Chile’s Pioneering Winemakers are Raising the Bar

A tale of old vines, pioneering winemakers and unfamiliar grape varieties, Chilean winemakers are taking big steps with small production wines.
The Guarilihue Gang, from left to right: Marcelo Retamal (De Martino winemaker); Sebastían Labbe (Viña Carmen winemaker); Marco De Martino; Daniel Barrera (vineyard manager); Cristóbal Undurraga (Koyle winemaker); Gonzalo Castro (Los Despedidos winemaker) / Photo by Matt Wilson

Progressive winemakers are blazing a southerly trail to Chile’s oldest vineyards, intent on bottling wines of character from grapes like Carignan, Cinsault, País, Muscat and Riesling. It’s a romantic tale of new wines from previously underappreciated heritage vines.

Last December, Marcelo Retamal and I sat under a solitary olive tree in the middle of De Martino’s 112-year-old Santa Cruz de Guarilihue vineyard. There, we tasted a succession of delicious dry-farmed, old-vine Cinsaults. Thoroughly impressed, I turned to Retamal, De Martino’s longtime winemaker, and said, “These are not the Chilean wines most people know.”

Places like Guarilihue in the Itata Valley and Cauquenes and Sauzal in neighboring Maule Valley, where Carignan is king, were just blips on the Chilean wine map to me prior to visiting the country’s southernmost wine regions, sprawling Bío Bío included.

But after bounding across many miles of backroads to taste dozens of wines emerging from Chile’s south, the opinions of people like Retamal and Derek Mossman Knapp, founder of Garage Wine Co., both staunch advocates of reclaiming Chile’s “patrimonial” vineyards, have validity.

Chile mapThey believe Chile, best known for varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère, which thrive in well-irrigated places like the Maipo, Rapel and Colchagua valleys to the north, is beginning to swell with options.

These newfound opportunities come with the romance of a renaissance. They hail from Chile’s cradle of wine, where the Spanish first planted grapes back in 1551.

Going back to the country’s vinous roots, even to make tiny quantities of wines that may never move the commercial dial, amounts to a major move for wineries big and small. As recently as five years ago, the Maule, Itata and Bío Bío regions—four to seven hours by car south of Santiago, Chile’s capital—were being used predominantly as a filling station for bulk tankers, Tetra Paks and jugs.

“There was the harvest, and then the grapes were taken to a big truck owned by one of the big wineries,” says Sebastían De Martino, part of the fourth generation to run his family’s winery. “The farmers were offered cash on the spot [pennies per pound], take it or leave it. That was how it worked for a very long time.”

It’s a new ballgame in the south, as wineries are paying up to seven times what they used to for top grapes. Moreover, the wines are good and, in some cases, great.

Cinsaults from Itata, for example, are generally fresh and floral in style. The majority of Carignans from Maule are racy, offer red-fruit aromas and flavors, and possess bright natural acidity.

País (the Mission Grape), which has long ranked at the bottom of Chile’s grape hierarchy, is now being used much like Gamay is in France. Some wines made from País are light and easy, like Beaujolais Nouveau, while others are more dense, meaty and rustic. As for Muscats from Itata and Rieslings from Bío Bío, their crackling acidity, floral aromas and varietal flavors harken back to the Old World.

Let’s take a closer look at Maule, Itata and Bío Bío, with a focus on the key subzones, recommended wines and the people and wineries behind them. Keep in mind that the wines mentioned are, at best, “lightly” imported into the United States, which means that they will be a challenge to find in shops and restaurants. But that may change with time and more market exposure.

VIGNO members, left to right: Arnaud Hereu (Odfjell); Derek Mossman Knapp (Garage Wine Co.); Andrea León (Lapostolle); Cristían Carrasco (Miguel Torres); Andrés Sánchez (Gillmore); Felipe García / Photo by Matt Wilson
VIGNO members, left to right: Arnaud Hereu (Odfjell); Derek Mossman Knapp (Garage Wine Co.); Andrea León (Lapostolle); Cristían Carrasco (Miguel Torres); Andrés Sánchez (Gillmore); Felipe García / Photo by Matt Wilson

Maule: On the Move

Chile’s largest wine region in terms of size and volume, Maule is also the warmest and driest of the southern trio. Starting about 10 years ago, a handful of major wineries and winemakers not afraid to put a few thousand extra miles on their pickup trucks began to resurrect Maule’s old, dry-farmed Carignan, vines long used mostly for bulk.

