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Top 10 Chilean winemakers to watch

In the second of our Chilean winemakers to watch seriesAmanda Barnes counts down from 10 to one.

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The recent past has not been kind to Chile’s wine producers. The country has faced rising taxes on wine, which affected domestic sales, and a strengthening currency, which damaged profitability for its exports. Furthermore, the earthquake in 2010 saw the country lose around 125 million litres of wine, putting immense pressure on supply. But today it’s in a strong position. Wine production has returned to normal levels, and so has the Peso.

Export markets are growing, particularly for higher priced wines, and consequently producers are confident. And this new positive spirit is having an important effect on Chile’s wine production: it’s encouraging deeper exploration of Chile’s diverse geography, with even the country’s largest and most conservative producers unleashing their winemakers into new areas, encouraging them to bring out new products. Chile was never boring, it was just successful at providing consistent, good wines at competitive prices.

Click through to reveal Chile’s top 10 winemakers to watch…

10. Juan Alejandro Jofré

Juan-Alejandro-Jofre

Ten years ago when Colchagua was becoming famous for its high alcohol, rich and concentrated reds, Juan Alejandro Jofré was beavering away at a very different style of wines in Viña Maquis — so different in fact that most blind tastings failed to pin it as Colchagua. During that decade he changed around the viticulture of the vineyards according to his terroir hero, French consultant Xavier Choné, to be able to make lean wines with high acidity and low alcohol, picking up to a month earlier than his neighbours. Jofré’s wines bucked the trend back then, and gained him critical acclaim as journalists and drinkers began to tire of overripe reds. While at first he was ridiculed by his neighbours, he soon became recognised as one of Chile’s most promising young winemakers. When he began to feel limited by not being able to push his style more, Jofré left Maquis in 2013 to start working on his own projects.

“I wanted to make these cool climate wines from Curicó because it is the heart of Chile, but a very mistreated region… It has a bad reputation but I think it can be extraordinary for making wine”, he maintains. With plantations on terraces and a new family vineyard in coastal Curicó just 200m from the sea, Jofré’s own wines will come to light at the end of 2014. The first to be released is a Carignan, Tempranillo and Carmenere blend with just 11% alcohol, and a Grenache rosé with an “extreme” acidity. “When I make wines I want them to be wines that have a character of the place, but something that you can really perceive”, he says. “You can like or not like my wine but I have it clear that at least you won’t be able to try it anywhere else.”

9. Julio Bastias

Julio-Bastias

Julio Bastias is one of the biggest biodynamics disciples in Chile. He started at Matetic in 2002 and worked under the late consultant Alan York until he was appointed head winemaker two years ago. His wines in coastal Casablanca and San Antonio have garnered numerous awards, as well as forging the way for cool climate coastal red varieties including Syrah and Pinot Noir.

“The truth is that we have made these wines with just viticulture work,” he says. “We use minimal intervention in the winemaking… We think that the quality of fruit is so spectacular by itself that we don’t need to change much. For us, biodynamics is the best way to reach a true connection between the wines and the origin of the grapes.”

While biodynamics remains a fringe practice in Chile, winemakers like Bastias are bringing biodynamic wines into the mainstream and promulgating the concept in Chile that high quality viticulture is not the chemistry most were taught at school.

8. Leonardo Erazu

Leo-in-Itata

When young Chilean winemaker Leonardo Erazu went to the Swartland of South Africa and saw the revolution of bush vine wines there, it intrigued him to return home and make something of Chile’s wealth of old bush vines in Itata. Since 2008 Erazu has been experimenting in this southern region making field blends from the varieties that had been all but forgotten until recent years.

“I was curious about the potential,” he says. “There was a good combination of old vines, granitic soils and dry farming.” What he discovered were vines often over a century old and small producers who were on the brink of tearing out vineyards in favour of more lucrative crops. Enamoured with the vines and the inherited wisdom of the small producers, he began making white and red field blends, putting him among a growing legion of believers in Itata being the new “old region” of Chile. “Itata is pure and honest, it has a very old viticulture with little intervention and it is incredible what these people know about their land”, he remarks.

Erazu’s production, which is branded “Rogue Vine”, uses small local growers and low impact winemaking techniques in an attempt to “reflect a place”. While Erazu will continue advocating old vines in Itata, he also believes in the potential for new vines in the region and recently purchased eight hectares in coastal Itata where he is planting Albariño, Riesling and Chenin Blanc in a very cool climate plot next to the sea.

