Exactly one year ago I had the incredible pleasure to take a wine trip to Chile. Organised by a fellow MW student, we travelled for over 10 days from Santiago to Itata, back up to Leyda and San Antonio.
It was not my first time in Chile, I entered Chile from Bolivia about twenty years ago through the Atacama desert during a Jeep trip that took us through the salty lake up to almost 6000m above sea level. We were travelling around the world for one year and my interests at the time were very different than now!
Chile geography is very unique: protected by the sea to the west, the Andes to the East, the Atacama desert to the north and Patagonia ice to the South. These feature have preserved the country from the devastation of phylloxera, leaving the majority of vines planted on their own rootstock. Wine, with no doubt, taste different here!
As the locals say, it is a country that should be looked in all directions: length and width. Although it is only 160 km wide, but 4200 km long, huge differences occur between the coast, the central valley and the Andes. Division was actually officially recognised in 2012 and wine lovers should be well aware of the diverse growing conditions.
Chile climate vary according to location. The coolest part are the coastal range, heavily influenced by the sea breeze, with the warmest part in the central valley, but with variation too. The Andes range is the less explored compared to Argentina, but producers, with climate change, are looking at the Andes for future development. The rainy season spams between June, July and August, in some part to the south, like Bio Bio, there is almost 1000mm of rain, then moving to the north in Maipo we hardly reach 250mm, irrigation here is a matter of survival. but climate change has hit hard and pattens have changed over the last 5/6 years.
Through the Spanish domination, vines were introduced here, but it is not only the ’90 that we can talk about wine making in Chile. It seams quite a brief history, but Chile in this short time has been able to find a very important place into the most prominent markets. Thanks to the copper industry the country first found easy free trade agreements first with the fruits industry then with grapes given space amongst international players.
Today the export account for $1,6 billion, the export is the major force as consumption per capita is extremely low (12 litres). 80/90% of wineries’ production is sold abroad.
Our journey begins with a visit to Santa Rita (Maipo) were we spend the morning with winemaker Sebastian Labbe. Third largest winery in Chile Santa Rita was founded in 1880.
Amongst all the winemaking procedures, we spend sometimes in the vineyard where we learn about Margaroder, also known how Ground Pearl. Similar to phylloxera, but less aggressive, these insect lives on the ground and according to the winery they seam to relatively disturb the vines.
We continue South to Itata where in Vina Lomas de Llhuen a wine tasting of local producers is organised for us. We are in the land of Pais, Cinsault and Muscat. Itata is the oldest wine region in Chile, most of the vines here are un-grafted.
The local greet us with great hospitality. We try many wines hardly known to the export. Despite being the oldest wine region, locals have struggled to find a market place. Fragmentation is most to blame, with production sometimes hardly exceeding 1000/2000 bottles.
Maule region is our next stop where we meet Derek Mossman, owner and founder of Garage winery. It’s harvest time and any means is used to gather grapes.
We are in the land of Carignan with vines dating back to 1940. Derek’s production is outstanding and the wine tasting set up at sunset, right in the middle of the vineyard, is a real treat for all!
We spend the night at Bouchon Winery, after a long journey through dirty trucks.
Curico’ followed on day 3 where we meet Brett Jackson, winemaker at Valdivieso Winery. From the small productions of Itata and Maule to a 12 millions bottle production. Brett is very honest and answers all our invasive questions. It fascinated to encounter small production like Garage winery to huge operations like Valdivieso.
Colchagua next stop, the most prestigious region in Chile. At Cono Sur we meet Matias Rios enthusiastic winemaker, who takes us around the vineyard with bicycles.
Of the 300 hectares, 150ha are organic. Ducks are used for inter-row management, compost is made from grape left over, a blend of brown sugar, cow manure and cow milk is fermented, diluted with water and then spray before flowering. Innovation, quality and the environment are the three most important concepts of the company.
In Colchagua we also visit Los Vascos property of the Rothschield family since 1988. Here we meet Claudio Naranco commercial director, who gives us a great overview of brand making and marketing. We also meet Julio Fariña QA and QC manager.
Viña Maquis followed: a unique winery geographically surrounded by 2 rivers, which act as natural climate mitigator. The winery is surrounded by a beautiful natural reserve which stretch along the river, creating a great walk.
