#CWWM Patagonia desert trooper

INTERVIEW: New York. Tuscany. Río Negro. Three rather distinct places to call home. But that’s how Piero Incisa della Rochetta refers to them, and the Italian owner of Bodega Chacra has a particular fondness for the latter, where he started to make Patagonian Pinot Noir against the odds 11 years ago.

Piero Incisa has a nose for the  job.
Piero Incisa has a nose for the job.

“The sky is endless in Patagonia: you feel like a midget in the land of giants. I never want to leave the place but I have to sell the wine. Plus, I have some obligations to my family’s vineyards and that means I have to travel,” he tells me.

Besides owning Chacra – a three vineyard estate in Argentina’s desert-like Río Negro province that he founded in 2004 – Piero is also a third-generation member of Tuscany’s Tenuta San Guido dynasty. So when he says “obligations to my family’s vineyards,” he means the prestigious Sassicaia Super Tuscan that falls under the equally prestigious Bolgheri DOC.

Adapting to desert
It’s under that extensive blue sky that drops into the desert of Río Negro, however, where Piero spends half the year, pruning, harvesting, racking, barreling and undertaking PR as well as any other tasks that need attending to. A small enterprise with a 100,000-bottle capacity that sells Pinot Noir under the Barda and Chacra lines, and Merlot under Amor Seco and Mainque, the story behind Chacra is a labour of love that demanded considerable energy to see it to fruition.

The stars aligned round about the time Piero blind-tasted a Pinot Noir from Río Negro and his cousin Countess Noemi Marone Cinzano purchased a small winery, Noemia, in the same Argentine province. Growing grapes in this seemingly barren Patagonian land to make high-quality wine – never mind Pinot Noir – however, seemed a crazy prospect. That was until Piero discovered the substantial perks of this Patagonian desert.

He tells me: “I came to visit Bodega Noemia in 2003 and looked down from the plane thinking, ‘this is a joke’ because all I could see was desert. The luminosity was very intense, it looked very hot and it wasn’t land that I would have commonly associated with Pinot Noir.

Farming methods are organic and biodynamic at Bodega Chacra.
Farming methods are organic and biodynamic at Bodega Chacra.

“But in the case of this desert, it has a river – the Río Negro – which was 22 miles wide in certain spots yet shrank over five million years to create a valley. In terms of soil, you have limestone, clay and sand and pebbles at a metre deep. In addition, water comes from the Andes so as it crosses the mountains, it passes through the pebbles, is cleansed further and increases in minerality.“

Renting a vineyard
Intrigued by the fruits from this Patagonian desert, Piero first rented vines and worked two successful harvests that caught the eyes of some beady journalists before making the vineyards a permanent portfolio fixture. Eleven years on and Chacra comprises three estates: the first a small parcel of around two hectares that yields around 7,000 to 8,000 bottles; the second planted in 1955 can yield up to 35,000 bottles; and a third planted 25 years ago that yields around 70,000 bottles.

Piero says: “I rented a vineyard that had been planted in 1932 by an Italian immigrant, who sold it on to another Italian immigrant. That guy was going to rip out the Pinot Noir vines and create an orchard because he said ‘the plants were very old and produced very little.’ But everything he said was very attractive to me. He sold grapes by the kilo and didn’t make fine wine so while it seemed like a losing proposition, it was actually something I was looking for.”

While purchasing a vineyard sounds straightforward enough, constructing a winery in the desert was a mission. Piero says: “Nothing has been easy and it’s been an incredible undertaking – this is the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. If I knew then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have done it. Because it’s been all uphill.

Pinot from Patagonia, please.
Pinot from Patagonia, please.

“I could give you 300 different reasons as to why this was a very hard project: the fact that Argentina is known for Malbec and not Pinot Noir; the fact that we are in what’s considered to be the New World; the fact that New World Pinot is usually discarded and not taken seriously by Pinot lovers; the fact we are in South America, for example.

“It’s also been difficult as we have to shift the way people perceive Argentina – it’s seen as producing good yet inexpensive wine – good juice. But when you talk about fine wine, Argentina isn’t perceived like France or Italy, which I think is a mistake, as there are very good climatic conditions here to yield excellent wines. We aren’t representing ourselves as we should.”

Overcoming hurdles and thanks to Piero and his team’s tenacity, these past 11 years have seen Team Chacra – comprising manager Paolo Costantino, consulting oenologist Hans Vinding-Diers and in-house oenologist Gabriele Graia — reap many an accolade and chakras have become aligned when it comes to receiving recognition outside of Argentina for the winery’s organic and biodynamic products. However, Piero says Argentina still has a lot of work to do in terms of profile raising.

This is where the magic happens at Bodega Chacra.
This is where the magic happens at Bodega Chacra.

However, Chacra 32 Pinot Noir 2012 – named after the first vineyard he bought – picked up glowing ratings from wine critics James Suckling (97 points) and Tim Atkin (94 points) in May, while Spanish critic Luis Gutiérrez from The Wine Advocate is about to sample some wares on site in Río Negro.

Piero adds: “Luis Gutiérrez is coming to Chacra this month and it’s a big honour as Argentina tends to come last in terms of priorities for most wine critics. We are very honoured and super excited about his visit. We’ve been heralded as one of the best value Pinot Noir in the world and recently received 97 points from James Suckling so we are doing great. However, we need to work on showing that this beautiful country can produce something of consequence, and not just meet the public’s expectations.”

Barda Pinot Noir 2012 costs around 355 pesos.
Chacra 55 Pinot Noir costs around 830 pesos.
Chacra 32 Pinot Noir costs around 1,400 pesos.

All photos courtesy of Bodega Chacra.

Last week’s Come Wine With Me featured a new producer making wine at 2,590 metres near Cafayate, Salta.

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