Old-School Winemaking Techniques Are the New Cool in South America

Old School News School Illo
Illustration By Denise Freitas
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“This is how we always used to make wines in Argentina…Torrontés was an orange wine before it was a white wine,” explains Matías Michelini as he plunges his bare hands and tattooed forearms into a bin filled with Torrontés grapes. Foam appears around the grape skins while a posse of family members (Matías is one of four brothers, each of whom have four children) and friends mill around him. Wicker baskets filled with recently picked grapes are animatedly being poured into large vats as the teenagers foot stomp them to the sound of bachata music.

“These are family wines and handmade wines—it’s nothing new really,” says Michelini. It might be nothing new, but there’s undoubtedly a new movement underfoot in South America as winemakers bring old winemaking techniques and grape varieties back to the fore. And with them, they are bringing a wave of vibrant and juicy wines.

Not only are these traditional winemaking techniques and varieties coming back into fashion in South America, but they are also responsible for making some of the continent’s most exciting wines today.

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Embracing Heritage Varieties

Since the early days of South American wines in the 1500s up until the mid-1850s, almost all the grape varieties cultivated were the original Spanish Mission varieties of Listán Prieto and Moscatel de Alejandría, or native-born descendants of them, also known as the Criolla grape varieties. While these historical cultivars have gradually lost their dominance, Criolla varieties still account for over one-third of Argentina’s wine production and some 15% of Chile’s, and winemakers are beginning to revisit them for fine-wine production.

In particular, the perfumed white varieties of Torrontés and Moscatel are seeing a comeback in the growing world of orange wines in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Bolivia, while red Criolla grape varieties are being deployed to make fresh, low-alcohol wines, a lithe antidote to the full-bodied and hearty reds that boomed in the early 2000s.

Chile’s País, also identified as Listán Prieto in Spain or Criolla Chica in Argentina, is the red variety at the heart of this movement. Other red Criolla varieties like Criolla Grande, Cereza and San Francisco are also making a splash in the winemaking pool of the continent.

“What’s special about País, or Criolla Chica as we call it in Argentina, is that it has this really fine tannin structure when you vinify it gently,” says Argentine winemaker Sebastián Zuccardi, who uses octogenarian vines in Barreal, San Juan, to make red Criolla wines under the Cara Sur label. “People used to say Criolla wines were rustic, but when you have low-yielding, good-quality old vines and do gentle extraction and winemaking, you get real finesse.”

Old vines are key to quality País wines in Chile, too. Most País vines are over 70 years old, but some of them are over 200 years old, as can be attested to by the wines of González Bástias in Maule, A los Viñateros Bravos in Itata and the old Bío Bío vines used by Roberto Henríquez and Miguel Torres.

The fruit from twisted, gnarly vines of País may gain concentration and distinction with age, but it isn’t just old vines that are leading the trend.

Old school New School illo
Illustration by Denise Freitas

A Return to Traditional Techniques

In Chile, the use of the zaranda, a manual destemmer made from bamboo, has come back into fashion, as has vinification in old clay tinajas (Chilean amphorae), native raulí wood casks and large foudres. Zarandas and raulí have been the tools of choice in the renaissance of traditional Pipeño wines in southern Chile.

“Pipeño is the real deal in Chilean wine— you can’t find it anywhere else in the world; it’s a wine which belongs to this land with local varieties,” says winemaker Leo Erazo, who makes modern day Pipeño wines as both skin-contact white and light red wines. “It’s a farmer’s wine, really, and is part of the wine culture here.

“The name comes from the raulí vats, the pipas, that the wines were always made in, and locals would come and fill their own bottles from these pipas, something which still happens today.” In an ode to this “fill your boots” philosophy of Pipeño, Erazo’s Pipeño wines are sold by the liter. In a similar vein, another modern Pipeño maker, French winemaker David Marcel, makes his Aupa Pipeño wines in Maule and sells them by the liter, 12-ounce beer bottle and can. These usually lower alcohol (around 11.5% abv) Pipeño wines really embrace the fresh, session-style wine that Chile can do very well.

