Chile Pushes the Envelope
Chile’s foundation in the wine world is made up largely of two categories. One is Cabernet Sauvignon, which thrives in Chile’s warm interior valleys. The second includes so-called “value wines,” popular varietals that cost less than $15 a bottle.
And while these wines remain the lifeblood of Chile’s export-driven wine industry, many Chilean winemakers, whether working on individual projects or for larger wineries committed to exploring new frontiers, are moving beyond the tried and true.
In southern Chile’s Itata Valley, bush-vine Cinsault is being naturally fermented in clay amphorae—an ancient European method. In the Maule Valley, wine is being made from reclaimed Carignan vineyards originally planted 75 years ago. There’s Sauvignon Blanc in the high-elevation Elqui Valley, and Petite Sirah in Alto Maipo, which was long thought to be exclusively Cabernet country. And these are just a sampling of the new, wacky and wild Chilean wines I encountered in 2014. Not all are knockouts, but a movement is clearly afoot.
Here are the wines of the New Chile and the pioneers who are making them.
More than 10 years ago, working with a then-unknown soil expert named Pedro Parra, Retamal began a quest to uncover, revitalize and make wines from Chile’s oldest vineyards, many of which are in the Maule Valley or even further south.
Retamal—who, in 1996, was the first Chilean winemaker to make a varietally labeled Carmenère—got the ball rolling in the mid 2000s. He made vineyard-specific field blends and old-vine Carignans from Cauquenes, a dry-farmed subzone in the deepest depths of Maule. Over time, others have followed Retamal’s lead. Today, there are a number of vibrant, ageworthy Cauquenes Carignans on the market.
“The New Chile is a mental concept and not a place, a blend or a particular wine,” says Parra, now Chile’s leading terroir consultant. “Reta[mal] had a
vision, and he began to search. But when I say ‘search,’ he was searching within himself and searching for new terroirs. This is when the New Chile was born.”
Today, Retamal is making wines in northerly Elqui and Choapa, and he continues to put out a handful of single-vineyard Carignans and blends from Maule.
His newest edgy wines are amphorae-fermented Muscat and Cinsault, the latter from old bush vines in the Coelemu section of the Itata Valley, hardly Chile’s Napa Valley or Left Bank. Both qualify as “natural” wines, as yeasts are 100% native, no sulfur is added and they spend no time in barrel.
Of the two, the Cinsault shows more potential as a commercial wine, while the Muscat is more a novelty.
“I’m not sure how good these wines are,” said the always-humble Retamal when I visited with him in Chile in December 2013. “But I enjoy employing ancient techniques to make wines with lower-alcohol levels and no oak.”
Another envelope pusher who got things up and running about a decade ago and whose wines are now some of the best in Chile is Sven Bruchfeld, co-founder of Polkura. Located in the dry, windy Marchigue section of the Colchagua Valley, the winery is named after the native word for “yellow stone,” a reference to the local decomposed yellow granite.
With about 30 acres of hillside Syrah sitting on a mixture of granite and clay, Bruchfeld, whose partner at Polkura is Gonzalo Muñoz, is making bold yet nuanced Syrahs in a style similar to those he loved while working harvests in France. He even makes Chile’s best kosher wine, a limited-release Syrah called Koaj, which in Hebrew means strength.
“I don’t know if I’m all that unconventional, but it sure sounds good,” said Bruchfeld, whose day job is head winemaker for Grupo Belén, which puts out commercial brands like Morandé and Vistamar.
Polkura 2010 Block g+i Syrah (Marchigue); $40, 92 points. This opens with black-fruit and graphite aromas, along with licorice and herbal notes. A saturated palate with blackberry, chocolate and coffee flavors finishes smooth and silky. Drink through 2019. Craveiro Importers. Editors’ Choice.
De Martino 2013 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault (Coelemu); $25, 88 points. This amphorae-fermented wine is one of Chile’s most oddball reds. It’s lightly medicinal on the nose, with earthy, almost musty scents. Flavors of mushroom and mixed red berries are unique, while the finish is complex and brings a plum character. Opici Wines.
Most of Chile’s vineyards are located in the Central Valleys, within a couple of hours of Santiago, the nation’s capital. But on the border where central Chile gives way to the southern portion of the country is the Maule Valley, Chile’s largest wine region, with about 125,000 acres of vines.
With respect to the New Chile, Maule is the locale that’s been on the tip of everyone’s tongues since Retamal, Pablo Morandé and others began reclaiming old, unirrigated Carignan vineyards with an eye towards making wines that Chile had never before produced.
From the northern edge of Maule near the Loncomilla River down to Cauquenes, it’s now unbridled Carignan country. The wines being made from this racy Mediterranean import rank among some of the most vivid and juicy offerings coming out of Chile.
I first visited the Maule region in 2009, when barely anyone there was talking about Carignan. Since then, there has been a sea change with respect to this grape of Spanish/French heritage.
There’s now an association, Vignadores de Carignan (VIGNO). With more than a dozen members committed to making and promoting this variety, including a few big wineries like Odfjell, Undurraga and Miguel Torres, the future of Chilean Carignan today is as bright as the wines themselves.
