Chile wine trends: 1. Old vine revival

If one were asked to sum up the most notable development in the Chilean wine industry today it would undoubtedly be a look towards the country’s past, and with that, a focus on the more southerly part of the nation.

60 year-old Carignan in Cauquenes

60 year-old Carignan in Cauquenes. Picture source: Undurraga

An interest in finding aspects that are unique to Chile, as well as a drive for quality and sustainable viticulture, are pulling producers into historic wine regions with ancient vines, above all the Cauquenes province in Maule (pictured above) and the Itata Valley further south (see below). Higher rainfall in such regions (Itata in particular), when coupled with deeply rooted old bush vines, means it is possible to manage vineyards without irrigation – or indeed any inputs.

And there’s a further incentive to look south to such areas. This stems from the success of Chile’s Vigno association, which began life in late 2011 as an association of 12 Maule producers of Carignan, who imposed strict criteria on vine age, planting density, water use and maturation.

Today, according to De Martino’s winemaker Marcelo Retamal, Vigno is poised to become the first officially classified wine in Chile, and the country’s biggest players are now getting involved: for example, both Concha y Toro and Viñas Santa Rita have made Carignan to Vigno’s rules in the hope that they too can participate in the movement, which notably requires producers to use Carignan grapes from dry-farmed bush vines more than 35 years old and the words Vigno in a large type-face on the front label.

“There’s a whole new world to re-discover in the south of Chile,” says Edgar Carter, chief winemaker at Via Wines. “From Maule to the south there are very interesting things that can’t be reproduced elsewhere, and it is a natural place for vines; if you want a dry-farmed vineyard then it is possible from Maule to the south – and with global warming, more are moving to the south.”

Retamal agrees, stating, “Viticulture in Chile will move south because of rainfall… the rainfall in Limarí [in the north] has averaged 90mm a year over the last 30 years, but in the last two years, it has been below 50mm, and the lake there for irrigation is almost empty, while today Maule and Itata have between 500-600mm, which is perfect.”

Leo in Itata

Leonardo Erazu is credited with kick-starting Chile’s old vine rediscovery in Itata, having witnessed South Africa’s success with bush vine Chenin from Swartland

Chile’s renowned soil consultant Pedro Parra agrees, but notes that north Cauquenes is still “a little dry” to grow vines without irrigation, but the south of this sub-region, and the regions below, are ideal for dry-farming. He also says, “In ten years time we will all be talking about the great appellations of Cauquenes and Itata”. However, he warns, “Itata is a big area, and like Beaujolais, which has as its heart Morgan, for Itata, it is Guarilihue.”

Certainly Itata has attracted famous players. Retamal says, “We [De Martino] arrived in Itata in 2011 but now Montes, Lapostolle, Terranoble, and Morandé are all there,” – as well as Torres, which bought 230 hectares in the area earlier this year, although this land is without vines.

Meanwhile, from this year’s vintage, both the VSPT Wine Group and Concha y Toro have started to buy old vine País and Cinsault, as well as Carignan from growers in Cauquenes and Itata.

And there’s been a positive social effect from the rediscovering of Chile’s viticultural heritage. Before the upsurge in making varietal wines from the likes of Carignan or País, grapes from 80- to 100-year-old vines were primarily being sold extremely cheaply for bulk blends for local consumption, but now prices for such prized berries are rising, it is bringing more income into these southerly areas.

Retamal records, “When we arrived in Maule and Itata the price was around 100 pesos per kg, but now the price of Carignan for example is 500 pesos, which is a big change, and enough to change the life of the grower.”

Sadly however, there are still threats to these ancient vines. In Itata particularly, subsidies to plant pine trees in the region is encouraging landowners to convert vineyards to forestry, which has the potential to destroy the very origin of Chilean viticulture.

Previous Chilean wine trend topics can be seen below.

2. Extreme viticulture

3. Taking on the top end

4. Pinot focus

5. Reducing ABVs

6. Embracing the Med

7. Rediscovering País

8. Sauvignon moves up

9: Malbec revival

10. Quirkiness takes root

One Response to “Chile wine trends: 1. Old vine revival”

  1. Dennis Sheehan says:

    Dear Mr. Schmitt,

    I have read all the instalments. This article is an excellent piece of journalism. I like the factual orientation, many direct quotations, the research, the insight and its novelty. I would like to find other examples of Mr. Schmitt’s work as well.


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