Relaxed, friendly and unfazed, Adolfo Hurtado is equanimity made flesh. There may be moments when he loses his rag mid-harvest — berating a hapless cellar hand or smashing his knuckles against a barrel in frustration — but they are hard to imagine. If he ever gives up winemaking Hurtado could find employment as a diplomat. Some winemakers practically interview themselves, garrulously filling your notebook with quotable quotes, but Hurtado is more considered. Getting him to say something controversial is like extracting oil from the ocean floor.
Talk to anyone in the Chilean wine industry about Hurtado and they all mention his kindness, patience, honesty and charm. But they also highlight other characteristics, too: talent, meticulous attention to detail, passion for innovation and a drive to make Chile’s best wines. He is certainly one focused hombre. And a successful one, too. For someone who is still in his late thirties, Hurtado has achieved an enormous amount: gold medals and winemaker of the year awards galore. Most commentators regard him as one of the leading commercial winemakers, not just in Chile, but in the whole of the southern hemisphere.
Not for the young Hurtado dreams of being a fireman, film star or astronaut. ‘I knew from the time I was a kid that I wanted to be an agricultural guy,’ he says in his slightly Americanised English. ‘All my family worked on farms and I grew up on one in Casablanca from the age of five.’ His father wasn’t a grape grower — his business was milk and cheese — but Hurtado’s maternal grandfather was a winemaker who owned a vineyard in Apalta.
When he arrived at Chile’s prestigious Universidad Católica it was to study general agriculture, not wine. ‘I never wanted to go into the dairy business, but I could have ended up in fruit of any kind,’ he concedes. It wasn’t until the third of a five year course that he decided to specialise in viticulture and oenology. As part of his degreee, he got to spend a month at Viña Montes cleaning tanks and washing floors and was impressed by what winemaker and owner Aurelio Montes was doing in Chile in the early 1990s. ‘Aurelio was trying to achieve something absolutely different: to add value and make premium wines. Many people thought it was a crazy project.’
After university, Hurtado got a job at Viña La Rosa as a junior winemaker under a French boss and two consultants, Goetz von Gersdorff and Ignacio Recabarren, both key figures in the establishment of the modern Chilean wine industry. Here, too, he wasn’t totally focused on wine. ‘My boss made me ride around the estate on a horse in winter doing crop estimations for apples and oranges. It was freezing.’ When the Frenchman left five months later, he got the top job and stopped counting fruit trees. Finally, in November 1994, he was a fully fledged winemaker.
Three years later, he got his career-making break when Eduardo Guilisasti of the Concha y Toro Group offered him the winemaking post at the company’s off-the-wall (for Chile) Cono Sur winery. The business had run by two Americans, Art Masolo and winemaker, Ed Flaherty, since its inception in 1993 and was beginning to create a few waves with its no-bullshit approach. ‘No family trees, no dusty bottles, just quality wines’, a statement which remains the company’s marketing mantra, was pretty revolutionary statement in the ultra conservative Chile of the time.
From the start, Concha y Toro’s deep pockets enabled it to invest in the Cono Sur winery in Chimbarongo (Colchagua) as well as to buy the best fruit from all over the country. Just as important for Hurtado was that he was given ‘the freedom to develop something interesting and different’, working with little-known (for Chile) varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir as well as synthetic corks.
Hurtado was also given a budget to plant vineyards in new, cool climate areas such as Casablanca and Bío Bío. ‘Most wineries had all their grapes in one place,’ he says. ‘We were one of the first to plant different varieties in different places, depending on what worked best. There were very few plantings on hillside sites in those days and very little drip irrigation. Even Casabalanca was only just starting to make a name for itself. There were no vines there when I was growing up.’
Chile’s wine-growing areas are still developing, but Hurtado thinks that certain regions have proved their suitability for particular varieties: Limarí (Syrah), Casablanca (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir), Maipo (Cabernet Sauvignon), Colchagua (Carmenère), San Antonio (Pinot Noir), Bío Bío (Riesling and Gewürztraminer), Cachapoal (Carmenère) and Maule (Grenache and Carignan). ‘Who knows, there may be new undiscovered spots further north or south, closer to the coast or in the Andes,’ he adds.
