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Chile’s vineyards pioneer complex new wines using ancient grape strains

Basket of El País grapes

Basket of El País grapes

Varieties once thought extinct and old strains never truly developed are being given a new lease on life by a bold generation of Chilean viticulturalists.

With its Mediterranean climate and Spanish heritage, Chile is home to some of the oldest vines in the world and the oldest vineyards in the New World.  Once a colony at the farthest edges of an empire, Chile today harbors viticultural artifacts that have been lost and forgotten by many winemakers around the world.

Now, a new generation of visionary winemakers is bringing these long lost strains back to life, creating startlingly unique, complex and bold wines.

It all began in 1994 when Chilean winemakers rediscovered Carmenere, a grape believed to be the forebear of many of today’s established reds, but which was wiped off the face of the Old Continent after a Phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century.

The subsequent development of Carmenere in Chile has done more than give the country a signature wine; it has inspired a hunt for other forgotten strains in Chile’s vineyards and fostered the reimagination of strains that have traditionally been relegated to lesser quality production.

At the forefront of this enological treasure hunt has been a group of innovative winemakers in the Maule Valley, Chile’s oldest wine growing region.

José Manuel Ortega is the Spanish-born banker-turned-wine entrepreneur behind O.Fournier. After establishing vineyards in Spain and Argentina, the company looked to Chile to expand its range of unique, terroir-oriented wines.

“After many years searching the distinct regions of Chile, we are really enthusiastic about the Maule Valley,” Ortega told Wines of Chile.

Ortega explained that it was partly due to Maule’s soil and climate, noting that the area’s “sufficient rains and hot, dry summers with cold nights” drew O.Fournier to the valley.

But there was another factor that enticed the winemaker to overlook the nearby Colchagua Valley, the current darling of Chile’s wine regions.

“We also found a significant quantity of old vineyards containing a variety of different strains,” said Ortega. “Carignan has impressed us the most up to this point.”

Grown for centuries as a means to add color and taste to low-quality blends, the Carignan grape, as Maule Valley producers have recently discovered, transforms as it ages, acquiring a distinct and complex aroma.

“It’s a surprising and original variety,” Ortega said, “with some exotic aromas that tend to be very ageable in wine blends. We think it has the potential to be the queen of Chilean grapes, surpassing even Carmenere in quality.”

Aside from reviving old varieties, vineyards like O.Fournier are also experimenting with new techniques in wine growing.

“Another very interesting possibility [in the Maule Valley] is to graft onto old El País grapevines  more refined and recognized varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Carignan, among others. In O. Fournier we decided to graft an El País vineyard with these varieties,” said Ortega, “with excellent results.”

Meanwhile still other vineyards have different plans in store for their El País grape strain — known as Mission in other parts of the world — which were first brought to Chile by the conquistadores.

Miguel Torres, of the Miguel Torres Chile vineyard, speaks passionately about the history of the grape. “The País variety could be related to the Listán Prieto that is found in the Canary Islands,” Torres told Wines of Chile.

Torres explained how the grape, so thoroughly entwined with wine growing in the country, came to fall out of fashion.

“Until the arrival of Claudio Gay in 1810, the reign of País was indisputable,” he said. “Claudio Gay – a French expert agronomist – brought varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, considered to be more ‘noble’, and clearly began an unstoppable tendency of planting this French variety.”

“Still, País, without a doubt, constituted the Chilean red wine par excellence, which is mixed with Cabernet and at times with Carignan to improve the final color of the wine.”

Though País remains common in Chile, Torres said, with between 12,000 and 15,000 hectares planted, “the price of the variety was dropping inexorably as it was no longer used in wines denominated as ‘premium’ or consumed in varietal wines.”

But no longer – Torres has been at the forefront of a project that is making Chilean growers and world consumers rethink previous conceptions of the variety.

Aside from creating a truly Chilean wine, the project also aimed at improving the income of

small time producers.

“This variety is planted in general by a great number of lower-income Chilean families who lack the resources to invest in other varieties or to invest in their vineyards,” explained Torres. “These families have carried these vines, in some cases, for up to 200 years.”

In order to salvage the vine’s image and raise incomes for these working-class families, Torres and his partners decided to try a different approach with the País grape.

“We experimented for four years and our technical team, headed by Fernando Almeda, did extraordinary work. Basically we learned how to handle this variety as a sparkling [pink] wine.”

Local farmers grow and harvest the País grapes and sell them to the vineyard, receiving fair prices and, most importantly, restoring faith in the grape that Torres says is “undoubtedly the most Chilean (grape) we have.”

The Fair Trade certification for the project’s hallmark Santa Digna Estelado wine moreover “guarantees a higher price for the farmers and a portion of that price goes to social projects in the community.”

In 2011, Santa Digna Estelado won Wines of Chile’s best sparkling wine award.

But for Torres, the significance of the award goes beyond his vineyard, and even beyond the benefit to small time producers.

“For me, this is not only a project focused on quality and people, but also on the recovery of the history of Chilean viticulture,” he said.

The Maule Valley may be at the forefront of this forward looking generation of winemakers, but it is by no means the only region leading the charge.

As new vineyards spring up in desert oases in Atacama and at the foothills of volcanoes in Osorno, creating vibrant new identities, Chile’s historic valleys of Maipo, Colchagua and Curicó are also looking back to their roots and coming up with flavors that are as fresh and exciting as they are ancient.

Basket of El País grapes

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