We first encountered Polkura when Sven Bruchfeld, the winery’s founder, joined us and our group of wine travelers for lunch while we toured the wineries of Chile and Argentina. This particular lunch was the kick-off for our tour, and what a kick-off it was. On the edge of downtown Santiago is the incredible restaurant called Pinpilinpausha. Pinpilinpausha is the Basque word for butterfly. The restaurant was started in 1940 by the Sanz-Raab family of Spain. Their goal was to bring the style and flavours of Basque cooking to South America. For almost 80 years it has been one of Santiago’s, and in fact, one of Chile’s, top restaurants.
Sven arrived at the restaurant shortly after we did, wearing his trade-mark flat cap and his infectious grin. For the next two hours Sven entertained our group in a private dining room with stories of how he started Polkura, how he started MOVI (Chile’s Movement of Independent Vintners), and numerous other topics related to wine and food. Clearly at ease with a group he had never met before, Sven is very charismatic and very passionate about his wines.
Sven started Polkura with his university friend Gonzalo Munoz. In 1998, at a tasting of different Syrah near Narbonne in Southern France, the pair realized that this was a grape variety they both wanted to do something with. When they returned to Chile, they began their search for land that would be suitable for planting grapes that could express their shared vision of what Syrah should be. In 2002, they found and acquired the site that is now the Polkura vineyard. The name Polkura is a Mapuche word (the local indigenous language) that means yellow stones, the type of granite found strewn amongst the soil on this rocky hillside vineyard.
The Polkura Hill is located in Chile’s Colchagua Valley, perhaps the country’s best regarded winemaking region. Just 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean, it has an intermediate climate: cooled by the Pacific Ocean breezes, but with moderation due to the existence of the mountains that separate the coastal town of Pichilemu from the Marchigue Valley where Polkura exists. Sven tells us about this dry and unforgiving country, something we saw first hand when we visited the vineyard the following day.
Sven is clearly very attached to this land and has planted it with great care.
It is hillside with different aspects which he utilizes to craft wines of differing characters: bolder wines from the north slopes, elegance from the southwest slopes. Sven is very respectful of this land and like his philosophy in the winery, he utilizes minimum intervention. He tells us, “we have 2 species of plants: one grows up to the sky away from the soil – this type of plant needs one kind of treatment. Whereas vines grow downward, the leaves bend down and they connect with the soil. I don’t follow biodynamic practices specifically but in a biodynamic environment, different plants are treated different because they grow differently. Vines go downward so you have to train them. I believe biodynamic is good from the caring part – farmers looking after the land and putting so much attention to it is always good.” An interesting perspective we had not encountered before.
This respect for the land and the surrounding environment is also shown in the decision to install a 125 kw solar field at the winery, making it only the third 100% sustainable winery in Chile.
Sven is remarkably humble about his beginnings in wine. He attended the highly acclaimed UC Davis and has worked at Errazuriz and Santa Rita, among other notable wineries. He tells us how planting Syrah in Marchigue was a big gamble. “We planted the vineyard on one side first, planted on drought-resistant rootstock and my goal was to make wine…shitty wine if need be, whatever, just make wine. It was learning. Can it be done?”
Initially, he was not too pleased with the results. “The next year we had fruit and we made wine. The wine wasn’t bad; it was absolutely horrible! But we were able to get grapes and that was a start. I blended it away and kept 2 barrels: one syrah, and one grenache just to see how it would develop. Months later I pulled a sample and it was beautiful – and we hadn’t touched it. Super different, not syrah-like, it smelled like a white wine (melons, tropical fruits) and was nothing you would expect. We ended up bottling the wine and put on a different label and sold it.”
One of Sven’s great passions is MOVI, the Movement of Independent Vintners, which he founded.
Chile’s entire economy is dominated by perhaps a dozen large families. This means that there is a wide chasm between the big businesses and the small ones. The big businesses are, well, really, really big. And this is true within the wine industry as well. People, including the export market, just don’t seem to take notice of the smaller wineries.
“I challenge anyone to name 50 Chilean wineries and I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to name that many. If you actually make the list, there are 400 exporters & 600 wineries. Chile has by far the biggest “average” winery size in the world, no one is even close.
The 2nd biggest average winery size is South Africa which has about half that many.
Chile has 120,000ha, which explains why Chile is usually known for big wineries like Santa Rita and Montes. They make great wines—big is not bad but not very many small wineries in Chile are able to get noticed. I had two knocks in the face which were super encouraging: my last job was with Santa Carolina Winery, one of the big producers, so I knew everybody – the trade association, the press, the exporters, etc. I called Wines of Chile and said ‘hey I’m on my own, I have a super fun project which I think would be a great addition to your portfolio, and asked “do you have a special fee for a small winery?” and they said “no, why would we have a special fee for small wineries?” and I said “because I’m special!” And it was the wrong approach because they said, you’re special because your small, they’re special because they’re big, everyone thinks they’re special.”