In 1997, Cono Sur was already on its way to becoming a successful winery, but it only made 30,000 cases. Today it produces 4m cases between its two labels: Cono Sur and its price-fighting Isla Negra brand. Most of its wines are varietals – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. Merlot, Viognier, Syrah, Carmenère, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon — with an emphasis on sourcing fruit from its own 3200 hectares of vineyards and on long-term contracts with growers.
Hurtado is equally adept at making white and red wines, but the grape he loves most is not Chile’s USP, Carmenère, or Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety with which it is most commonly associated, but Pinot Noir. Cono Sur started producing Pinot in 1993, using a block that was planted in Chimbarongo in 1966, but Hurtado has taken the company’s Pinots to new levels. Today, Hurtado makes six different Pinots (in descending order: Ocio, 20 Barrels, Visión, Reserva, Organic and its entry point varietal line. All that adds up to 350,000 cases of Pinot.
‘Pinot is the most challenging variety there is,’ says Hurtado, ‘but we’re getting better at it every year. I think the 2007 Ocio is the best wine I’ve made.’ He admits that he’s benefited from the consultancy of Burgundian winemaker, Martin Prieur from Domaine Jacques Prieur, but says that he’s followed his own ideas, too. ‘Geographically, Chile is an isolated country, and that means that we’ve had to create our own personality. Maybe that’s reflected in my Pinots.’
How good are they? Hurtado is not given to tooting on his own trumpet, but he thinks they are up there with the best in the New World. In fact, the only remotely controversial thing he says in the two hours we spend talking and tasting together is that ‘Chilean Pinot Noirs are more interesting than those from New Zealand, which I find a little dilute’. For a man who measures his words, it’s quite a statement.
I don’t agree with him about New Zealand, but the 2007 Ocio is certainly a very impressive wine. But then so are his 20 Barrel Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and his Visión Riesling and Gewürztraminer. I think you could make a very strong case for describing Hurtado as Chile’s most accomplished white winemaker.
Since 2000, Hurtado has been general manager as well as chief winemaker at Cono Sur and has proved equally adept at running the company and cellar. Innovation is a recurring theme: the move towards organic viticulture, starting with the first 40 hectares in 2000, ISO certification in 2002 for its environmental practices, carbon neutral status in 2007 and, in 2008, the construction of a new winery. He has also overseen the purchase of premium vineyards in Colchagua and San Antonio and, in 2009, the acquisition of the Los Robles co-operative and its Fairtrade brand.
Hurtado has undoubtedly benefited from the changes in Chilean society over the last 20 years. ‘The country has opened up,’ he says, ‘and that has helped the wine industry a lot.’ But that shouldn’t play down his contribution. He is part of a generation of Chilean winemakers in their late thirties (Enrique Tirado, Marcelo Papa and Marcelo Retamal are contemporaries) who have built on the work of the likes of Ignacio Recabarren, Pablo Morandé, Aurelio Montes, Irene Pavia and Alvaro Espinoza, travelling more, tasting more and pushing the boundaries of the country’s wine styles.
What next for a man who thrives on a challenge? Will he stay at Cono Sur, a company that he has done so much to transform over the last 12 years? ‘I can’t think of a better place to be,’ he says. ‘I work hard every day, I have great grapes to work with and I have a great team around me.’ The diplomatic corps can wait.
HURTADO AT A GLANCE
Born: 1970, Santiago
Educated: Verbo Divino high school; Universidad Católica de Chile
Status: Married to Carolina; four children
Career: Winemaker at Viña La Rosa (1994-1997); 1997-2009, chief winemaker and (since 2000) general manager at Cono Sur
Dream vineyard: El Centinella near Casablanca (owned by his uncle) or Corton-Charlemagne.
They say: ‘Adolfo is a very good all round winemaker, but his legacy to Chile will be what he has achieved with Pinot Noir.’ Peter Richards, author, The Wines of Chile
Originally published in Decanter