Maule is also the primary region where winemakers are working with País, the so-called Mission grape. Introduced to Chile by the Spanish in the 16th century, País has spent most of its existence being turned into bulk wine.
But today, Miguel Torres is using País to make a floral, light-bodied rosé sparkling wine that’s delicious. Meanwhile, Frenchman Louis-Antoine Luyt is making all-natural País wines that have become popular among the sommelier set.
To the immediate south of Maule lies the Itata Valley, where the weather can run wet and chilly. Believers in this remote region, including wineries like De Martino, Lapostolle and Koyle, see promise in Itata’s wealth of old vineyards planted with obscure varieties.
“Itata, which was the epicenter of the big earthquake we had in 2010, is really hot now,” says Retamal. “I have been working there since 2011, and it’s full of old vineyards planted with Cinsault, País and Moscatel de Alexandria. Itata looks like Galicia; it’s really green and the vines are old and unirrigated. It’s like the Old World.”
A world unto itself, the high-elevation Elqui Valley (pictured) is situated inland from the seaside resort town of La Serena. Long home to pisco production, astronomy observatories and cactus, the area has become a spot where winemakers are making funky, rustic Syrahs and steely, green-leaning Sauvignon Blancs like the one made by Mayu. Founded in 2005 by the Olivier family, Mayu employs the Italian-born Giorgio Flessati as winemaker.
Morandé 2010 Edición Limitada Carignan (Loncomilla Valley); $25, 92 points. Opening anisette, blackberry and cassis aromas come with exotic spice notes. Big, tannic and firm, with flavors of black fruits, coffee and tar. Licorice, blackened toast and grit bring this to a forceful conclusion. Drink through 2020. Grupo Belén USA.
Mayu 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (Elqui Valley); $15, 88 points. This Elqui offering delivers green-fruit aromas of underripe melon and snap pea along with passion fruit. In the mouth, it shows good body and acidity, while grassy flavors blend with tropical notes. Vine Connections.
In addition to the VIGNO association dedicated to Carignan, another important winemaking group to sprout from Chile’s new wave is the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or the Movement of Independent Vintners (MOVI, pictured).
Founded in 2009 largely by Andrés Sánchez of Gillmore, and Derek Mossman Knapp of Garage Wine Co., MOVI claims to be a mosaic of like-minded wine-makers and small wineries dedicated to making terroir-driven wines.
Polkura, the excellent Syrah producer, is a MOVI member, as is Kingston Family, a top-end Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc producer in the Casablanca Valley. Overall, MOVI stands as the most important group project aimed at taking Chile on a new path.
Meanwhile, Lapostolle and Santa Rita, large yet quality-driven wineries that would never qualify for MOVI based on size alone, are making similar wines.
At Lapostolle, the Collection Series comprises a dozen site-specific wines made in tiny quantities by Andrea León. The series encompasses six Syrahs, three Carmenères, a Carignan (part of VIGNO), a Petit Verdot and my favorite, a Mourvèdre from the winery’s home vineyards in Apalta, a prized subsection of the
“Carignan got its legitimacy through MOVI and VIGNO,” says León. “Now there is Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and lots of Syrah that’s starting to be seen alone or in blends. In Colchagua, this is the big new thing.
“The sophisticated food scene in Santiago has opened the doors for small, personal, eccentric wines,” she says. “A growing crowd of wine geeks and foodies in Santiago is encouraging chefs and winemakers to experiment more. A small but growing market of urban foodies is looking for different experiences in wine, artisanal beer and food.
“It’s all quite small compared to someplace like New York, but still, for what was around in the ’90s, it’s quite a change,” says León.
Fitting right into this brave new world of Chilean wines would be Petite Sirah, which Santa Rita Chief Winemaker Andrés Ilabaca made for the first time in 2010. Named Bougainville after the flower, the blend of 85% Petite Sirah and 15% Syrah is the first high-end Petite ever produced in Chile, and the roots of the project run deep.
About 20 years ago, Ilabaca and his enological team started searching for the best locations to plant grapes other than Cabernet in the Maipo Valley. Unable to zero in on the right spot for Syrah, Ilabaca chose to pursue Petite Sirah, which was grafted onto table-grapevines growing on pergolas. Later, he planted it in other locations with various kinds of trellis systems.
Today Santa Rita has about 100 acres of Petite Sirah, but guess which vines yield Bougainville? They’re the original grafted pergolas, evidence that pushing the envelope is as much about the willingness to experiment as it is about end results.
Lapostolle 2011 Collection Unfiltered Mourvèdre (Apalta); $30, 91 points. Punchy aromas of leather, rubber and dark berry fruits are alluring. This is deep and pure, with excellent balance. Flavors of raspberry, spiced plum, currant and herbs finish long and elegant. Drink through 2018. Terlato Wines International. Editors’ Choice.
This full-bodied Petite (with 15% Syrah) shows raisin, licorice and herbal aromas. The palate is jammy, with feral yet ripe flavors of prune, raisin and blackberry. The finish displays good acidity and chunky weight along with herbal flavors. Drink through 2017. Palm Bay International.