From Spain, Lynne Sharrock sends us her WSET Level 4 Diploma Wine Trade Club Paten Scholarship Report.
I was asked to write a report after my scholarship trip, and this is what I submitted. Individual reports will follow very soon!
Chile has fascinated me since the moment I began learning about her geography and her wines, so deciding on my travel destination when I learned that I had won the Wine Trade Club Paten Scholarship for my WSET Diploma results wasn’t a difficult choice. My original thought was to focus on the matching of varieties to climate (particularly cool) and soils, but once there I began to realise that these thoughts weren’t enough to convey what I was experiencing. I have struggled to decide on a focus for my report as a consequence!
Reading about a region or country is one thing, but actually seeing it first hand, for me personally, makes things click in to place. I thought I knew that Chile was dominated by two mountain ranges, transverse valleys from the Andes in the east to the Pacific in the west and a warm central valley. However, driving 3,500 km up, down and around them and taking in over 500km of Chile’s 4000km length from just north of Santiago (33.4ºS) to slightly south of Concepción (36.8ºS) in two weeks was a real eye-opener. Seeing those cooling morning mists and fogs form and dissipate, feeling the chill of the breeze sweep up the valleys from the cold Pacific Ocean and its Humboldt Current, or tumble down from the cool heights of the Andes in the evening really put my learning into perspective and underlined the huge complexity that exists in Chile’s overriding mountainous geology and climates. My visit took place just as autumn was taking hold and harvest generally finished.
I’d like to talk about three different points, while recognising that I may not do justice to any of them in so few words, but these interest me greatly and I hope make worthy reading.
A sort of overview
Although Chile has been making wine in one form or another since the Spanish arrived in 1541, and many of the larger wineries like Concha y Toro, Santa Rita, Santa Carolina or Miguel Torres were well established long before 1980, much of the modern Chilean winemaking industry really dates back less than 20 years. In addition to businesses making large volumes of economically priced, basic wines from grapes grown in the warmth of the Central Valley, many pioneers have been busy matching varieties to site climate and soils. This has been particularly true for cool climate regions, often but not exclusively coastal sites in Casablanca and San Antonio with Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Syrah but also with Cabernet Sauvignon in Maule and very recently the new southerly regions with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc particularly. Not having the centuries of expertise of many European wine regions in many cases, Chilean winemakers and viticulturists have learned quickly from early mistakes, such as planting varieties where they would not ripen, as with Cabernet Sauvignon, and have been either replanting or top grafting to more appropriate varieties or clones. There is also widespread use of multiple clones and rootstocks, mass selection of proven clones or vineyards, and the application of differential harvesting in a vineyard.
Wineries such as Casa Marín and Leyda (whose wines stunned me) have vineyards 12 and 8 km from the Pacific and are still juggling appropriate clones for their extremely cool climate zone. Matetic at 18km from the Pacific has chosen a biodynamic route in this cool climate region of San Antonio and Casablanca DO. Almaviva, established only in 1997, but with vineyards having been planted in 1978, are at pains to emphasise the soil structure and cool climate in this part of Maipo close to the Andes. Viña Vik, in Millahue, Cachapoal, established only ten years ago as Alexander Vik’s sustainable wine-dream-come-reality, continue to fine tune Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc clones to individual plots depending on a diverse range of soils and exposures, as does Villard Fine wines close to the Casablanca coast. Reserva de Caliboro, in Maule and established 1995-7, work with heritage varieties as well as international, have an organic approach and are becoming known for their genetic bank of old vines.
There is a general move towards the production of fine wines from grapes grown at higher altitudes in many regions, often up into the Andes foothills, closer to the Pacific Coast (Errazuriz now have coastal vineyards), or searching much further south, Itata, Bío-Bío and Patagonia bound, while the higher volume, economic wines continue to be sourced from the fertile valley floors.
Furthermore, there is also a tendency to the reduced use of new oak barrels, more use of larger format oak such as foudres, and increasingly widespread use of concrete eggs, tinajas and amphorae. This is taken to an extreme at Bodegas Re, brainchild of Pablo Morandé Sr, and where his imagination now runs riot, the new winery construction being completed around the eight huge 12,000 litre pot-bellied cement-with-clay-cover fermentation vats. Not a dash of stainless steel to be seen, everything clay, cement or very old wood in an extraordinary range of sizes and accordingly wine styles. (I also saw tiny humming birds here; an addition to the privilege!)
