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Rescuing Chile’s old vines and the search for ancient abandoned vineyards

After 17 years working across the more than 4,000km stretch from Arica-Parinacota to Chile Chico in Patagonia, the agricultural engineer and founder of Maximiliano Morales, presented the results of his research on the rescue of old vines onboard the National Geographic Explorer Expedition Ship. The research came as a result of a presentation he previously gave in November 2017 for students and professors at UC Davis in California. Here, we recount a presentations that explored some of Chile’s oldest vines, and how viticulturists are working to rescue ancient vineyards.

The lecture was called “History of ancient cultivars in Chile, Rescue old Vine Projects in 4.000 km,” discussed how vineyards were introduced in Chile during the time of the Spanish arrival, as well as case studies from more than five wine-producing valleys than now, are bottling wines with a great success.

Maximiliano Morales presented his research to more than 140 passengers and staff on the NatGeo Explorer, explaining the initiatives that allowed him to visit small towns with abandoned vineyards to help them reactivate their economies through the Rescue Plan for Ancient Vineyards. This plan was put into operation in the San Rosendo (at the intersection of the Laja and Bio Bio rivers), Portezuelo (Itata Valley), Cauquenes (Maule Valley), and in the Puelo Valley (Los Lagos).

The agricultural engineer used the wine innovation methodology developed during his time at the University of San Francisco to organize seminars, talks, and visits from specialists who could teach wine producers in rural areas near the Laja river in San Rosendo to prune their vines, effort that was featured in more than 100 articles in international publications and matched them with well-recognized wine experts who fermented the grapes that were going to be lost.

In the case of the San Rosendo Malbec, Maximiliano was able to convene wine bottlers who provided bottles and wine label designs to improve the wine’s brand. This process will continue with the support of the business accelerator AgroWine Lab, which will manage the territory alongside Manuel Escobar, a wine producer in the small railroadtown with French heritage.

This process began when the agricultural engineer began to work as a tour guide specializing in wines and pisco, where he structured tours and explorations of wine-producing areas in the Elqui Valley and Limarí starting in 2001. He also started to serve luxury cruise ships, and has been a Freelance Wine Specialist on foreign ships like the National Geographic Explorer Expedition Ship since 2006.

Within the unpublished data from the investigation, Maximiliano Morales explains how the search process in the Puelo Valley, inside the Tagua Tagua Park, led them to a vine that had climbed over eight meters into an oak tree. The Swiss geneticist, José Vouillamoz, who visited the area last year alongside wine reporter and expert, Jancis Robinson, conducted a DNA profiling of the vine and concluded that it was of the Bonarda variety.

In 2015, CORFO, the innovation agency of the chilean government hired Maximiliano Morales as a wine strategic consultant, where he later went on to lead the “Nodo Estratégico Chile Vitivinícola 2.0” Project. In this position, he faced the challenge of creating the Chilean wine route, building a strategy to conserve ancient vineyards in the face of increasing climate change and frontier extension.

He also led the process of extending the borders of Chile’s wine-producing regions to the North and South, as well as toward the coast and the Andes foothills, with a focus on creating new products based on vines that had previously been forgotten. This process looked to bring value to traditional wine production that dates back to 1551, when the first vineyards were established on the coast of the Bio Bio Region and in La Serena at the same time that the city was being founded few years later, all researched by the historian, Fernando Arriagada that collaborates with Morales.

New but old ancient vineyared discovered in Chile

Since the arrival to the Spanish to Southamerica, Cusco was the place of arrival of most of the different grapes coming from Canarian Islands, however, Chile received several ships coming south crossing the Strait of Magellan from Italy, France and Spain itself.

Those ships sailing across the Atlantic and then entering the Strait of Magellan to arrive then into Concepcion Bay in the 1600-1800´s with Italians, French and Spanish brought several grapevines to be established in the new continent, arriving mainly to the Bay of Concepcion in that time, and now, Talcahuano Port.

Chile is leading a public-private strategy to search old vines along 5.000 kilometres from Arica to Punta Arenas, where can be found an old alive vine inside a crystal house of the Braun Family in the middle of city, at the main square.

From Arica-Parinacota Region in the north in the limit with Peru to Chile Chico, the focus has been creating new economic activity based on wine production for small localities with almost abandoned vineyards, under a Plan de Rescate de Viñedos Antiguos – Rescue old Vine Projects by AgroWine Lab.

Codpa Valley, Arica-Parinacota Region

Although there has been constant work being realized in the northern area in the Codpa Valley, over 1200 kilometers south of Lima Perú, through grafts of varieties such as Malbec and Syrah over “pais vines”, and maintain the local adapted variety brought by Spanish, there are other vineyards that have fallen out of this reality that are isolated and even abandoned at “parronales” and that have no commercial destination due to the loss of competitiveness and unawareness of the real potential that this genetic material possesses.

Pintatani is the name of the grape and wine bottled and produced by local farmers that sell most of the small production to tourist coming from cruise ships and Chilean visitors and most of the locals that receive tourists, have no interest on improving the quality and winemaking techniques due to the high price people pay, like 15 dollars per bottle.

Toconao in San Pedro de Atacama, Antofagasta Region

There has been constant work being realized in the Tonocao area, in San Pedro de Atacama, through grafts of varieties such as Malbec and Syrah, there are other vineyards that have fallen out of this reality that are isolated and even abandoned, and that have no commercial destination due to the loss of competitiveness and unawareness of the real potential that this genetic material possesses.