7. Cristian Carrasco Beghelli

Cristian,-Torres

This young Chilean winemaker is rising through the ranks in Miguel Torres’ Chilean winery. He was first hired for a research post and is now master of blends for the winery’s top wines after just six years. What makes Beghelli stand out though is his work on Chile’s oldest and long-forgotten variety, País. When Miguel Torres received a government grant to look into what can be done with the 15,000 hectares of the variety in Chile, he recruited Beghelli to get out and collect samples from different vineyards in Maule, make a sellable wine from it and rescue the variety from oblivion.

“País has a risk of disappearing and if you see these vineyards there is nothing like it in the world,” says Beghelli, talking about the vines that are often over 100 years old. “I don’t know how the industry can ignore it; they don’t see any desire to work with it. In 2006 it was one of the most planted varieties with 15,000 hectares, but in 2012 there were 5,000.”

Through the work of Beghelli with the rest of the winemaking team at Torres, the tide for País might have turned. The resulting wines from the 6 year project have put País in a new spotlight with two different Torres wines reaching the supermarket shelves: Estelado, a sparkling País rosé; and Reserva de Pueblo, a Beaujolais-style light red. País has seen a renaissance in the independent vintner movement in recent years, but it is largely due to Beghelli’s work and Torres that the variety is back in the mainstream.

6. David Marcel

David-Marcel

Sometimes it takes a Frenchman to show a country what they’ve got. And when it comes to Chile’s pipeño, it is actually two French men that are leading the movement. One of them is David Marcel who, with his Chilean wife and fellow winemaker Loreto Garau, is bringing pipeño back into fashion. Traditionally a light red made cheaply from generic grapes, pipeño was typically drunk by the bucket-load at parties and shipped all over Chile as popular table wine. As corks and corporations took over, pipeño all but disappeared. When Marcel and his wife Loreto left France and moved back to Chile to broker wine, they decided to make their own again. And Marcel wanted to make a wine that, in his mind, was defined by being drinkable.

“We have something light and something very celebratory because it is very easy to drink, and this is something that Chile was lacking,” he says about his pipeño, Aupa. “When you drink Chilean wine it is often over 14%.” Aupa is less than 12%, comes in either a small beer bottle or a 1.5 litre bottle, is made of 125 year old País (or Criolla) vines, spends just four days in fermentation and is recommended to be drank chilled. “This red wine got lost, and we wanted to give it life again”, explains Marcel. ”To make wine on this property was not to be making wine for the industry but for people. Pipeño was something that really helped me connect with Chile.”

As pipeño helped Marcel connect, his pipeño has helped people reconnect with everyday table wine and remove a bit of wine snobbery. What is Marcel’s next plan? “I would like to open a bulk wine bar where people can come and get their bag-in-box wine.”

5. Pablo Morandé Desbordes

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The Morandés have never been an orthodox winemaking family in Chile. Pablo Morandé Snr made the first cool climate wines in the Americas when he pioneered the Casablanca region, and now his son Pablo Morandé Jnr is creating a stir with his unorthodox winemaking methods and blends in their small family winery, Bodegas RE.

“The concept of RE is of recreating, remaking and reviving ancient practices of winemaking, and our goal is to make this renaissance of wines and try to use current knowledge with the ancient ways,” Morandé says. The project began in 2007 when their first wine Velado, a Pinot Noir rosé, accidentally developed flor after an earthquake partially emptied the barrels. They liked the result so much that is now RE’s emblematic wine.

The hark back to age-old practices is best demonstrated by their specially commissioned 13,000 litre clay fermentation tanks with no temperature controls and designed for a maximum of one daily pump-over. The winery also makes many unorthodox co-fermentations for their Chardonnoir (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), Pinotel (Pinot Noir and Moscatel) and Syranoir (Syrah and Pinot Noir). While this complicates their harvest schedule, Morandé is set on challenging and changing the industry. “I think our consumers are a little tired of the same style of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and we need to show different things. We need to show a new face and create new and exciting ways of making wine.”

4. Andrea Leon

Andrea-Leon
Photo credit: Matt Wilson

When a young winemaker is given their own personal line at a Michel Rolland winery, you know that they are doing something right. Andrea León has worked for Lapostolle (the family behind Grand Marnier) since 2004, winemaking with their high profile consultant Rolland in the biodynamic Apalta winery. However when her own personal style began to diverge from Rolland’s, Lapostolle gave León the freedom to develop her own range, which is now one of the most interesting collections in Chile. León produces an adventurous terroir series of seven Syrahs from around Chile, three Carmenères, and a few less common varieties including Muscat, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre, Carignan and Grenache.