New wineries are designed by architects and usually involve extraordinarily detailed planning to reduce energy use, as at Errazuriz (2010) or Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta (2005). Old bodegas such as Clos Santa Ana in Colchagua are recuperating old varieties and sustainable, organic, traditions as well as rebuilding at great expense the old “casona”, a traditional house constructed around central courtyards, the first attempt being demolished by the 2010 earthquake and only now beginning to take form again and planned as a rural hotel.
The rules for Denomination de Origen are nascent, and basically define little more than geographical origin (regions are large so this doesn’t say much and notwithstanding the 2013 addition of the “Costa, Entre Cordilleras and Andes” sub designations) and a minimum of 75% of the variety or vintage is stated, although exporters work to the 85% European standard. With no process, vinification, viticultural or varietal specifications or requirements, complete flexibility is fomented over a diversity of regions. However, this lack of restriction can prove to be a downside where wines are required to compete against traditional regions on the fine or premium wine market that is the global playing field. One group, however, has been established in an attempt to form the basis for a DO, the VIGNO movement, signed on 11-10-2011. The requirements for any winery wishing to belong, and there are only 14, are strict and include requirement for 65% Carignan or Carignan grafted onto País, over 30 years old, dry farmed, bush trained, from a defined geographical region around Cauquenes and Melozal in southern Maule on granitic coastal soils and including the Gillmore winery. The remaining 35% of the grapes are determined by each winery but must be from the same defined region and criteria. Two years bottle ageing is required prior to release for sale. The VIGNO logo must be dominant on the label, which some potential members have found troublesome. The Gillmore winery was instrumental in this initiative and organised a tasting for me of all 14 wines.
Climate change is affecting Chile and the influence of El Niño is a potential problem, causing less stable weather, and torrential downpours can lead to localised flooding (130mm fell over one night in April causing grapes literally to burst). Harvest dates are earlier every year. Moreover, there is less rainfall in general, less snowfall on the Andes leading to less melt water and consequently a serious water shortage, compounded by the mines extracting water upriver and leading to many almost dry riverbeds by April each year. Forest fires have been devastating this year, propagated by thirsty pine and eucalypt forests planted under government schemes.
Villalobos (Carignan) and J. Bouchon have wild vines growing up trees wines creating a real point of difference and unique selling point, Bouchon making País Salvaje red and white wild vines. Others with old and wild vines are realising the potential that these vines have.
Cultural heritage varieties and traditional farming
There has been much talk recently about the “rediscovery” of heritage varieties, centenary vineyards and truly pre-phylloxera vines in old traditional family vineyards. The correct identification in the 1990s of Carmenère as opposed to Merlot was perhaps a taste of things to come. Now many hectares of País, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc have been identified and are arousing great interest on several counts.
Firstly, two particular initiatives have been instigated this harvest, 2017. The first one in Coronel de Maule, Cauquenes, which is in south western Maule, the “Vid Seca” local union-cooperative movement (gremio) where INIA (Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias) part of Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture, the agriculture and livestock farming department, has collaborated with local grape growers by providing expert technical advice in the form of an experienced winemaker. In a move to protect and showcase dry farmed vineyards in Cauquenes, visits are made to small family winemakers who have no technical training and have inherited both vines and practices from their grandparents. Several varieties are included but the majority are País, Carignan and Torontel. Modern advice and basic equipment as well as bottling are offered by INIA to enable the production of, albeit small quantities of, good, basic quality wine in place of the previous “pipeño”, a traditional style of sweet red wine which is locally accepted but not saleable on a wider scale. I was invited to taste wines from the 2015/6 vintages of 20 producers before the intervention of the winemaker and would have loved the opportunity to be able to track the evolution of the wines following their “improvement” for a wider audience. Such has been their success that this week 13,800 bottles were put in a container, destination China! País has high tannins which need to be managed but is also capable of producing a fruity wine with the appeal of being drinkable young. Torres even makes a País sparkling wine, Estelado.
