Viña Falernia/Mayu, Elqui Valley, Chile   
Exploring the diversity of Chile's Vineyards, Part 6

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Final stop of the Chile tour was perhaps one of the most interesting. This is frontier-land. Elqui, in the far north of the country, over 300 miles north of Santiago.

It’s wild-looking country, dry, arid and desert-like, but, because of the Andes and the snowmelt, there is enough water here for viticulture.

Indeed, this region has been growing grapes for a long time for Pisco production (this is a grape-based spirit), and also as table grapes. The table grapes from here are highly prized because they ripen at a time when table grapes from other places are relatively scarce. As a result, many of the table grape vineyards are protected by hail/UV netting. It’s only fairly recently that this has become a wine valley, too.

A Pisco factory

Aldo Olivier

We were visiting the pioneers here: Viña Falernia and the sister company Viña Mayu. Aldo Olivier settled here from Italy with his family in 1951, as a young child with his parents and brothers. His family started growing vegetables near La Serena. In 1972, Aldo was married with kids and moved to Elqui where he planted grapes for Pisco production. He became vice-president of the Pico co-op, but soon realised that the co-op world was not for him, and in 1975 started his own Pisco project, building a winery. 

Giorigio Flessati

In 1995 Aldo’s cousin, Italian winemaker Giorgio Flessati, visited the valley and they decided to make wine together. Giorgio said that as soon as he saw the valley he realised its potential: it is one of the few places in Chile with no problems of frost and rain. The first dedicated wine vineyards were planted here in 1999. Initially they just planted what they could get their hands on, but were lucky that one of the varieties they planted, Syrah, seems ideally suited to the conditions here. 

A vineyard on alluvial soils

‘It’s like northern Italy,’ says Giorgio, ‘in that every five kilometres there are different conditions.’ He has four Syrah vineyards, and they each produce a different wine. The Elqui Valley has a number of climatic influences. The first part , 15-25 km from the sea, has a cooling influence from the Pacific. Then, as you get closer to the Andes it gets warmer, and then cooler as the altitude increases. Soils differ quite a bit too. And then there’s the amazingly intense sun: it hardly every rains here, and the constantly blue sky leads to high levels of solar UV, particularly as the altitude increases. 

Falernia/Mayu is the only significant winery in the region, although 6–7 companies buy fruit from Elqui.

The focus is on Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenère and the two pisco grapes Pedro Ximenez and Torontelo (aka Torrontes). ‘I really like Pedro Ximenez because of the minerality and the possibility to make different styles,’ says Giorgio. For Pisco it can be cropped at 30 tons/hectare, but for wine yields have to be half this, although by any standards this is still generous. ‘There are 350 wineries in Chile making wine with the same grape varieties,’ says Giorgio. ‘We have to do something different. I would like to try Italian varieties, but it is too difficult to get the material. I would like to try Nero d’Avola. We have fantastic soils and you have many options for blending to make different styles.’ 

Mayu was started as an independent winery within Olivier family group in 2005, and is run by Mauro Olivier. It’s a separate entity, but the wines seem very similar in style, with winemaking overseen by Giorgio also. 


We travelled up the valley towards the Andes, with the destination being the Huanta vineyard. It was a remarkable journey, and the Hunta vineyard, at 2070 metres (6320 feet) is one of the highest in the world. The quality and intensity of light this high up is amazing. Currently, it is planted with old Pedro Ximenez and Muscat vines, but there are plans to grow other varieties here also.

A film of the visit to Huanta:

The next day we had another great experience, this time not wine related. We were taken to the  Tololo observatory, which is open to visitors a couple of times a month (you have to book, Saturday mornings only). Elqui is famous for its clear skies and lack of light pollution – a perfect place for a light telescope, and the Tololo observatory (website here) has a few of them.

The view from the observatory

The biggest telescope a mirror shaped like a donut, 4.1 metres in size, and can see a long, long way. It’s sort of mind-blowing to think of looking at galaxies billions of light years away.

I admit to not being up to speed with astronomy, and all the talk of heavy matter, black holes, red dwarves and the rate of expansion of the universe made my head hurt a bit. But I came away interested in all these concepts. I need to do some more learning.

A film of the visit:


We tried through some casks/tanks in the winery. I was impressed by the Syrahs, with each vineyard having its own personality. The Titon was my favourite: intense, fresh, peppery and structured. Brilliant wine: a shame this is not bottled separately. Then we had a look at bottled wines, and these are notes of the highlights:

Falernia Antakari Carmenere Syrah Reserva 2008 Elqui, Chile
(an exclusive label for Laithwaites) The Carmenere is made one-third in an amarone style. The grapes are dried by leaving them on the vines for 2 months longer. Lovely autumnal dark fruits nose with some chalky spiciness. The palate is sweet and pure with ripe dark fruits and a distinct pepperiness. Lovely richness and balance. 90/100

Falernia Alta Tierra Syrah Reserva 2008 Elqui, Chile
(an exclusive label for Laithwaites) Sweet, slightly tarry, spicy dark fruits here. Nice black cherry and blackberry with some freshness, but also lots of ripeness and a hint of meatiness. 88/100

Falernia Carmenere Reserva 2008 Elqui, Chile
60% made with dried fruit. Very sweet, open blackberry nose. Palate shows lovely texture and richness with bold dark fruits and sweet blackberry character. Some plum and chalk notes, too. Intense. 91/100

Mayu Pedro Ximenez 2010 Elqui, Chile
Fresh, bright nose with mineral and citrus notes. Fresh, pithy and bright with lively acidity and nice fruit purity. Very lively and full. 87/100

Mayu Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2010 Elqui, Chile
Fresh and focused with grapefruit and green pepper on the nose, as well as some melon and citrus on the palate. Great acidity. 89/100

Mayu Chardonnay Reserva 2010 Elqui, Chile
Rich peach, melon, fig and pineapple notes here. Has nice fruit richness combined with good acidity and real purity. 91/100

Mayu Syrah Selected Vineyards 2009 Elqui, Chile
Nice sweet black cherry fruit with some appley, spicy, meaty notes. The palate is rounded and fruity with blackberry and plum fruit as well as some meatiness. Rich but expressive, showing lovely fruit. 89/100

Mayu Syrah Reserva 2007 Elqui, Chile
Lovely aromatic nose: rich, bold, meaty and spicy with notes of pepper and olives. Sweet blackberry fruit on the palate with nice richness, some spicy notes and a really expressive personality. 92/100


Part 1, Dos Andes: Veranda and Agustinos, Bio Bio
Part 2, Viña Leyda, Leyda
Part 3, Viña Ventisquero, Apalta
Part 4, Viña Tabalí, Limarí
Part 5, Casas del Bosque, Casablanca
Part 6, Viña Falernia/Mayu, Elqui

See also:

Photographs from Elqui Valley
Photographs from Limari Valley, Chile
Visiting Chile's wine regions (a series from a visit in 2008)

Published 11/12  
Wines tasted 12/10

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