Chile’s other revolution

Jancis Robinson

As a writer of wine reference books, I am truly scared by Chile and its pace of change. I asked two people to bring me up to speed on the newest wine regions there – writer and broadcaster Peter Richards, the Master of Wine who knows most about Chilean wine, and Michael Cox, the UK head of Wines of Chile. Between them they managed to come up with seven new areas where vines have recently been planted and of which I had never heard.

But it is not just the Chilean wine map that has been evolving frenetically. The range of grapes grown and good enough to tout has also widened enormously from the old Cabernet/Merlot nexus. And social structures are changing rapidly, too. Until quite recently Chile’s thriving wine export business was dominated by the large companies run by the country’s landed ruling class. The grandees owned the land and the companies and employed families of farm workers in the vineyards and an oft-changing roster of oenologists in the wineries. It was rare for these winemakers to own their own vines – although in less favoured wine regions, peasant farmers would deliver their grapes to local co-operatives. Recently, however, winemakers have increasingly been able to invest in land, and a number of foreigners have moved in.

Then came the Movi movement, a grouping of ambitious small-scale wine producers dotted around the country who realised, in 2009, that by joining together and singing the praises of small companies versus big, they could create much more noise than by operating independently. And now we have another much more geographically and varietally specific association, Vignadores de Carignan – producers who have joined together to bottle a range of exciting wines essentially obeying the rules of a single appellation, Vigno.

According to one interpretation, Vigno is the result of two earthquakes and a Canadian wine-loving marketing enthusiast who originally came to Chile to ski. Derek Mossman Knapp ran a brand agency in Santiago for 10 years before starting Garage Wines and spotting that Chile had a completely unrealised and so-far-unmarketed asset in the vineyards of its least glamorous wine region, Maule. For years, this extensive region was dismissed as fit only to furnish the most basic table wine for the domestic market, not least because Pais, or Mission, the rather coarse vine variety introduced to the Americas by the Conquistadores, was the dominant grape.

In 1939 there was a terrible earthquake around Chillán in the south of Maule. Just like their counterparts in the Languedoc would do a decade or two later, the Chilean authorities suggested that the devastated vineyards might be improved by planting Carignan, the productive vine variety that makes deep crimson, relatively tart, structured wines. Varietal Carignan made carelessly from young or over-productive vines can be a fearsome thing, but many of these Maule vines are now 60 or 70 years old.

These ancient, low-yielding plants are also dry-farmed. Since rainfall this far south is higher than in the north, and because most of the farms are peasant smallholdings, there are few irrigation systems. The vines are also unwired bushvines – quite different from the rows of carefully trained, often highly productive plants that supply most of the wine exported from Chile – but they are well able to coax real individuality out of Maule’s granite and rocky soils.
Then came the earthquake of 2010, also centred on Maule, which left many of these farmers even more impoverished. Knapp saw that an old-vine Carignan initiative would tick many boxes for modern wine consumers in search of authenticity, but that it could also help local farmers and the Chilean wine industry re-evaluate the produce of Maule.

Knapp travelled widely throughout the region, meeting the notably senior vignerons left in charge of the family holdings after their children had long since fled to the city. His marketing antennae twitched delightedly when he encountered tinajas, ancient earthenware fermentation vessels eerily similar to the amphorae and expensive “concrete eggs” being adopted by fashion-conscious “natural wine” producers in the rest of the world. He had moody photographs of hands as gnarled as the vines and wise old men in straw hats taken for a Vigno brochure. A Vigno logo was designed.

But the most important groundwork for establishing the initiative was enthusing a small band of winemakers from companies of varying sizes about the quality of the old Carignan grapes, so that they could go back to their employers and insist that they participate. As Kiwi Brett Jackson, winemaker at Valdivieso, said, “We’re capturing a bit of Chilean history that was getting lost.” Knapp, ever the marketing man, albeit one who has been keen to encourage Fairtrade principles in paying the smallholders for their grapes, calls it “living patrimony”.

Those now involved are the local Cauquenes co-op Las Lomas; big companies Valdivieso, Miguel Torres, De Martino, Undurraga; medium-sized ones Morandé and Odjfell; Movi members Bravado Wines, Garage Wines Co, Gillmore and Meli, and winemaker Pablo Morandé’s small family company Viña Roja. Renan Cancino, viticultural consultant with a number of wineries including the widely admired De Martino, has also made a Vigno from his family’s vines in Maule, but it has not yet been released.

The rules that the Vignadores de Carignan have agreed on include a mandatory 24-month ageing period (arguably a bit long), dry-farmed bushvines, and at least 65 per cent of Carignan, all vines to be at least 30 years old (although new varieties can be grafted on to old roots).

These earthy reds vary of course, and those I tasted ranged from 2007 to 2010, including one that even included a touch of Chardonnay in the fermentation vat. None is less than 14 per cent alcohol, but they are all vastly different from the Chilean norm: much more, well, natural.

Source: Financial Times

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