The move away from new French and American oak is also impacting the style of South American wine today. De Martino was one of the first wineries to re-popularize tinajaaged wines with their Viejas Tinajas wines, aged for several months in restored clay amphorae. But today, hundreds of winemakers in Chile, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay are restoring old clay vessels or building new ones.

There are few projects as impressive as Zuccardi’s Uco Valley winery, which is outfitted with no less than 203 concrete eggs, cones and amphorae. Nor can many compare to the extreme project of Viñedos Alcohuaz, Chile’s highest-altitude vineyard at just over 7,200 feet in Elqui, where a low intervention winery without electricity is built into the walls of the mountain. Wines are foot trodden in granite lagares before being aged in concrete eggs, amphoras and foudres.

Winemakers aren’t only eschewing new oak for more neutral clay and concrete, but old oak is also making a comeback. And with South America’s long winemaking history, there’s plenty of old oak to upcycle. Alejandro Vigil, winemaking director of Catena Zapata, has been busy restoring 100-year-old foudres for his Malbec wines in recent vintages.

Old Vine Treasures

Although the Criolla varieties are the oldest, there’s no lack of other old vines, and South America’s winemakers are beginning to make the most of them. In the mid-19th century, a flood of new varieties came from Europe, both in the hands of technicians and in the pockets of immigrants.

The timing was impeccable. Just as phylloxera took a bite into Europe, South America was stashing away a treasure trove of diverse vines. The rediscovery of Carmenère in Chile, which was believed to be extinct, is one of the great stories of this genetic gold mine. But South America is also home to delightfully diverse old vines, ranging from Hondarribi Beltza to Bastardo and Cinsault to Chasselas, all of which yield delicious wines today.

One of the most exciting of the new rediscoveries of South America is the old-vine SĂ©millon. First planted in the 19th century, there were over 100,000 acres planted between Chile and Argentina at its peak in the mid-20th century. Today, there are nearly 3,500 acres planted, but what is left are very old vines in some top terroirs.

In Argentina, Mendel, Matías Riccitelli, the Michelini family and Bodega Alandes make some of the most exciting examples, while Carmen, Viña Bouchon and Maturana are leading the way in Chile, with some delicious old-vine field blends also coming from Santa Rita, Roberto Henríquez and A los Viñateros Bravos. If you can get your hands on it, Carmen’s flor-aged Sémillon, Florillón, shines not only for its old vines but also for embracing the rebirth of flor-aged white wines in South America, another trend to keep an eye on.

The movement that perhaps most typifies the renaissance of old-school cool in South America is Vigno, an association developed by winemakers to promote old-vine Carignan. The wines come from dry-farmed bush vines in southern Chile and are aged for a minimum of two years. At the crux of Vigno is giving back value to the growers who care for these ancient vines and, since its foundation a decade ago, Carignan grape prices have gone up from a pitiful $0.10 per kilo (roughly 2.2 pounds) to $1.50 per kilo.

Ultimately, it is the ongoing mission of social impact that is at the heart of South America’s return to old vines and ancestral winemaking. Not only do these winemaking techniques preserve a cultural tradition and wine heritage, but supporting the old vines and their mindful growers also helps keep the heart and soul of South American wine alive.

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Drink In the New Cool

Bizarra Extravaganza 2020 Amphora Tannat (Canelones); $27, Wood Wines Imports

Bouchon 2021 Pais Salvaje (Maule); $20, Vine Connections

Cara Sur 2019 Parcela La Tortora (Barreal); $37, Brazos Wine Imports

De Martino 2018 Old Vines Los Olvidadas (Itata); $50, Broadbent Selections

Matías Riccitelli 2021 Bastardo (Río Negro); $45, Selections de la Viña

Passionate Wines by Matías Michelini 2019 Torrontés Brutal (Uco Valley); $27, Brazos Wine Imports

PS Garcia 2016 Vigno (Maule); $50, Vine Connections

Roberto HenrĂ­quez 2020 Molino del Ciego (Itata); $29, Vinos del Rey

Rogue Vine 2021 Pipeño Tinto (Itata); $20/1 L, Brazos Wine Imports

Viñedos de Alcohuaz 2018 Rhu (Elqui); $62, European Cellars

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on May 24, 2022
Topics: South America