Sven continued: “Then I called the association of Colchagua and they said exactly the same thing. I didn’t say I was special this time but I said I wanted to add something in terms of diversity. I also thought I had access to the press. I called a guy who wrote for one of the big publications and told him I’d be in the US in two weeks would like to meet him and show him some of my wines from my new project. “How many wines do you have”? I told him two wines that would take just 15 minutes. He replied ‘sorry, it’s not a good use of my time, I don’t do 2 wines at a time’. So much for the press. So I took the export list of 2009 and looked at who made more than 10,000 cases and drew a line. I came up with 15 wineries and then narrowed it down to 5 brands and we started thinking about what we wanted to do with the situation. This was in 2009, MOVI was formed in 2010 and we went out with a big splash. No big wineries, and our first show was in a super posh wine event at the W – right next to the super premium room. The super premium guys were annoyed, but we got a lot of attention. I then called the same wine writer and said I know 2 wines isn’t worth your time, but what about 15? And he said come on over.”
Two days after our lunch with Sven, we drove out to the Polkura Winery and saw first-hand the hills and the yellow granite in his vineyard. Sven could not make it, but we were brilliantly hosted by Ricardo and Camilla, who assist Sven in managing the winery and making the wines. The winery itself is a humble affair, with fermenters and concrete eggs painted by a local artist from Valparaiso. They told us how the artwork brings “good vibes to the winery.”
After touring the winery we all clamoured into the “Polkura-mobile”, an old open truck that hauled us up to the top of Polkura Hill to their Quincho, the South American term for an outdoor gathering area for eating and drinking. Here we were treated to the lineup of Polkura wines. As you will see from the tasting notes that follow, we love drinking Polkura wines. But to drink them in that special place, among the vines that created them, with that gorgeous view, took this tasting experience to another level.
2018 Aylin Sauvignon Blanc
Aylin is the local Mapuche word that means clarity and transparency. This delicious wine opens with notes of lemon and lime, grapefruit and hints of cut grass. With a bit of air, tropical fruit notes of guava and pineapple come forward. During the maturation process, the spent yeast cells (called “lees”) are stirred which adds texture to the wine. The result is a wine of great balance, textured and defined, complex and a pleasure to drink. And, perhaps best of all, the winery sells it for around USD $10! Amazing bargain for this quality level.
2016 GSM + T
The classic blend of the Southern Rhone Valley is Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre, often referred to by its initials, GSM. Sven, in a unique twist adds the Spanish variety Tempranillo to make the blend GSM + T. The blend is 45% Syrah, with roughly equal parts of the other 3 grape varieties. Black cherry flavours are delivered on a medium body that has a silky smooth texture. Leaning towards hedonistic in style, but the cut of the acidity keeps this on the serious side and would make a great partner to grilled meats. Likely to age well for a decade or more.
This wine would no doubt be a crowd pleaser with its fruit forward personality that showcases plum and blueberry with hints of spice. The tannin and the acidity are medium and they just balance the fruit making this a very approachable wine right now.
3% Cabernet Sauvignon is added to the blend. Inky dark in colour, we get blackberry flavours and aromas that greet you with force. This is a powerful wine, but the balance is so precise you might not even notice it if you were not looking for it. There is a wonderful savoury quality to the wine which is amplified on the mineral finish. Complex with a long, spice-tinged finish.
2016 Secano Syrah
Secano is Sven’s experiment with dry farming, that is, no irrigation. There are two reasons for this experiment: first, in this part of the world, water is a scarce commodity, difficult to come by and in need of preservation; second, this allows for the most natural expression of the vineyard, producing its fruit without man intervening to provide water.
This can only be accomplished on the flat lands below the hill, where what little rainfall that does occur can stay longer in the soil and not run off as it does on the slopes. This blend of 85% Syrah, 10% Grenache and 5% Carignane is a winner! Very complex, we get notes of blackberry and black cherry with supporting notes that are savoury and punctuated by lots of black pepper and other spice as well. An amazing wine on its own, we can only imagine how well it would pair with food.
2013 Syrah G + I
This is Syrah co-fermented with 2% Viognier. With this wine, Sven wanted to bottle just two blocks on the vineyard, the two with southern exposures that get indirect sunlight and see less heat accumulation over the growing season.
The result is a stunningly complex wine that shows a near perfect balance between power and elegance. This reminds us of a southern hemisphere version of a Cote Rotie…at a fraction of the price. The fruit is fully ripe but complemented by a nice savoury quality. Blackberry and raspberry are joined by mineral and pepper notes. The tannin and acidity are both medium and though approachable now, it is still on the way up and will develop for another 15 years.
*We did not get exact prices for the red wines but they are each priced in the USD $25 to $45 range. This is an incredible bargain for Syrah of this quality. While they may be a little more when exported outside of South America, they are still screaming ‘buy’ and well worth searching out.