“The first Chilean wine I tasted was a cabernet from Cousino-Macul,” says Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein. “It seemed so different from the Californian cabernets that I was used to—more elegant and spicier, something halfway between California and Bordeaux.” That was back in the mid-1980s. Intrigued, Goldstein began regular travels to South America to study the wines. Along the way, his interests have moved farther and farther south, into Cauquenes in the Maule and Itata valleys, two regions in the orbit of Concepción rather than Santiago, where most wine travelers land.
“Of course, it was Maipo that put Chile on the ‘vinifera’ map,” he says. “But I have a soft spot for the living, breathing past of Chile’s southern dry-farming lands. And the secano—with her older soils, her diverse rock, quartz and cracked granite, and a país-past that goes back to the 1500s—is the spiritual epicenter,” says Goldstein. That “país-past” refers to the vines brought by early missionaries to Chile, some of those original plantings still farmed today. Add more recent arrivals—cinsault and carignan—on the interior side of the coastal hills and you have a tour in six wines.
1. Rogue Vine Itata Valley Super Itata Tinto
“The first time I tried this wine, I drank almost the whole bottle without even realizing it,” says Goldstein. It’s a blend of fruit off of old-vine carignan, malbec and syrah grown in the clay and quartz soils of Nipas, on the Itata River northeast of Concepción—“just one of many historic corners of Itata that we will all be discovering more about in the future,” Goldstein says. “On one hand, it is savory, not heavy; it is opening like a flower. On the other hand, it has a rustic character, but without being brutal.”
2. El Viejo Almacén Huaso de Sauzal Chilena
This old-vine país comes from a dry-farmed vineyard in Sauzal, a small town in the coastal hills north of Cauquenes. “If not handled carefully and if planted in the wrong place, país usually gives very rustic results,” Goldstein says. This one, however, stands out for its purity of red fruit. It’s made by one of Chile’s most respected consultants, Renan Cancino: “After his modern day ‘scientific education,’ Cancino has done an about-face, and is working the land like his forefathers.” Although many of his farming practices align with biodynamics, he prefers to simply consider his wines originario.”
3. Louis-Antoine Luyt El País de Quenehuao
“Bright, crunchy and fresh, this wine is a pioneering example of an almost missionary appreciation of the old-school pipeño wines,” Goldstein says, describing Luyt’s take—a French perspective—on the traditional wine of these coastal hills. Impressed by the work Luyt has done with país, Goldstein points out how Luyt was inspired by Marcel Lapierre of Morgon in Beaujolais, using carbonic maceration to give país “a new face to the outside world. I like the spices in this wine, but what I really enjoy is its freshness, how bright it is in its purity,” he says.
4. De Martino Secano Interior/Coelemu Viejas Tinajas Cinsault
“A lovely combo of animale, dried flowers and tart red fruit,” Goldstein says about this old-vine cinsault from the rolling hills of Itata. Marcelo Retamal ferments it in tinajas, the amphorae historically used for making the local wines. “Retamal’s career-long search for genuine wine finds him, in this case, employing the old tinajas and reviving an ancient tradition using fruit from ungrafted, old Itata vines, resulting in a natural wine of truly old means.”
5. Garage Wine Co. Maule Valley Single Ferment Series País
One of the early artisanal projects in Chile’s south, this is run by Canadian-born Derek Mossman, his wife, Pilar, and his friend Alvaro Peña. “Derek has an ongoing voracious appetite for old-vine, single-vineyard Maule carignan,” Goldstein says. “Along that quest, he also discovered various ancillary small parcels of sublime old-vine país. This was his first foray into vinifying país. He calls it the First Salvo Ferment. The style reflects Derek´s energetic, expansive personality. The fl avors are fruity, exuberant, and its spicy, refreshing character is simply delicious.”
6. Clos des Fous Itata Valley Cauquenina
This is a wine for the patient, “It explodes with dark fruit, ample spice and strong mineral notes emanating from the local granitic soils,” says Goldstein, then adds it’s a wine that will benefit from cellar time. Terroir specialist Pedro Parra and winemaker François Massoc are behind this Maule-based project, he explains. “Cauquenina is from individually selected higher-altitude vineyards in and around Cauquenes, and shows a strong sense of place—the minerality of granite, its stony character, how hard the place is and the spices accentuating all that. This is blacker, darker than the rest in my list.”
This article first appeared in W&S February 1997.