46 parallel | Pushing the Boundaries of Chile’s Deep South
By Patricio Tapia
Chile’s zona austral, the cold south, is known only to a few intrepid winemakers and their most avid fans in Santiago. That is about to change.Valley. Last year, he decided that he wanted a concrete egg for fermenting some of his grenache blanc. ly, with
Port of Entry
Gracio Casanova is dressed in his best suit. A snug-fitting light blue jacket and a white shirt that’s seen better days, the cuffs slightly frayed. His hair is slicked back; his brown skin is wrinkled around the eyes.
Gracio looks proud to be standing behind the counter, the spot assigned him by the organizers of the Ñipa village artisan fair, where he’s pouring his wine. It’s a clear spring day and a cool breeze blows in off the river, a few yards away.
Ñipa is part of the Itata Valley, the hill country and pine forests hard by the Pacific, some 300 miles south of Santiago. Ñipa is just one of many small towns here, its land pristine, its traditions for wine tied to bulk supplies for large Chilean wineries.
Casanova farms a single hectare of cinsault and had been selling his grapes until recently, when he decided to cut back his yields, make the wine himself and bottle it.
He made it with the equipment he had on hand…fermented in a cement lagar, then aged for a few months in some old barrels he found somewhere. Not much else. Part of his production stands in front of him on the counter, five bottles in an even row.
“Want some?” he asks, his jacket a bit too tight around the waist. I nod.
The wine is delicious, the kind of red that you don’t really notice as it completely takes you in—suddenly you’ve drunk an entire bottle without realizing it, then look around for another. It’s just pure fruit, honestly presented.
Wines like this cinsault from Gracio Casanova are likely what brought Marcelo Retamal to Itata. As winemaker for De Martino in the Maipo Valley, he considers Itata the opening to Chile’s viticultural south, the gateway to a wine culture that’s completely different from the rest of Chile.
His interest in Itata began after a trip to Europe in 2010, when he visited several non-interventionist producers in the Loire and northern Italy (the usual suspects: Olivier Cousin, Puzelat, Gravner, Radikon). Retamal was impressed, and he decided to make some changes in De Martino’s wines. Passing up new wood was one of them. The more radical change, at least for an established winery like De Martino, was to produce a red wine in amphorae, Viejas Tinajas.
He set out to find pockets of vineyards where modern development had yet to creep in, isolated spots like Itata, where he was completely taken by the landscape: rolling hills of the Coastal Range swathed in the deep, dark green of pine forests, and, here and there, small patches of vines in brighter, more vivid greens; dirt roads that line the hills like labyrinths, often ending nowhere. And the people.
“People are suspicious here,” Retamal says. “It’s made buying grapes difficult. For decades, they have been paid next to nothing for their grapes. They used to get twenty-five cents [US] a kilo; we started to pay sixty cents a kilo, more than double. Still, they insisted we pay them in cash.”
When Retamal arrived in Itata he immediately fell for cinsault, a vine that had been introduced in the middle of the 20th century for its abundant yields (it’s called cargadora, “the loader”). He found a number of artisanal local wines “exquisite in their simplicity” and realized that cinsault grown close to the coast had the acidity that was lacking in some of the higher yielding inland vineyards. That’s how he ended up in Guariligüe, a few miles from the Pacific, on Itata’s far coast.
“The first grower our team found was Don Omar, who worked his vineyard with a horsePorfiados, tending old-vine cinsault and muscat,” Retamal recalls. “We fell in love with the place, but we really liked it when we tasted the wine.”
In 2011, he bought a few kilos of grapes from Don Omar and began an experiment.
Intrigued by some of the wines he had tasted in Europe, he decided to minimize his intervention in the winemaking—no sulphur, no commercial yeast, no wood. He set out to collect old tinajas (clay amphorae), some more than 100 years old. Adding nothing but the grapes, he used the tinajas to ferment and age the wine for several months. His first experiment yielded 4,000 bottles of Viejas Tinajas 2011 Cinsault, a wine that sold out quickly, and for obvious reasons: It’s easy to drink, fruity and refreshing.
Under the Volcano
If Itata is the main entrance to Chile’s south, Bío-Bío, about 50 miles farther south, is the central corridor. If you want to find your way south, you have to go through it. José Guilisasti found his way here after attending a conference on cold-climate viticulture in Oregon, in the early ’80s. He decided to explore whether a vineyard would grow at his family farm in Mulchén, in a wild and beautiful place.