Today, around the towns of Cauquenes, Melozal and Sauzal, areas that were threatened and, in some cases, scorched by severe wild fires this past January, Carignan vines planted 100 years ago or more now produce vivacious wines with bracing acidity. With these wines, there’s no need for the common warm-climate practice of adding acid.

If you’re shopping around, Maule Carignan from established producers like Odfjell, Undurraga, Morandé, Miguel Torres, Lapostolle and Garage Wine Co., have been excellent over the past several vintages.

Farther north in Maule, the Loncomilla, Villa Alegre and San Javier subzones produce very good Carignan from the likes of Gillmore, Meli and Bouchon Family Wines, among others.

Nivaldo Morales amid his old vines in Sauzal, Maule Valley / Photo by Matt Wilson
Nivaldo Morales amid his old vines in Sauzal, Maule Valley / Photo by Matt Wilson

One of the surest ways to guarantee that a Maule Valley Carignan will be up to snuff is to check if it’s part of the association of 16 like-minded wineries called Vignadores de Carignan, or VIGNO.

Founded in 2009, the group, many of whose members are also part of Movement of Independent Vintners (MOVI), requires that its wines be at least 65 percent Carignan, hail from a dry-farmed vineyard planted at least 30 years ago (most vineyards are much older) and are released at least two years after their harvest date.

“These wines capture the essence of Chile’s dry interior,” says Mossman, one of the founders of MOVI. A blunt-speaking Canadian expat whose wife, Pilar Miranda, is Garage’s winemaker, Mossman has become a leading driver of Maule’s resurgence.

Garage’s 2014 VIGNO Carignan was one of the best I tried during my Maule sojourn. It’s loaded with dry spice aromas and zesty flavors of fresh tomato and red plum. For a pure, exact expression of modern Maule Carignan, give this wine a shot.

While Carignan is the primary force behind Maule’s ascension, there’s also a lot of País here. Rather than see it all go to bulk production or into jugs, wineries like Garage, Clos des Fous and Bouchon, and small-scale producers of so-called “natural” wines like González Bastías, Renán Cancino and David Marcel of France, now export Maule País to the U.S.

Christían Sepúlveda, winemaker at Bouchon Family Wines, surrounded by wild País vines / Photo by Matt Wilson
Christían Sepúlveda, winemaker at Bouchon Family Wines, surrounded by wild País vines / Photo by Matt Wilson

One of the more interesting examples is Bouchon’s País Salvaje (Wild País), made from grapes grown on unmanaged vines that resemble trees. Bouchon’s recently hired winemaker, Christian Sepúlveda, showed me these vines, which rise out of scrub brush. The harvest, he explained, is conducted on ladders.

After seeing these wild vines, we tasted a white País made from unripe bunches. The wine is fermented and aged in clay amphorae, and is nearly tan in color. It has neutral aromas and a tart, slightly salty flavor profile.

“It’s not meant to be a great wine, just something reflective of these old vines on the property,” says Sepúlveda. The red País Salvaje is juicy and shows the rustic nature and grabby tannins common to País.

Maule Carignan in winter / Photo by Matt Wilson
Maule Carignan in winter / Photo by Matt Wilson

Itata: Rags to Riches

Sitting at a rickety picnic table underneath that lone olive tree, I quickly realized why so many of Chile’s most respected winemakers rave about Itata. This is beautiful wine country, with rolling hills and microvalleys where grapes like Muscat, País and Cinsault have existed for centuries.

In the Coelemu section of western Itata, which sits about 12 miles from the Pacific coast and includes Guarilihue, the landscape is lush, thanks to more than 40 inches of rainfall in an average year. That’s two to three times what northerly Maipo Valley receives.

De Martino has been one of the pioneers behind Itata’s revival. More recently, wineries like San Pedro, Koyle, Carmen, Montes and others have joined the party.

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“There are a lot of fantastic old-vine grapes here, most of which were ignored for too long,” says De Martino. “But the climate is perfect, you don’t need to irrigate, the vineyards are all horse-plowed, there’s no heavy machinery and hardly any people. It feels like you’re making wine the old way, by hand.”

During my day in Guarilihue (pronounced GWAR-ee-lee-way), I tasted Cinsault from Carmen (CarmenDO), Montes (Outer Limits), San Pedro (Los Despedidos) and De Martino, whose wine is fermented and aged in old amphorae called tinajas.

