Francisco Baettig Interview

By Gavin Smith

Jun 4th, 2020

Francisco Baettig is no doubt Chile’s most celebrated and renowned winemaker. He has been the head winemaker at Errázuriz for 18 years and alongside proprietor Eduardo Chadwick has been behind the icon wines of Seña and Viñedos Chadwick, a wine that achieved the first ever perfect 100 point score for a wine from Chile by critic James Suckling for the 2014 vintage.

But with 25 years of wine experience behind him, Francisco is still hungry to further his passion for winemaking and unearthing the hidden potential of Chile in producing fine wine. The length of Chile provides a staggering range of climates from which to choose from. Ten years ago, Francisco headed south and discovered the terroirs of Traiguén, the coolest, most southerly wine producing region of Chile. This project has been a labour of love for Francisco, investing significant personal savings in what he believes to be ideal terroir for ethereal styled Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We caught up with Francisco and his winemaking partner Carlos de Carlos, both currently in lock-down in Santiago, to discuss what makes this site so special.

Prior to Francisco’s "Las Pizarras” range of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays made by Errázurriz in the Aconcagua Costa, coastal region of Central Chile, the Burgundy grapes did not have a great success or reputation in Chile. The last few vintages have certainly turned the tide, proving that Chile can turn its hand to non-Bordeaux varieties with the Las Pizarras wines becoming the most celebrated and acclaimed examples of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in South America.

Asked why it took so long for Chile to produce decent Pinot Noir, Francisco believes that up until 15 years ago the plant material of Pinot Noir found in Chile was not good quality, infected with viruses, poor clones and more often than not grown in the wrong place. He states that to make serious Pinot Noir, the wine must be elegant and tense. But it must have structure too. It needs tannin for depth and ageing potential. The influence of Bordeaux hung too heavily over Chile. Pinot was being picked too late, too sweet, too heavy. It was impossible to make good wines. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that better plant material was being sourced and after 15 years, these vines finally reached a maturity to produce wines that were to change the reputation of these varieties in Chile.

The Bordeaux influence on the Chile “boom” in exports

Francisco notes that the “boom” of Chile’s global wine exports, particularly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the 1990s saw the young industry become dominated by these varieties. Whilst parts of Chile are well-suited to those grapes Francisco feels the meteoric rise of this fairly undeveloped industry saw young winemakers (himself included) being directed down a very specific route, without the independence or know-how to develop in alternative directions. The boom, he admits, brought tremendous success, but at the expense of realising the potential of other styles and other grape varieties in other parts of the country.

Francisco started his career in winemaking at Casa Lapostolle, learning his craft under the influential wine consultant Michel Rolland. At the time, Rolland was hugely influential around the world with a strong focus on ripe tannins and generous use of new oak to reduce green and bitter flavours. Francisco, like practically everyone in Chile, followed this path of high ripeness levels and more and more new oak for top quality cuvees.

The Changing Tide

By 2007 Francisco’s own palate was changing. He started to tire of the excessive sweetness of the wines he was making. Whilst he was behind some of the most ambitious “icon” wines in Chile, he was keen on introducing more elegance and tension to these wines at the expense of oak, extraction and ripeness. It took some time to persuade his boss, Errázurriz’s president, Eduardo Chadwick, to come around to this idea, but eventually he did and from the 2013 vintage there is a significant change in style to the wines of Chadwick and Seña and which have since rewarded him with some of the top scores from the world’s leading wine critics. He was also nominated ‘Winemaker of the Year’ by Wine Enthusiast in 2016 and was named ‘Winemaker of the Year’ in Tim Atkin’s 2018 Chile Report.

Whilst today Francisco is much happier with the style of these “icon” wines, he still had much to prove. Most notably his love for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, after many trips to Burgundy was something he always wanted to develop. He has done that in spades producing Chile’s finest examples of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the country with Las Pizarras from Aconcagua Costa.

The search for the “ethereal”

But Francisco’s quest was still not done. Las Pizarras is just one style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that could be grown in Chile. Francisco knew that a very different style could be achieved further south, where radiation is lower and with enough rainfall to have dry-farmed vines. With Franscisco’s roots very much associated with the southern region of Traiguén (home to his grandparents, who lived on a farm fittingly called “La Vigna”) it had always been Francisco’s dream to return to these ancestral roots and to make wine there. It so happened that business partner Carlos’s wife’s family had a farm there too – and so the project was set afoot.

