What do you see when you look in the mirror?
A funny fat guy.
Where did you grow up?
I grow up in Concepcion, the second most important city in Chile, about 500 kms south of Santiago. It is the capital of the Bio Bio region, beside the beautiful sea. The soils are a mixture of fantastic granite and schist. Very much like Côte Rotie-Hermitage.
What drew you to wine?
Destiny, I guess. I was the only international student at the masters program in Montpellier, and the only one without a research topic. They sent me to the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon to work in the soil lab, where two other people were working on terroir research for the Côtes du Rhône. That was 1998.
What do you say to people who claim there is no terroir in the New World?
I don’t say anything. In the early days I would start a fight. Now I’m older, I say bad luck for them: they need to travel more, taste more, and understand that geological phenomena are the same everywhere. I think it is a defensive attitude for some guys against the talented people working in the New World. The New World is progressing quickly – within 50 years we have started to reach an interesting point. The Old World took 1,000 years.
What are the most important components of terroir to you?
Humans: They need to play music with the soil, roots, rain, rocks etc... it is all about interpretation. You can play the tune in several ways. I used to think [the answer was] climate, because wines that I used to love came from a special climate: more cloudy, where you keep fantastic acidity and pH balance. But I’m a rock lover and I really enjoy blind tasting by rock – trying to find the signature of a schist, or limestone or granite.
What is the key to making good carmenere?
To pray [to] have a hot climate and clever winemaking. Carmenere is complicated, and loves porosity in the soil to develop big deep roots. The main problem is that these kind of soils are usually related with high water tables, so you need to pay attention and work at a micro-level. It is not easy.
Why do you think Chilean carmenere hasn’t been as successful in terms of sales as Argentine malbec?
Many reasons. Malbec is a happy grape: to make a correct malbec is so easy. Carmenere is the opposite. You have a high chance that it will be green, or short in the mouth, or simple. You need to fine-tune and that is complicated. So many people produce very bad carmenere. Even so, I have to admit, we are improving. For me, carmenere is not the way for Chile as a single vineyard wine, but it can be fantastic in blends. Carmenere is like cabernet franc – a variety that is for blending, but sometimes produces superb varietal wines.
Which areas in Chile are most exciting for you?
As a consultant, I will say Limari, Leyda, Cachapoal Andes and Elqui. All those areas have something and people working hard there. As a wine producer, which is more important to me, I go for areas where the climate and soils allow me to produce wines I love, with personality: places like Itata, Cauquenes, Bio Bio Coast, Malleco, Cachapoal High Andes. All those places produce low alcohol wines with high acidity and a high level of complexity, mainly over granite and schist.
Unfortunately importers, wine writers and investors don't know those areas because is not near Santiago, and Santiago is Chile. But those areas have the old traditional viticulture, with old vines, without irrigation. They are worked by real farmers, poor farmers, with horses. But time will bring justice.
Do you think the best sites in Chile have been found yet?
Some. But I will say many have not. That job will be done in the next 10 years, I hope. We need to take more risks in the search-plant program. So far the new places are quite good, [but we] need time to understand how to interpret them.
Tell us something that not many people know about Chile’s wine scene.
Viticulture started in the Bio Bio region many years ago and the tradition has been continued by small farmers. You find old bush gobelet vines there making fantastic muscat, pais, carignan, cinsault, malbec, even grenache – often field blends, over fantastic soils that are never irrigated. And people were convinced those vines had no value: for more than 50 years they were used to make domestic 'Chicha' or 'Pipeño', what is rustic one-euro wine.
What do you like doing when you are not studying soil?
Having a quiet time with my wife and kids, at home. Listening to jazz music. I have a fantastic vinyl LP collection made in the last 20 years. Playing my old saxophone. And cinema.
In wine terms, who are your heroes?
I will start with Jacques Lardière from Jadot: humble and crazy. His view of terroir has a philosophical dimension. Or my friend Louis Michel Liger-Belair, a lot of courage there. He has been a key person in my career, helping me in Burgundy. Pierre Becheler, the great terroir expert in Bordeaux, who has been another great help. Finally, Alberto Antonini, the great Tuscan winemaker, a fantastic guide to me in the last seven years and a friend. We work together a lot and we both love jazz music and vinyls…
What is it you most dislike in a wine?
Coca Cola wines, made without soul; they don’t have 'the thing.' I hate when I don't find character. [There are] too many wines like this, too many people buying them, too many great scores for some of them. And I hate when some wines that are different, with character and a sense of place, are criticized by people saying they are rustic. These guys kill terroir and use machines to correct terroir!
What has been your best experience in the wine industry?
Finding one blessed hectare in a vineyard. It makes me happy, makes the owner happy and will make a fantastic wine.
And the worst?
The opposite. Telling an owner that his property is horrible. I don’t like to say it, but it happens very often.
Where would you like to be buried?
At home. But where is home for me? I don’t know yet.
What would you want the last wine you taste to be?
A fantastic red with chalky tannins, elegant, long, with honest aromas made by an honest man. It could be an Itata carignan blend, or a Barolo or a Chianti Greve. But starting with Leflaive Puligny Montrachet les Folatieres… I should be buried there maybe?
Do you have any regrets?
Many. I should express my feelings more to people. And I should say thank you more often.
What brings you the greatest happiness?
Being at home, with friends, opening blind bottle, after bottle after bottle, with Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock or Sonny Rollins playing just for us!
What do you think would make the world a better place?
Honesty, less ego and more generosity. Sounds clichéd, but I usually see the opposite.