The wine tasting is set for us under kiwi trees.
The wine tasting is outstanding.
Here for the first time I understand what wine made for un-grafted vine means. I fall in love with the place, with the family story and with the wine. I see great potential for wine tourism a sector that the winery has not yet considered.
In Apalta Valley we visit Montes and Gavin Taylor South Africa winemaker. Extensive time is spent over wine making and tasting.
As you come in the winery a sign invites visitors to take a deep breath as you enter a carbon neutral area.
But Lapostolle remains one of my journey highlight. Greeted by Andrea Leon, the winery runs 200 hectares in biodynamic since 2011. Some of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines dates back for 1910. Under the vineyard there is a water table which moves up and down according to season, shrimps live on site and irrigation is not necessary. The vines are all un-grafted.
The winery is gravity fed and grapes are hand de-stemmed by a team of 24 women. Andrea points out that hand destemming is very important in particularly for Carmenere offering more definition to the final wine.
Dinner at Lapostolle is simply the best, overlooking the valley on a beautiful starry night!
Maipo next stop with a visit to De Martino, where we meet fellow MW student Marco De Martino. Together with Marcello Retamal (chief winemaker) we spend the morning learning about Chile. I am glad to know that since 2010 the family has started a revival project of ancient tinajas: terracotta off-ground amphora used by the Spanish since the XVI century.
Cinsault and Muscat are kept in Tinajas. Muscat macerate on skin for 7 months. No SO2 is used, therefore low pH is the key factor to avoid microbial spoilage.
Cousiño Macul is our next stop where we meet Rosario Palma winemaker. The place is National heritage founded in 1856 with an astonish underground cellar perfectly preserved.
Impressive the hand sorted process for their top range wines all strictly done by women
Tourism is a big business here with 12,000 visitors per year, in particularly coming from Brazil and Chile itself. Contrary to other wineries the brand is well recognised locally with only 55% of production exported.
We moving north and our last stops are Leyda and San Antonio.
In Leyda we meet Stefano Gandolini owner and chief winemaker of Ventolera winery. 150ha mainly under Pinot Noir (35%), Sauvignon Blanc (50%) and the rest with Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. Stefano’s Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are outstanding. The winery is only 12 km away from the Pacific, temperature here in summer never exceed 27C. Stefano explained that diurnal variation is very minimal contributing to avoid condensation the main cause of rot problems.
We are taken by Stefano into the vineyard to understand the soil characteristic. Geologically there are 20/30cm of top soil, follow by a 100 million years old granite rich in iron and quarts. Vigour here is moderate providing grape with small bunches.
Stefano points out the sun light intensity which represent a big problem in Chile, double of what we get in Europe. Grapes must be protected with attentive canopy management to avoid the development of thick skin and accumulation of excess polyphenols. In some red varieties this may cause the build up of rough and course tannins.
In San Antonio we visit Casa Marin and I catch up with Jamie Fervraark commercial manager of the company, meet in Umbria few years back during a wine tourism conference.
Marie Luz Marin is a symbolic figure first female winemaker in Chile in the early ’90. She started has a wine broker then decided to have her own vineyard and invest. The winery counts 40ha, 90% on hills planted with Riesling, Sauvignon Gris, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache and Gewürztraminer.
The winery is 4km away from the Pacific and here the sea influence plays a major role. Frost is a big problem and water sprinklers are used to protect the vines. Another big issue is the strong wind and vines’ orientation is crucial to tackle the problem.
Sauvignon Gris catches my attention, a natural mutation of Sauvignon Blanc with smaller cluster, thick pink skin and small berries. It is rustic and naturally spicy.
To conclude our trip we moved to Aconcagua where we pay a visit to Errazuris. Pedro Contrera introduces us to the winery production and all wines show a very high profile elegance and great research.
13 million cases, 98% export in 60 countries around the world. Today Edoardo Chadwich is an iconic producers who has contributed extensively to put Chile on the wine map.
An certainly Chile has a bright future: diverse, with different and unique environments, from the cooler coast, to the warmer central valley to the Andes hardly discovered. Warm people, South America style, proud and generous, keen to share and ager to tell their stories, their difficulties and dreams.
Chile has left great memories in my heart not only as a great wine country but as place of amazing people and unbeatable hospitality.