He knew that being that far south (Traiguén being the southernmost appellation in Chile, in line with Argentina’s Patagonia), the radiation was 25% less than that of Central Chile. Lower radiation for Francisco is important for several reasons. First, it reduces the risk of sunburn on the grapes without needing as much protective foliage, which could lead to green flavours in the wines. Secondly, high radiation causes the grape skins to thicken, creating a more tannic, phenolic almost rustic feel to the wines, something Francisco wants to avoid. There is of course also higher natural acidity. Further north Francisco states, in particularly hot vintages the sensitive Burgundian varieties run the risk of tasting burnt.

The Long-Term Sustainability of Chilean Wine Production

Another big incentive behind the Vinedos Baettig project was to discover more sustainable climates for the long-term future of Chilean wine production. Irrigation is becoming a big concern in Central Chile. Whilst Chile and Argentina have been blessed with the Andes relying on snow melt to irrigate vineyards, in a dry season like 2019, there was no snow on the mountains and water reserves completely dried out. Francisco states that 40 years ago the average rainfall in Santiago was around 500mm a year. Now the average is close to 300mm and in 2019 it was just 70mm. “This is a desert”, he exclaims. He compares it to the Traiguén appellation which in 2019 (a dry year) still saw 850mm of rain. This is ample rainfall, at the right time to create sustainable dry-farmed vineyards for the future.

Geologist/ terroir hunter and friend Francoise Vannier-Petit from Burgundy

The Importance of Dry Farming in Fine Wine

Beyond sustainability arguments, for Francisco, irrigation can be a problem when it comes to “fine wine”. He explains that the problem with irrigated vines it that it is very easy to over-compensate the water requirements. This stops the vines looking for water and stops root development. Deep, complex root systems are essential to produce wine of the soil rather than wine of the sun. With poor root development the vineyard will always depict the excesses of the vintage. A hot vintage the vines will simply shutdown and not develop the adequate tannin development, creating phenolic, green wines while at the same time producing excess sugar. It was important for Francisco to find a site where he would not need to rely on irrigation.

With good plant material, a sustainable climate, the ability to dry farm and his own ancestral roots in the region, Francisco was keen to develop a project in the south. He brought geologist/ terroir hunter and friend Francoise Vannier-Petit from Burgundy to help seek out the right spot. Initially the idea was to plant the vineyard in Carlos de Carlos' wife's family farm, but unfortunately after research of the soil and climate of a 150 hectare property, there was no suitable place. Finally, after two years they found the ideal place at Francisco cousin’s property in Traiguén, where they planted 15 hectares in 2013. With the vines finally planted (from specially selected top-quality Burgundy clones) and enough annual rainfall, Francisco was able to plant at a high density of 7000 vines per hectare.

Traiguén Terroir

The site in total consists of nine hectares of Pinot Noir and six hectares of Chardonnay - using three different clones and three different rootstocks for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in five parcels with unique micro-climates in Traiguén. The idea in the future is to produce single vineyard expressions of each of the individual sites showcasing the varying terroirs within this diverse region surrounded by volcanoes.

In the first commercial releases the top “Seleccion de Parcelas” are the top grapes from the combined sites. The wines very much focus on the nervosity, tension and mineral expressions that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can produce grown in cooler sites. The new world sunshine however gives these wines some beautiful ripeness too.

With the Chardonnay coming in under 13% abv and a very low 3.16 pH, this is wonderfully vibrant Chardonnay. 100% barrel fermented with 26% new oak but in larger 700 litres barrels to minimize the oak flavour whilst creating the textural richness and tension in the wine. The Pinot Noir is similarly made in an ethereal style with 18% whole cluster fermentation and hitting 13% abv. Production in these early days remains miniscule and the project’s philosophy is to keep the operation human-sized. In 2018 less than 150 cases of each wine is made and already getting noticed from the critics prior to release. Tim Atkin in his recent Chile report awarded the Chardonnay, the “White Wine Discovery of the Year 2018”. The Pinot Noir was one of his top Wines of the Year for the 2018 vintage. These wines, along with the excellent lower priced Vino de Vinedo Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (from fruit sourced throughout the estate’s vineyards) from the 2019 vintage, will be released exclusively by FINE+RARE in the next few weeks. Don’t miss these inaugural vintages from a winery that is no doubt setting a benchmark for the future of cooler climate fine wines of Chile.

