History lessons don’t require Latin anymore, and lessons in wine history don’t need to be French either. Chile is starting to take lessons in its own wine history, and using Old Chile as a reference for New Chile.
One of Chile’s oldest wineries, and the first to win Chile an international wine award (in 1889), Viña Santa Carolina (CWB) is using its 138 year history and many older vineyards to look into the history of Chilean wine and take lessons from its own past to develop its future.
With a special project named the Heritage Foundation Block, winemakers, agronomists, scientists and historians have been looking into how wine was made in previous decades to see if there is anything they can learn from their own history lessons. The project was inspired after trying some Santa Carolina vintages from the 50s, 60s and 70s – a rare experience which proved very surprising in the ability of these wines to age well over time. Impressed with their ageing capacity the research project is trying to recreate historical wines with a view to take the best from the past and bring it into the future.
To get to the root of historical Chilean wine, you have to go to the vineyard. Chile is one of the few wine countries in the world to remain free from phylloxera and so it has a special pool of old, untainted vines in vineyards around the country. Whereas most producers in the world use the same clones of varieties sent from labs in Europe to produce their wines, Chile can use a rich library of its own clones developed naturally in the vineyard over its 400 year history.
“We started doing research to recover the pre-Phylloxera vines in the vineyards,” says Andrés Caballero, Winemaking Director. “Chile is the only place that you still have those vineyards.” The Heritage Foundation Block has already found 40 clean material selections around Chile with 17 wine varieties. The idea is to use these clones to replant a more ‘Chilean’ natural selection of vines.
CWB has not only been going to the roots of Chilean wine history, but also leafing through the pages of its history in an attempt to “rescue old winemaking techniques from the past”. With winemakers’ books from Vina Santa Carolina dating back to the 19th century, the researchers have also been using library resources and notes from the many other historical wineries in Chile like Cousino-Macul and Concha y Toro, and working with Chile’s first winemaker-agronomist, 93-year-old Ruy Barbosa for the project.
Putting the theory into practice, the winemaking team at CWB has been making wine from these heritage blocks of old vines and emulating some selected historical conditions and practices of winemaking (while utilising modern technology and optimum health and sanitation of current day winemaking too). This includes harvesting much earlier which gives more green aromas, however it also produces much higher natural acidity and lower alcohol which is better for ageing wines. “The tannic structure is very important for ageing and the natural acidity is a key ingredient for a nice evolution,” explains Alejandro Wedeles, Santa Carolina Winemaker. Another lesson learnt is reversing the oak trend and returning to using less oak and bottling the wine for longer (for five years in bottle initially), as well as using native yeasts taken from the same vineyard lots.
In the same way that this project was born from tasting wines made by generations before, the hope is that this generation of winemakers can make Chilean wines to be enjoyed by the generations to come.
So how long can you age a Chilean wine? “Before the project I would say 15 years,” admits Alejandro, “but now I would say 40 or 50!”
Photos of Vina Santa Carolina by Amanda Barnes: (top) Some of the older vintages; (middle) Andres Caballero reading the old winemaking books; (below) The cellar of Santa Carolina with its wine award from 1889.