Wild—or Wagnerian—whichever you prefer. Cross the hills of Itata and suddenly you find yourself at the Bío-Bío, the longest river in Chile (236 miles, extremely long for a country as narrow as Chile), which flows down from the Andes with water that at some turns appears to be emerald, at others so blue and or so crystal clear that it’s easy to see the river rocks along its bottom. Terraced hills line its banks, with red clay soils that stand out against the forests and fields of wheat. In the distance, the Chillán volcano towers with its snow-covered peaks like a ghost against the horizon.
Guilisasti had recently graduated from college and when his family asked him to take charge of the farm in Bío-Bío he began to consider planting vines. His father, Eduardo Guilisasti Tagle, then chairman of the board at Concha y Toro, told him not to waste his time with vines, that nothing would ripen there with all the rain (about 50 inches—1,200 mm—a year) and with temperatures dropping rapidly in the last weeks of summer.
But Guilisasti ignored him—emboldened by that conference—and in 1983 established a vineyard he named in “honor” of his father, Los Porfiados (the stubborn ones). The first variety he planted was riesling, which now accounts for 200 of his 600 acres at Los Porfiados. “Since there was no record or history of vineyards in the region, I had to experiment. Riesling could endure cold weather, so it seemed like a good choice. As it turned out, it had no problem with the cold weather that descends on the region—especially after March. And it has no problem with botrytis,” Guilisasti says. “It seems to survive anything.”
Along with riesling, he planted pinot noir as well as some gewurztraminer. During the early years, the grapes provided the base for Concha y Toro’s sparkling wines. Then 15 years ago, Cono Sur (a winery owned by Concha y Toro) took over the farming, using the vineyard to make their still pinot noir and riesling.
Winemaker Adolfo Hurtado, who began vinifying that riesling in 1999, is fascinated by the variety as it grows in Mulchén. “What makes that vineyard is the soil—a redder [clay] soil than I’ve worked with anywhere else. I think it’s responsible for the freshness, acidity and minerality that characterizes riesling from there.”
Thanks to this experience, and to the 2012 vintage, marked by a warmth that reached as far south as Mulchén, in 2012 Hurtado made 60,000 bottles of a single-vineyard riesling, Block 23, a wine that’s ample and voluptuously ripe, with the tension of the acidity deep underneath. “Block 23 is the highest vineyard on the property,” he says, a sector with clay reddened by iron oxide—much of the rest of the vineyard is clay mixed with sand. “It’s also the steepest site, which drains well and prevents any excess water from building up during the rainy spring and summer months. And it has the oldest vines.” Hurtado believes all of these factors contribute to the flavor concentration in Block 23.
It’s the acidity, however—an electrical charge in the midst of all the ripe fruit—that marks the wine as Bío-Bío, as if to signal the style of wines to come from farther south.
GPS Set to South
For Felipe de Solminihac, who landed 40 miles south of Los Porfiados, the interest in Bío-Bío also started with a trip abroad. In the early 1990s, while he was working with two Bordelais partners—Bruno Prats and Paul Pontallier—at Viña Aquitania in Alto Maipo, Solminihac spent some time in New Zealand.
He wondered if he could find a climate like Marlborough in Chile. That search led him to property owned by his wife’s family in Malalco, 17,000 acres in a valley along the Malleco River, where they were farming grain.
De Solminihac carved out 12 acres in the middle of a vast field of wheat to plant chardonnay. The wheat and the vines were bathed in a constant breeze, which prevented rot and disease by keeping everything dry. “But the cold is the problem,” he says. “For chardonnay, budbreak is early—by the end of September—while it is still very cold, so yields are low in most years.”
Five years later, in 2000, he harvested fruit for his first commercial release of Sol de Sol. The wine immediately caught the attention of the trade in Chile and of wine geeks like me. At the time, chardonnay was known as a tropical fruit–driven wine from Casablanca; Sol de Sol marked a major departure from that style, with juicy citrus flavors and an edge of sharp acidity.
De Solminihac attributes that freshness and acidity to the climate. “When the grapes begin to ripen, the temperature already has dropped, so they have at least two months of slow maturation,” he says. “Something similar happens with cabernet in the Alto Maipo at the end of March.”
Sol de Sol led others to the Malleco Valley, including Viña William Fèvre, a venture established in 1992 between the former owner of Domaine William Fèvre in Chablis and the Pino family of Chile. The Pinos now own 85 percent of the firm, with most of their vineyards focused in Alto Maipo.
Malalco and Quino are nestled between the Andes and the Cordillera de la Costa, where the rolling hills are swathed in wheat and other grains. If early settlers ever did plant vineyards here, they did not succeed.