Tim Atkin tasting notes

96 Points - Baettig Selección de Parcelas Los Primos Chardonnay 2018

Even better than the very impressive maiden release from Francisco Baettig, this reflects the quality of the 2018 vintage and the slightly older vines. Made with 60% malolactic and 26% new oak, it's a chiselled, focused Chardonnay with more tension and acidity than the 2017, lovely focus and intensity and the depth and poise of a great white Burgundy. 2021-28

95 Points - Baettig Selección de Parcelas Los Primos Chardonnay 2017 Traiguén (13%)

Francisco Baettig has an enviable track record with Chardonnay at Errázuriz, so it's no surprise that the first release from his own vines in the Traiguén sub-region of Malleco is so impressive. Saline, mineral and fizzing with energy, this has skilfully integrated 26% new wood, pear, wet stone and citrus flavours and a hint of smoky oak. 2020-2025

95 Points - Baettig Selección de Parcelas Los Primos Pinot Noir 2018 Traiguén (13.5%)

As I do with Francisco Baettig's two Chardonnay releases, I have a slight preference for the 2018 bottling. Made with 18% whole bunches and 42% new wood, it more than confirms the promise of the 2017, showing notes of wild strawberry and tobacco leaf, fine tannins, racy acidity and a subtlety and purity that wouldn't look out of place in Chambolle-Musigny.

94 Points - Baettig Selección de Parcelas Los Primos Pinot Noir 2017 Traiguén (13.5%)

Three clones (777, 828 and a Gevrey-Chambertin selection) make up the blend of this Malleco Pinot Noir from Francisco Baettig's exciting new project. Made with 31% whole bunches and 21% new wood, it's a subtle, racy, scented Pinot Noir with rose petal and wild strawberry notes and stony minerality. 2021-27

FINE+RARE tasting notes

Baettig Selección de Parcelas Los Primos Chardonnay 2018 - The 2018 Seleccion Parcellas Chardonnay is extremely pure and expressive on the nose, with clean citrus aromas, a touch of oyster shell and chalky minerality, as well as freshly cut meadow flowers. Just a hint of baking spice and blanched almonds add a rich complexity, and on the palate the flavours are beautifully delineated, with the richness of the ripe fruit perfectly balanced by fresh acidity and clean mineral flavours and a long, silky and elegant mouthfeel.

Baettig Selección de Parcelas Los Primos Pinot Noir 2018 - The 2018 Seleccion Parcellas Pinot Noir emerges from the glass with scents of dark berries, wild raspberries, plenty of savoury and peppery spice and dark earth tones, as well as a floral high notes and fresh mint and herbs. It has superb purity as well as concentration and wonderful texture and fresh acidity that make it deliciously juicy, but with good grip and finishing with a long, perfumed and moreishly mineral and slightly saline conclusion.

Baettig Vino de Vinedo Pinot Noir 2019 Traiguén- The 2019 Vino de Vinedo Pinot Noir is beautifully perfumed with lashings of red and black fruit, with distinctive cherry and blackberry notes on the nose. It has a delicately sweet florality, like almond blossom, which is set off by salty liquorice and dark slate notes, as well as a hint of peaty smoke. Very nice concentration and good acidity and depth. Exquisitely balanced and very impressive in depth of concentration, length and texture.

Baettig Vino de Vinedo Chardonnay 2019 Traiguén - The 2019 Vino de Vinedo Chardonnay is handsomely austere to the nose at first – very mineral with subtle and elegant citrus fruit and white flowers. It warms up and softens with air, revealing hints of sweeter vanilla oak and baked bread, giving just a hint of expeditiously used oak. The racy acidity and superb tension lend it great energy and the length and depth are excellent. Super classic and elegant, yet giving a real sense of place with the cool yet juicy fruit and mineral glimpses. Lovely.

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