of cherry fruit, wild strawberries, wild flowers and subtle, well-integrated toasty, spicy oak. Beautifully silky in texture, this wine rolls gently across the palate. It has a firm backbone of acidity that make for a very refreshing mouthfeel. Lots and lots of fruit concentration with flavors that slowly unfurl with each swirl and sip. Very refined and balanced, a lovely marriage of ripeness and freshness that shows focus and purity of fruit. It has a long, persistent finish.

For more on my recent travels to Chile see my primer on Chilean wine and my post on Root:1 wines.

(Image credits: Mary Gorman-McAdams, Alfredo Bartholemaus, Viña Leyda, and wine bottle shot from Jamie Goode / Wine Anorak)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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