By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 22 August 2020
Since C19, the big Chilean wineries have focused much of their attention on classic Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and more recently Carmenere in the main Central Valley region from Maipo to Rapel. Now we are seeing a new generation of winemakers and small boutique wineries experimenting with different grapes, pushing the boundaries in every way in Chile – north, south, east and west.
“Everyone is now colonising Chile’s coast looking for more vibrancy, finesse and minerality”, says winemaker Viviana Navarrete of Vina Leyda (pictured). “New coastal regions are showing amazing stylistic and regional diversity for Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc – but more particularly for Syrah and Pinot Noir”.
Some winemakers are heading east, higher into the Andes foothills. “Higher altitude gives us more UV light to enhance aromas and intensity in Merlot”, says Aresti winery’s winemaker Jon Usabiaga. Whilst others head north to Limari, Elqui and beyond to the dry Atacama desert and old Pisco-brandy vineyards where low rainfall, clear skies and poor limestone soils add minerality and saltiness to Rhone varieties like Syrah and Viognier.
But most interesting of all in Chile is the reinvigoration of the old heartlands to the south. Wine regions like Itata (pictured below), Maule and Curico were once plundered by big companies for bulk supplies to fill their tetrapaks, dismissed as too rustic and rural – or in the case of southerly regions Bio Bio and Malleco deemed too cool and wet.
Now a new generation of winemakers are discovering the amazing treasure trove of gnarled free-standing old bushvines grown on their own roots hidden in these valleys. Many are the ‘ancestral’ grapes, Pais and Muscat, first planted in Chile in the mid-C16 - whilst more recent vine arrivals Carignan and Cinsault from the 1940s show potential here too.
“Itata and Maule valleys are the key to pushing Chile forward”, says Chilean wine expert Alistair Cooper MW. “There has been an amazing renaissance of patronage of old vines – many of which are dry farmed without irrigation”.
“We are now discovering Itata’s forgotten jewels, the 50 year old bushvines”, says winemaker Ricardo Baettig of Morande winery who has been exploring this fragmented wine region with its 10,000 growers, some owning less than 2 hectares.
“Pablo Morande first made wine in Itata in 1997, but it was a complete failure”, says Baettig. “When we first arrived, growers were very suspicious as we offered them twice the price they normally would get for their grapes. We are now learning the region’s terroir in detail, its different granite, clay and sandy soils and vineyard orientation – and Cinsault grape’s potential - which will be useful in future to withstand droughts".
Morande’s Adventure Creole (87% Cinsault/13% Pais blend) is not typical of Chile, but is one of its most interesting wines; almost Gamay-like with juicy freshness from carbonic maceration. These Itata wines are available in small quantities, but look out for other producers like de Martino who make excellent Cinsault here too.
In Maule region (pictured), the Carignan grape has interesting potential. Winemaker Juan Ignacio Montt from Espiritu blends it with Pais and Cinsault making bright-fruited great value Intrepido Reserva. “We are starting to learn how to make Pais too; it’s a bit savage on its own, so we blend in Carignan and Cinsault for colour and structure matured in old oak”, says Moutt.
Across Chile there has also been a shift away from using new oak. More winemakers are now experimenting with older oak, amphoras, old tinajas and concrete eggs.
Another exciting development is the new social empowerment projects in the poorer south. San Pedro winery have been working in Malleco region, 360 miles south of Santiago, historically better known for forestry with only 150 hectares of vines on volcanic soils. The region was suffering from economic problems with the young abandoning the land to work in cities,
“We have worked with 24 families who had no knowledge of viticulture before”, says Viviana Navarrete. “We began in 2015 and the idea is to invite more families helping them take control and commercialise their wines”. Focus in this cool climate is on Pinot Noir; the small quantity of Tayu Pinot Noir made so far shows Malleco’s potential.
And it is not just Chile’s vineyards that are buzzing with experimentation and innovation. One impressive winery project is Vina Carmen’s small batch ‘flor’ yeast-aged Semillon. Winemaker Emily Faulconer believes biological ageing helps sweeter-style grapes taste leaner and more complex.
Vina Carmen had discovered the dry-farmed old Semillon vines in Colchagua’s Apalta, a region better known for Cabernet Sauvignon. Semillon is diminishing in Chile with just 1000 hectares, but Faulconer has discovered that picking Semillon early and ageing under ‘flor’, she can craft an elegant Semillon.
Like many of these new Chilean innovations, quantities produced are still small – but Vina Carmen have plans to produce bigger volumes to sell abroad soon.
Apalta, Colchagua: SEMILLON FLORILLON #2 2019 Carmen (12%)
£25 NA in UK
Intense aroma, citric twang with great subtlety and complexity
Maule: INTREPIDO MEZCLA TINTA 2018 Espiritu de Chile (13%) ***GREAT VALUE***
£10.95 www.freixenetcopestick.com; www.winesearcher.com
Bright fruits & soft smooth tannins in this Carignan, Pais & Cinsault blend
Limari: SUTIL LIMITED RELEASE SYRAH 2018 (13%)
Chalky minerally Syrah with uplifted floral notes.
Itata: ADVENTURE CREOLE 2019 Morande (12.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£21.99 www.haywines.co.uk; www.corkingwines.co.uk
Brilliant new Cinsault blend with juicy fresh vibrant red berry fruits – suit Beaujolais lovers
Lo Abarca, San Antonio: MIRAMAR SYRAH 2012 Casa Marin (12%)
Peppery vibrant with crunchy freshness – beautiful elegant cool coastal Syrah
Curico: TRISQUEL ‘ALTITUD 1245’ MERLOT 2018 Aresti (13%) ***STAR BUY***
Sweet spicy, intense bright plummy fruits & herby undertones
Malleco: TAYU 1865 PINOT NOIR 2018 San Pedro (12.5%)
N/A in UK
Vibrant crunchy red fruits, bright fruit palate with herbal bayleaf notes
Join Rose’s virtual wine tastings in the comfort of your own home www.rosemurraybrown.com
Pictured above: Vik winery in Colchagua Valley, Chile