Her exploration in Syrah is on trend with what is becoming one of Chile’s most promising varieties, and León shows the potential of this versatile variety from coastal and mountainous regions of Elqui, Casablanca, San Antonio, Cachapoal and Colchagua. “It was just an idea from when I was working before in San Pedro and I could see Syrah from all over Chile tasting great from the coast to the Andes,” she says. The Syrah assortment ranges from floral and spicy to rich tapenade and intense dark fruit, however León’s style is clear: smooth tannins, a backbone of acidity from earlier harvesting, and minimum oak, letting the wine and place talk for themselves.

3. François Massoc

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François Massoc came back to Chile to make a wine that showed Chile was more than just “good value”. After years studying in France and, curiously, winemaking in an Israeli monastery, Massoc returned home to make wine with his best friends: terroir expert Pedro Parra and Louis-Michel Liger-Belair of Vosne-Romanée fame. “We are not making money with Aristos. It is very expensive to produce, but we want to prove that in Chile you can make a world class wine,” he says. The fact that their top wine is a Chardonnay, the solitary white in Chile’s over £40 club, also proves that Chile is not just a one-trick Cabernet pony, although they do also make an acclaimed Cabernet and are also working on a Pinot Noir.

While the small Aristos project is redefining Chile’s premium category, other Massoc projects reinforce his game-changing status. At Calyptra, he makes one of the few high-end Sauvignon Blancs that doesn’t come from the coast, but instead from the Andes and aged in custom-made barrels (Massoc was a cooper before a winemaker). His other project with Parra, Clos des Fous – madmen’s vineyard – is another venture to show that Chile doesn’t need to play by the same old rules. “We wanted to have more fun, to be more free and make really drinkable wines from origins that people didn’t necessarily believe could bring a good wine. Six years ago nobody would pay anything for Cachapoal, and now it has become very sexy.”

2. Felipe Garcia and Constanza Schwaderer

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When husband and wife winemakers Felipe Garcia and Constanza Schwaderer started making their own hobby wine together, they never thought it would end up in both of them losing their jobs, nor that their actions would lead to Chile’s biggest independent vintner movement. This unassuming couple have become big names in the indie wine movement since their first harvest in 2009, when they joined with other independent vintners to create Chile’s first autonomous vigneron movement, MOVI.

“We created this group to show to the world we can make wine with character,” says Garcia. The faces of this energetic couple have become a pin up for the new generation of Chilean winemakers. Their production focuses on the trendy regions of cool climate Casablanca and old vine Maule (where they are also key players in the region’s VIGNO old vine Carignan project), and they are focused on modern, fresh and premium wines. Garcia and Schwaderer even make a couple barrels of Pinot Noir in Burgundy to share different wines of the world with their peers in Chile.

“In the 90s it was very snobby to know about wine; we really think wine is not about that,” says Schwaderer about their mission to break down barriers in the Chilean wine scene. “Chile is the biggest wine producing country with the smallest amount of wine drinkers in the world,” adds Garcia. “We want to change that.”

1. Marcelo Retamal

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Retamal is not new, but even after 20 years filling bottles he is still at the forefront of Chile’s wine innovations. Retamal became head winemaker of De Martino winery straight after university in 1996 and since then has made wines in over 350 vineyards in Chile, executed a 12 year terroir hunt across the span of the country, and made a huge U-turn in winemaking techniques that sparked a new trend in Chile.

“My problem started in 2007, because the owner and I didn’t like our wines”, he explains, commenting on how flying winemakers and international buyers had swayed Chile into a ripe and oaky style from the early noughties. “They were correct, with softness, high alcohol and lots of oak. But we wanted to create a wine with more drinkability, more fruit and not much oak or alcohol… so we started to work very strongly in this direction. More than new things, it is rediscovering the old ways.”

His return to “old ways” include using only native yeast, no added enzymes or tartaric acid, earlier harvests, aging in old Chilean earthenware jars, and zero new oak. It is not just his winemaking that sets him apart. His commitment to finding new viticulture areas and rediscovering others keeps him on the cusp. Retamal’s work in Maule and now Itata has enabled him to revive many lost varieties and bring them to the mainstream, and his latest curiosity has led him to vinify the highest altitude vines in Chile.

Roundup

1. Marcelo Retamal
2. Felipe Garcia and Constanza Schwaderer
3. Francois Massoc
4. Andrea Leon
5. Pablo Morande Jnr
6. David Marcel
7. Cristian Carrasco Beghelli
8. Leonardo Erazu
9. Julio Bastias
10. Juan Alejandro Jofre

To see the top 20-11 Chilean winemakers to watch, click here. 

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