The Pino family, Swiss immigrants who came to Quino in the late 19th century, had been ranchers focused on wheat and livestock. The wine from De Solminihac’s vineyard in Malalco caught their attention and they began researching their own southern vineyard in 2005.
Two years later, they planted vines in Quino, hoping to diversify their Alto Maipo portfolio. “We are on a northeast facing hillside,” says Gonzalo Pino, manager of William Fèvre. “It’s a warm orientation, with stony clay soils, where we planted a series of varieties that we thought seemed right for the cold zone.”
Pinot noir gave them the best results and they decided to bottle it as Little Quino, hoping to produce a “gran” Quino in the future. Felipe Uribe, who makes the wine at William Fèvre, thought the best way to capture the character of the place would be to leave the wine alone. So he doesn’t age it in barrels or filter it, bottling it straight from the tank.
In the midst of many clean Chilean pinots with bright, intense color, Little Quino stands apart for being slightly veiled and cloudy. And it really stands out in its flavor—refreshing, almost furiously fruity, with an acidity that marks all the flavors, a strong GPS signal on the road south.
“We wanted to show the fruit with as much clarity as we could,” Uribe says. “Rather than a pinot noir, what we wanted was a Malleco red.”
Pinot at the 46th Parallel
Rafael Urrejola of Undurraga produces what may be the southernmost pinot noir in the world, grown at latitude 46, 1,257 miles south of Santiago, in the province of Chile Chico. (Central Otago, on New Zealand’s South Island, has succeeded with pinot noir at the 45th parallel.)
Before he ever arrived in Chile Chico, Urrejola had been developing a line of wines—TH, or terroir hunter—that focused on small parcels with distinctive vineyard expressions. Some of the sites had been riskier than others, but all of his sources were within the limits of traditional Chilean viticulture. Chile Chico is radically different.
Tundra dominates the landscape along the shores of Lake General Carrera. There is very little rain—one-tenth of the rainfall of Malleco, for example—and plenty of wind, a cold, steely wind blowing all day across rolling hills where even the sheep are cold.
Back in the winter of 2007, while visiting his father, an agronomist, Urrejola happened to come across a study on the feasibility of planting cherry trees in Chile Chico. “It was 200 pages,” he recalls, “and it said that it was possible. And if it were possible to grow cherries, the conditions ought to be perfect for ripening wine grapes as well.”
Though his father told him it was a crazy idea, Urrejola took the study home, analyzed the temperature statistics and compared them with other regions. Then he headed south, to a property owned by friends, the Cosmelli family. The desert landscape was what he had imagined, but the wind was much stronger than what he had expected. “The big issue is that the wind dries everything,” he found. “Farmers in the area plant lines of poplars at the edge of their chacras, or the wind will prevent anything from growing.”
And then there’s the cold. Before espinos started to grow here, this was a glacier. At the end of February, the temperature drops rapidly, which would slow or stop the ripening of the grapes. In any case, putting aside the adverse conditions, Urrejola decided to plant sauvignon, riesling and pinot noir, about 1,000 plants in all.
By 2012, though he hadn’t succeeded with the sauvignon and riesling, the pinot noir bore enough fruit to produce a little wine—15 bottles.
“When I took on the TH line, I was told to look for new things—really new.” So he showed the pinot noir to José Yuraszeck and the Piccioto family, the owners of Undurraga. “When I told them I had found it was possible to make wines in Chile Chico, they didn’t believe me,” Urrejola says.
At the moment, it’s still an experiment. “Although temperatures may be similar to San Antonio [the far coast west of Santiago], in February everything changes and it gets very cold. And from our brief experience of just three crops since 2010, it seems that for every five seasons, there will be three with little or no harvest at all.”
But Urrejola keeps trying. It is likely that in difficult years, he will make sparkling wines. For now, his 15 bottles may seem like nothing more than an experiment—a drop of wine, but a significant drop. And others are pushing the boundaries as well, including Casa Silva’s project on the shores of Lake Ranco, 600 miles south of Santiago, where they’ve planted chardonnay and pinot noir for a soon-to-be-released sparkling wine. Or brothers Olivier and Christian Porte, whose vineyard on the Río Bueno near Ranco grows a pinot noir with 11.5 degrees of alcohol, devilish acidity and delicious, super-crunchy fruit. Chile’s vineyard frontiers are expanding, providing wines that have little to do with what anyone has tasted up until now, offering flavors from places as unlikely as, for example, Chile Chico. Expect to see more vines and winemakers headed south.