Secondly there is a clear market for grapes from these dry farmed, centenary, family owned vineyards, which are often País, but also Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec of over 150 years old, to premium producers, both small and large. Traditionally this was via middlemen who took a serious cut of the money and which actually meant that the growers were not receiving sufficient money to subsist, never mind thrive. From this 2017 harvest, the implementation of a price protection system has been successful, in the form of minimums guaranteed via “centros de acopio” (collection centres) and managed by the cooperative and INDAP (Instituto de Desarrollo Agropecuario; the government body for agricultural development). Transparency is achieved by posting grape prices outside the collection centre. In Quillón, Itata, prices for grapes last year were 40-50 CLP/kg, but this year the minimum was 140 CLP/kg (100 CLP = 12 pence, 0.12 GBP; shockingly low prices). Buyers, including big names like Torres, do not actually pay any more for their grapes, but what they do pay goes directly to the growers. This means that whilst their production is not hugely profitable, these small, traditional, family vineyards, which are all well over 50 years old, many centenary, and all dry farmed, are saved, and not lost through abandonment or being pulled up and replanted with subsidised pine or eucalyptus trees. Consequently, the families, many having less than one hectare, two to three at most, and who consider the vines as part of their day-to-day traditions and heritage and not just a commercial venture, are now able to earn a dignified living from their vines. This in turn prevents the loss of previously unsustainable livelihoods, as younger generations see that they are able to continue the tradition, in turn preserving a rural way of life which would otherwise eventually be lost. The project provides technical viticultural and enological advice and support in vineyards and wineries. The risk of 3000 growers basically disappearing has been alleviated and as the initiative begins to demonstrate to other small growers that it works, it is likely to extend. The production of grapes in Itata has dropped steadily over recent years due to this abandoning of vineyards and, as a result, there is now more demand for these old vine grapes which are very low yielding, concentrated and capable of producing saleable wine at the least and have potential for greatness when treated with tender loving care. Many of these “at risk” vineyards are very old vine Moscatel and País.
Thirdly, the production of these wines offers a point of differentiation and can create value as a unique selling point as well as being a tremendous source of genetic material, since the majority of the vines are very old, ungrafted and predate the phylloxera crisis. Torres has just bought “La Causa” in Itata, who concentrate on old heritage varieties like País, in order to be able to compete better in international markets. In San Rosendo, Viña Sanroke’s Centenary Malbec and País along with Trifulca’s Cinsaut, both in Bío-Bío are examples of successful commercialisation of old vine wines. Chile needs to try to stem the growth of sales in the economic wine category (wines well under 5GBP retail) and compete with old world Premium wines. It needs a change of image which old varieties may be able to give.
I could not close without mentioning these. Several wineries talked openly about their problems with Margarodes but many others did not want to. Margarodes could mean big trouble. They are tiny ground pearls, insects native to Chile with a multi stage life cycle, and which live and feed mainly on smaller vine roots as well as on local, indigenous plant species. The damage they cause allows subsequent fungal infection of the roots resulting in the vines failing to thrive, eventually demonstrating chlorosis and followed by death of the vine. The small size of the insects means that their spread can be slow, but this can also be by anthropogenic means; by humans on tools, machinery and footwear. Flood irrigation can help but is impractical, adequate nutrition can strengthen the vines, but there is basically no known cure. The nature of its lifecycle and its pearly capsule, as well as the depth at which it lives, lend it resistance to insecticides. I can’t but help see parallels with phylloxera here, and of which Chile remains so far free. Margarodes are also found and studied in South Africa and South Australia.
These are just some of my experiences from Chile, and for which I would like to wholeheartedly thank the WSET Wine Trade Club for awarding me the Paten Scholarship for my Diploma results, and without which my trip would not have been possible! It is safe to say I hope to return soon!
Wineries or groups visited over 3,306km and 13 days
- Casa Marin, San Antonio
- Kingston Family Vineyards, Casablanca
- Villard Fine Wines, Casablanca
- Bodegas Re, Casablanca
- Matetic, San Antonio
- Casas del Bosque, Casablanca
- Concha y Toro, Maipo
- Viña Leyda, San Antonio
- Almaviva, Maipo
- Santa Rita, Maipo
- Viña VIK, Millahue, Cachapoal
- Lapostolle Clos Apalta, Cachapoal
- Clos Santa Ana, Colchagua
- Villalobos, Colchagua
- Miguel Torres, Curicó
- Gillmore (Vigno), Maule
- Reserva de Caliboro, Maule
- Cauquenes Vid Seca, Coronel de Maule, Maule
- Viña Sanroke, San Rosendo, Bío-Bío
- Tierra Firme, Vinos de Patio, Trifulca
- Casa Bouchon, Maule
- Errazuriz, Aconcagua
- Santa Carolina (home tasting in Santiago)
Detailed, individual reports on all 23 visits to come shortly!