Chile’s Viña Vik gets to work on ‘native’ oak casks

In an effort to cut down carbon footprints and costs, one of Chile’s newest wine estates is planning to start making its own oak casks from neighbouring forests.

Striving to create “hollistic” Chilean wine, Viña Vik, set in a 4,300ha estate in the Millahue Valley in Colchagua province, has spent the past few years charring old French oak barrels by burning fallen oak trees from the forests surrounding the Maipo vineyard area.

Now, Cristián Vallejo says the company is hoping to start making its own native casks.

“We have two ideas on how to mature the wines with our own terroir”, he says. One project that launched last year was the mission to start maturing wines in amphorae, made by an artisanal, Chilean potter, or alfarero, using  lay the team found in the Millahue Valley itself. However, this is a time and labour-intensive process. It can take up to eight months to produce 10 amphorae, and this is without factoring in human error along the way.

Although Viña Vik has experimented with clay vessels since 2011, the winery has no plans to give up on oak casks, which are, for now, sourced from France. However, Vallejo, who has been at Viña Vik since its launch in 2007, has spent the past 13 years finding new ways to bring more of Colchagua into the wines. The only thing we use that is not from Chile is the barrels,” he said, which has led to the estate’s next mission.

In Europe, oak trees are usually 150 years old before they are used for barrels, while north American trees are typically ready for use after 60 years. Somewhat conveniently, there is a patch of forest within the estate’s boundaries where oak trees have been growing for more than a century. Whenever a tree falls in the area, “and we wait for them to fall”, the Vik team take pieces of wood to char the French oak barrels the winery buys in.

“We are the first Chilean winery with our own Tonelería”, Vallejo told db. His team has now started trialling the Chilean charring effect on some juice from the 2019 harvest, mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, which he said has already displayed a “really amazing” difference to the wine’s profile. “It shows much more of that minerality.”

“We have some different tests on toasting and now we know exactly which is the one we like.”

The winemaker said some fruit from the 2020 harvest is now destined for the Chilean charred casks, which he hopes will be released in the next four years. “We are doing two years in barrels and one in bottle before launch.”

However, importing French oak is a costly process. Generally speaking, French Oak species are more expensive than their American counterparts, owing to the amount of usable wood per tree. There is a much higher “wastage” associated with French Oak, which tends to put prices up.

So the search for a truly Chilean wine is not over. Last summer, Vallejo went on two soul-searching trips to France to understand how cooperages work with their local forests to ensure oak is harvested in a sustainable way.

Vallejo told us the company has now brought in machinery “to make the barrels here” which should arrive in October.

“We can handle our forest like they do in France. We could rotate in the same way as in France to allow the forest to develop.”

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