“Making red wine in tinajas isn’t easy,” says Retamal, one of Chile’s leading experimenters. “If something goes wrong, you get vinegar. The berries go in, you put a top on it, there’s no movement or punch downs, and 20 days later it’s fermented. You take out the wine, put it in another tinaja, then you stomp on the leftovers and add that to the new tinaja. You cover it with adobe, where it spends seven months. In October, you bottle it with no sulfites and no fining.”

Patricio Mendoza (left) and Felipe García are partners in a new project in the San Nicolás section of the Itata Valley / Photo by Matt Wilson
Patricio Mendoza (left) and Felipe García are partners in a new project in the San Nicolás section of the Itata Valley / Photo by Matt Wilson

Unlike cool-climate western Itata, the northeastern part of the valley near Chillán and the Andes range is much warmer. In the subzone of San Nicolás, I spent time with winemaker Felipe García at a new project he’s undertaking with Patricio Mendoza.

Mendoza, a retiree from the forestry industry, owns a hidden vineyard planted as far back as 120 years ago to Carignan and other red grapes that include Garnacha and Mourvèdre.

Together, the two make small lots of wines from Mendoza’s Piedra Lisa vineyard, which sits atop granite. I liked their varietal Mourvèdre and Garnacha very much, while a five-grape, Carignan-dominated blend called Bravado is juicy, spicy and similar in style to the better Maule Carignans.

“What is happening in Itata is really good, and it goes beyond the wines,” says García, president of MOVI. “There’s a free-market socialism that’s occurring that’s helping the small farmer. Grapes in Itata that used to cost 80 to 100 pesos per kilo [about 5 cents a pound] are now 500 pesos. In Maule, good Carignan now costs 650 pesos a kilo. This can change a grower’s life.”

Who knows, maybe sips of Piedra Lisa Mourvèdre or Koyle’s Don Cande Cinsault or Muscat can change your perception of what Chilean wine is? They did for me.

Viña Emiliana winemaker Noelia Orts is making racy Riesling from vines planted in the 1980s at Finca Quitralman in Mulchén, Bío Bío / Photo by Matt Wilson
Viña Emiliana winemaker Noelia Orts is making racy Riesling from vines planted in the 1980s at Finca Quitralman in Mulchén, Bío Bío / Photo by Matt Wilson

Bío Bío: A River Runs Through It

Atop a plateau at Finca Quitralman in Mulchén, I looked out at the river that gives this cool, windy, rain-prone region its name. Bío means “river” in the Mapuche language, and the Bío Bío is Chile’s biggest in terms of volume deposited into the Pacific.

The Quitralman property, first planted in 1986, was the pride and joy of the late José Guilisasti, founder of Viña Emiliana and part of the family that controls Concha y Toro, one of the world’s largest wine companies.

At this rulo, the Mapuche word for a “dry-farmed vineyard,” there are 750 acres of grapes growing along with other fruits. Both Cono Sur (owned by Concha y Toro) and Emiliana use Finca Quitralman to produce Riesling, among other wines.

Cono Sur’s, made by Matías Rios, is reminiscent of the Rieslings from Germany and Austria. Packed with aromas and flavors of stones, tangerine and pineapple, Rulos del Alto (named for high, dry-farmed vineyards) is perhaps Chile’s best Riesling.

“This was my Uncle José’s place. He loved it here,” says Alejandro Mitarakis, who works in marketing and communications for Emiliana.

Prior to my visit to Finca Quitralman, as well as the vineyards of Viña Agustinos in Negrete, I’d given little thought to the wines of Bío Bío. But considering what’s happening in Maule with Carignan and Itata with Cinsault, could Riesling from here soon be discovered?

Maybe, because when passion trumps the desire (or need) to turn a profit, good things can happen. Chile’s southern revival proves it.

Published on March 13, 2017
Topics: Wine Regions
About the Author
Michael Schachner
Spanish and South American Editor

Reviews wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain.

Michael Schachner is a New York-based journalist specializing in wine, food and travel. His articles appear regularly in Wine Enthusiast, where he is a longstanding contributing editor responsible for South America and Spain. Schachner reviews more than 2,000 wines annually for WE and regularly travels to Chile, Argentina and Spain to keep abreast of the constantly changing global wine map. Email: mschachner@wineenthusiast.net.




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