Toconao is an unknown area for most of wine critics. Few people know the existence of several “oasis” with underground water like you see in the movies with human settlements and agriculture developments. Grapes were brought by Spanish are part of the success and new releases from wineries like Tara of Ventisquero or “Ayllu”, a collaborative wine project lead by Roberto Carrancá (former Indomita Winery) are changing and opening new opportunities for local producers thanks to big wineries that buy the grapes and produce the wine in the area.

Among independent producers under the collaborative brand Ayllu, there have been commercialization issues due to the widespread variety of wine types produced under the same brand, changing in the label just the name of the produder. It should also be noted despite most of wines are bottled 750cc, the format should be 375cc or 500cc to facilitate the sale of the wines in the restaurants and boutique hotels of the area, because the high price big size format has proven difficulties in the sale of wines.

Elqui and Limari Valley at Coquimbo Region

Although all the pisco niche (distillation of wines from grapes like muscatel de alejandria, “pastilla”, torontel, among others) there are other unknown grapes like “ovoide” that INIA has been working on to produce a sparkling lead by agricultural engineer-winemaker, Irina Diaz, from Cauquenes Headquarters of INIA with local investigators of Coquimbo Region.

The other unknown grapes are located at the base of the valleys, adjacent to the rivers like elqui, limari or choapa in Coquimbo Region, which are isolated and even abandoned that have no commercial destination due to the loss of competitiveness and ignorance of the real potential of this genetic material.

We are talking about vineyards that are the product of the originals that were established from the moment the Spaniards arrived when they left from Cusco until they reached La Serena in Coquimbo Region. These grapevines are in the homes of local inhabitants, and are used as parronales to weather the hot climate of the valleys, but they represent an unexplored genetic treasure.

Valle del Maule

In regard to Valle del Maule, the importance of rescuing vineyards located in the Cauquenes Valley and specific sectors of Name, Caliboro, Coronel de Maule, as well as all the vineyards in the vicinity of Talca and Curicó was prioritized.

The leading winery that is rescuing old winemaking techniques and lost grape vines in this valley, is Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, owner of Coldorcia in Tuscany that in the last 25 years has been working with Erasmo Organic Winery in Caliboro area in Maule Valley.

Curico Valley in Maule Valley

Former oenological Director of Moët et Chandon George Blanck is working in Chile since a few years ago, and months ago, he visited Chile to present his latest creation- Gran Brut Sparkling 2015- with his collaboration and the winemaking team of Folatre Family Wines led by José Luis Martin Bouquillard, General Manager of the Winery.

After many years preparing the grapes thanks to vineyard management and winemaking technics, they were confident to launch the sparkling with the consulting of George Blanck that approved the Gran Brut Sparkling 2015 that was ready.

Considering Blanck is well respected in Champagne, this adventure to produce his first Sparkling in Chile opens a great challenge to keep looking for the best grapes of the Curico Valley in the South of Chile to surprise the local and international market.

Araucania Region

Regarding the case of Araucanía, it was emphasized that for many years, the habitants and authorities knew of the existence of these old vineyards dispersed throughout the region, but had not been given importance until 2015, when CORFO, the innovation agency of Chilean government created the program Nodo Estratégico Chile Vitivinícola 2.0 until mid 2016.

The challenge of that program was to structure of the road map of Chilean wine industry for the next 30 years, based on the discovery of old vines spread out in the country from Maule to Aysén Region, generating among other things, a strategy around the ancient vineyards confronting the challenges of Climate Change.

Considering the area was influenced by Italians arriving to the area, Capitan Pastene town has several unknown grapes not yet identified, plus new vineyards established the last couple of years in the Cautín and Malleco Valleys. Right now, Araucania Region has near 120 hectars from 12 vineyards-brands bottling wines in seven locations like Traiguén, Victoria, Curacautín, Lumaco, Los Sauces, Villarrica and Perquenco.

Despite the new varieties planted are chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, syrah and sangiovese, the locals are finally taking serious the “moscatel” in the Angol town, very close to southern Bio Bio Region and Capitan Pastene surroundings.

Several winemakers are finding other varieties brought by immigrants from in 1904-1905 when 88 families arrived to the area from Italian towns of Guiglia, Pavullo and Zocca, Módena.

South of Bio-Bio Region

Nacimiento is town in the south limit of Bio Bio Region (river), located north of Araucania Region. Millapoa, San José and San Ramón the small locations where grapes were brought by Jesuits over 200 years ago. “Pais” is the local grape that is mixed up with few other vines in the near 70 hectars that still produce “chicha” and everyday wine that is consumed locally, and some, sent to Concepcion and Los Angeles to be drank during the festivities of national independence day.

Puelo Valley and Cochamo at Los Lagos Region

Among the unpublished facts of the DNA Profiling made by Swiss geneticist José Vouillamoz on the Bonarda Vine found inside the private Park Tagua Tagua, few years ago, several unknown vines were researched by AgroWine Lab Business Accelerator. Several Argentinean families and Chilean moving along “paso el león” frontier border brought grapes and established a “parronal” in their backyard. All of those grapes and not identified yet and the projections of this findings are taking the challenge to produce wines from these grapes for touristic purposes.

Currently, through the AgroWine Lab business accelerator, lost vines in several wine valleys to carry out vineyard rescue projects are still being searched for, as well as exporting this methodology to other countries in the coming months, in partnership with local winemakers, to strengthen the economic reactivation of vineyards that are practically abandoned without a commercial use.

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