Rodrigo Soto wants to update our notions about Chilean wine. “I’m happy to be an ambassador,” he says, explaining that he is intent on delivering “a clear message” about a category that deserves a second look.
Soto, a native of Chile, is chief winemaker at Huneeus Vintners, a company whose brands span both Chile and California. After spending nearly a decade working at wineries in the Golden State, including Benziger in Sonoma, Soto returned to Chile. He is uniquely positioned to tell the story of an evolving portfolio of wines. On a recent visit to Boston, he’s eager to dispel the idea that Chilean pours are merely cheap and cheerful.
The slender country of Chile, stretching nearly 3,000 miles along South America’s west coast, epitomizes geographic diversity. Soto talks about its volcanos, as well as the deserts in the north and fjords to the south. That varied topography, he observes, begins to explain why the country — with its array of grapes growing in a profusion of microclimates — cannot be characterized by one flagship varietal, like malbec in Argentina. Chile’s wine identity isn’t easy to peg, and that poses a challenge when communicating with export markets.
An even bigger challenge has to do with past impressions. Emerging from the political upheaval of the 1970s and 1980s, the Chilean wine industry found its footing and grew by leaps and bounds, coming to be known for its value wines. But in the rush of growth, many bargain-oriented whites suffered from unpleasant vegetal notes, while reds proved unremarkable. Those notions still linger, and are often generalized to higher-priced pours.
Soto is keen on changing minds. “I’m part of a group that’s saying ‘It can be done,’ ” he says, referring to a mission he shares with colleagues to increase quality and raise the reputation of these bottles. One of his key undertakings is converting the company’s Chilean vineyards to organic and biodynamic farming.
In cool-climate Casablanca Valley, an hour’s drive from Santiago, Soto crafts a line of wines called Ritual. A 2014 pinot noir utilizes whole cluster fermentation in a portion of the blend. Fermenting entire bunches — stems and all — adds both lift and complexity to the final product, which offers persistent notes of berry, food-friendly acidity, and an alcohol profile that is quite ripe but balanced.
A 2014 sauvignon blanc is made in part by fermenting wine in egg-shaped concrete tanks. Aromas of nectarine, white flowers, and grapefruit lead to a lightly tropical palate that offers a little textural grip. Time in the porous material, he explains, allows the wine to breathe and develop.
“To be interesting, wine needs to evolve,” he says. Soto is referring to the development of the aromatic white in concrete, but he’s also talking about how Chilean wines are progressing toward greater distinctiveness. It’s a message that comes through loud and clear.
Ritual Pinot Noir 2014 (around $20) is at BRIX Wine Shop, Financial District, 617-542-2749; Whole Foods River Street, Cambridge, 617-876-6990. Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (around $18) is at Giorgiana’s, South End, 617-542-0101; Harvest Co-op Market, Cambridge, 617-661-1580.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at email@example.com.