In the Secano Interior, 250 miles south of Santiago, grape growers are slowly recovering from the wildfires that decimated the region earlier this year. And although the effects of the fires were not as dramatic as in the Maule Valley farther north, thousands of acres of forests in the lush coastal hills of Itata have been reduced to ash.
But the people here are accustomed to tragedy. Eight decades ago, a major earthquake hit Chillán, the capital of Itata. It struck on the night of January 24, 1939 and 30,000 people died under the rubble.
The earthquake affected not only the city of Chillán, but also much of the farmland of Itata, which traditionally supplied the country with wines from old país vines. To help the affected winemakers, the government at the time decided, among other measures, to introduce new grape varieties to help sustain the growers and supplement their país.
For example, the government imported carignan to help growers improve the structure and body of the local wines. And offcials hoped that cinsault, a variety capable of high yields, would help increase production and alleviate the financial challenges of the campecinos.
While carignan settled in the warmer areas of Maule, cinsault took to the cooler, coastal areas of Itata, where it not only ripened well, but also quickly earned the nickname “cargadora” (the same word for a front-end loader) for its generous yields, the vines often packed with bunches.
Although the cargadora fulfilled its promise to deliver tons of grapes, it did little to improve the reputation of the local wine, much of it sold in bulk. For serious wines, there was cabernet sauvignon; cinsault was destined for the bars of the rural countryside—at least, until 2011, when De Martino brought it into the modern world.
Marcelo Retamal, the winemaker at De Martino, was tired of what he called “standardizers,” like new wood, commercial yeasts and superripe grapes. He and his team went in search of the roots of Chilean wine and ended up in Itata, where the winegrowing culture is more than 500 years old. “The original idea was to produce a país, so I went south, but the wines I tried I did not like very much. However, I loved the cinsault,” says Retamal. “That, plus the landscape of undulating hills and the way the vines were trained as shrubs—so different from the rest of Chile—convinced me.”
De Martino’s Viejas Tinajas was a radical departure from many of the cinsaults grown in the region, which are noted for their low acidity. The wines made by the farmers in Itata are usually sweet, ripened to an extreme, not exactly the archetype of a vin de soif. They are soft and aromatic, but not refreshing. By looking to the coastal areas of Itata, Retamal found that cool winds off the Pacific helped compensate for this problem.
He also found that the grape does not have a lot of green aromas, so he could advance the harvest date without a problem. “When the farmers in the area look at the grapes we are harvesting, they do not understand why we pick when they are so green. In the 2016 vintage, for example, I picked the grapes just two weeks after veraison and the wine finished at 12.1 degrees of alcohol,” says Retamal.
In 2004, Montes launched Outer Limits Cinsault from Guariligüe, an area in Itata about 11 miles from the Pacific. “What struck us about cinsault is that it is very different from the riper flavors of cabernet or merlot,” says Aurelio Montes, Jr. “It’s not necessarily higher in acidity, but has a fresher fruit character and a lighter body.”
Montes buys the grapes from two parcels, a total of 12 acres of old, dry-farmed vines. Aurelio Montes explains that they prune the vines carefully to reduce the yields. “To learn more about the variety, we planted it in Colchagua, and there it gave superhigh yields. For example, in Itata, an old vine can give us ten clusters, each about ten ounces. In Colchagua, from young vines, the clusters weigh more than thirty-five ounces each,” Montes says.
Even 100 ounces per plant is a pretty high yield, especially for old vines. Montes first ferments the destemmed must and then adds the stems to firm up the tannins. “The cinsault does not have much structure, and to compensate for that, we extract the tannins from the stems.” The result is a cinsault that maintains the fresh character of its fruit flavors, but also has more grip than most modern Chilean cinsault.
Cristóbal Undurraga at Koyle uses a similar technique for his Don Cande Cinsault. He had fallen in love with the landscape of rural Itata and, in 2012, began buying grapes from old, dry farmed vines in the area around Bularco, near the Itata coast.
Undurraga fermented his 2016 using some whole bunches (30 percent of the lot). “The presence of stems gives an airier must,” he finds, “so the temperature is lower and the result is a fresher cinsault—it accentuates the fruity side.” His 2016 is a wine to drink cold, to quench the thirst in the summer. It’s not the cinsault the campesinos normally drink with their longaniza, the local pork sausage. But if you brought a bottle to a cookout in Chillán, few oldtimers would be able to resist a glass.
Longaniza in Chillán
A descendant of Spanish chorizo, longaniza is powerful stuff, generally served in a sandwich at the beginning of a Chilean asado or crowning porotos con riendas, a bean stew “with reins,” that is, spaghetti. The locals in Chillán, however, believe that the best way to serve longaniza is simply cooked in boiling water and served alongside puré picante, smashed potatoes with chile. According to Marcelo Retamal, there is no better harmony with that dish than a good cinsault. “But it has to be one from the coast, which has good acidity to refresh the longaniza. The combination is perfect.”
This story was featured in W&S June 2017.