Trends in Chile: 10. Quirkiness takes root

4th September, 2014 by Patrick Schmitt

What do Garganega, Corvina and Montepulciano have in common? Well, apart from the fact that they’re all native grapes of Italy, each one is now planted in Chile.

Old vines in Maule

Old vines in Maule

Over the next few days we will count down what we believe are the top 10 wine-based trends taking place in Chile, covering a wide range of topics, and taking in the views of the country’s leading winemakers.

But, firstly, to begin at the end we have trend number 10, which highlights the increasing number of more obscure grapes going into the ground in Chile, as even the country’s largest businesses try something niche to enthuse their customers.

“The big wineries are now pushing innovative quirky things,” says Grant Phelps, winemaker at Casas del Bosque.

For Phelps, developments such as Chile’s MOVI (the Movement of Independent Vintners), has succeeded in bringing global press attention to some of the more small-scale and unusual vinous developments in the country since the group launched in 2009.

Northern Spanish red grape Mencía is being planted in Chile

“MOVI has shown the big guys that quirkiness is a good thing,” he says, adding, “So now the big guys aren’t stifling creative impulses, but are saying that it’s ok to have wines that the supermarkets aren’t going to stock.”

One recent example is the decision by the country’s second largest wine producer, VSPT Wine Group, to launch Los Despedidos, meaning “the dismissed”, which is a new brand for winemaker projects, specifically designed to encourage experimentation.

Meanwhile, Chile’s third largest group, Carolina Wine Brands, has been celebrating Chile’s rich viticultural heritage, even if it means making wine in tiny quantities from exceptionally rare grapes.

Indeed, it is to start planting the near-extinct Romano grape in Chile having made a wine from a few 70 year-old Romano vines last year.

“In the middle of a row of vines we had maybe 1,000 plants and we didn’t know what they were, so we had to bring in an ampelographer, and we found out that it was Romano, which is a variety virtually unknown in Chile, and otherwise called César,” explains Carolina winemaker Alejandro Wedeles.

Other movements within Chile, such as the well-publicised Vigno group, which began life in late 2011 as an association of 12 Maule producers of old-vine Carignan, has also had an impact.

Indeed, the global interest in the wines from Vigno has encouraged the country’s major players to join, with Santa Rita Estates and Chile’s biggest wine company, Concha y Toro, making Carignan according to the association’s strict rules so they too can join it.

Italian white grape Fiano also has potential in Chile

Italian white grape Fiano also has potential in Chile

But the move to embrace the off-beat is also being seen in the decision to import increasingly obscure grapes to Chile.

For example, Chile’s resident “terroir” specialist Pedro Parra says he has “a friend” bringing northern Spanish red grape Mencia into Chile.

Parra suggests that the schist in the northern part of Cauquenes should be ideal for the variety, which is known for its wines from northwest Spain’s Bierzo region, home to schist and granite derived soils.

Elsewhere, Cachapoal’s Los Boldos, which is owned by Portuguse group Sogrape, has Touriga Nacional in quarantine, and hopes to plant it next year.

“I think Touriga will do well in Cachapoal,” says the estate’s chief winemaker Carolina França.

Italian grapes in particular appear popular. Ricardo Beattig at Morandé says that Viña Estampa, where he was formerly winemaker, has brought in 14 different Italian varieties.

Although these have been in quarantine for the last 2 years, he says that Estampa is now starting to multiply the material, so that the producer can plant the varieties in the next 1-2 years.

Among the grapes brought in by the winery – a project spearheaded by Ricardo, who has made wine in Piedmont, Fruili and Tuscany – he believes Aglianico, as well as white grapes Greco and Fiano “will work, in my opinion”.

Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are already present in the country, he points out, although he said that the soil and climate weren’t right for the latter, famously pernickety grape.

Meanwhile, in 2008, the aforementioned VSPT Wine Group began to import plants from Italy and France, including Corvino, Primitivo, and Dolcetto.

The company’s viticulturist, Tomás Rivera, says that Primitivo in the south of the country is “showing well”, and he has high hopes for Garganega, which was planted in Leyda last year, where VSPT own Viña Leyda.

As for further Italian grapes, Undurraga’s Rafael Urrejola says that he is “trying Montepulciano in Cauquenes” – a region he says is “very suitable for Mediterranean varieties”.

For the future, Carolina winemaker Alejandro Wedeles says he would like to work with Nero d’Avola from Sicily because of Chile’s volcanic soils and similar climate.

Interestingly, Viña De Martino’s head winemaker Marcelo Retamal says that last year he made a tour of European wine regions in volcanic areas, from Etna to Santorini.

So perhaps we’ll see Nerello Mascalese or Assyrtiko trialled in Chile.

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