Chilean Wine: The Seal of The House
THE LACK OF A DISTINCTIVE CHARACTER, A HALLMARK
OF CHILE’S WINE INDUSTRY, HAS BEEN ONE OF THE LARGEST OBSTACLES
TO BUILDING A PRESENCE IN HIGHER-END MARKET SEGMENTS. HOWEVER,
THAT BLURRY AND SOMETIMES CONTROVERSIAL IDENTITY THAT IS THE
FOCUS OF DESPERATE MARKETING EFFORTS IS NOT FAR. AS A MATTER
OF FACT, IT HAS ALWAYS EXISTED... RIGHT AT HOME!
“Gentlemen, enough with the arrogance of Concepción and the siren songs from Chillán. We are all sickened already by Santiago’s self-righteousness. Gentlemen, I can now responsibly, serenely and confidently express something I did not dare say for many years: Coelemu is prepared and can rightfully become a province, the Province of Coelemu, capital city, Coelemu,” Gaspar Cifuentes claims. These words by the hero in a novel called “La nueva provincia” (The New Province) penned by Andrés Gallardo (1941-2016) portray, in a somehow satirical yet loving way, the yearning for independence of the winemaking area in Itata that later, at the dawn of the so-called Unidad Popular, was declared the Latin American People’s
Republic of Coelemu.
This patriotic and delirious act of independence fueled by a few glasses of the pipeño wine produced in Guarilihue would be torn to shreds by the coup d’état. But this bibliographical rarity, republished a few months ago by Liberalia Ediciones, tells us about the spirit of the peasant of the drylands, of dreams and utopias, and most of all of IDENTITY. Just like that, in high caps . That elusive concept that makes you a unique, distinct and unrepeatable you.
Chile’s identity has always been the matter of extensive discussions and even some controversy. The myths of the indomitable Mapuche people and the army that has never been defeated spoke of valor and bloodshed, yet the strength (rather than reason) did not suffice to imprint the identity of a diverse nation or, quiet frankly, a nation made of several nations.
While European countries monopolized industrial development, Latin Americans had to settle for the role of producers of raw materials: Venezuela (oil), Colombia (coffee), Ecuador (bananas), Bolivia (gas) or Paraguay (herbs). What about Chile? you may ask. Nobody knows for sure. Mining? Salmon breeding? Fruit producer? A country of poets…? At least, one of Pablo Neruda’s principles won the day: “So that nothing separates us, nothing shall unite us.”
Is it a utopia to define Chile as a wine country? Chile has nearly 500 years of winemaking tradition, it has a true heritage of pre-phylloxera vines, winegrowing was and will continue to be a driver of our economy, it is the fourth largest wine exporter in the world and winemaking is a cross-cutting and atomized activity where the big companies have to compete against the small enterprises, like the ones established by winemakers and small-scale, family-owned wineries.
As soon as I say “why not?” another question comes to mind: Which is the key element of our winegrowing culture? Which is its identity? What makes it different and distinct to palates around the world? These questions are a curse that has haunted us throughout our history. These questions that literally fry the brains of marketing experts have turned into one of our greatest challenges, not to sell more, but to sell better.
THE FRENCH FROM LATIN AMERICA
Defining the identity of Chilean wines can be a tricky business… because they have never had one! The arrival of the earliest French vines in the second half of the 19th century triggered a true revolution and swept centuries of history under the rug: The endemic tradition, the saga of the País and other grape varietals of colonial times, the foudres of raulí native wood and the clay vats, the rich dry-farming culture of the Biobío and Maule regions.
This Frenchification of wines (and the society) translated into a quality leap –you wouldn’t catch me arguing– but it also blurred Chile’s winegrowing personality. Hordes of French winemakers arrived; labels loaded with adornments and foreign appellations of origin like Bordeaux, Margaux, Pinot, Champagne and even Rhin came into vogue; head-trained vines gave way to VSP-trained vines; the old foudres shrank into barrels; and the wine tubs became aseptic reception wells.
Fernando Almeda, technical director at Miguel Torres Chile, takes some time to ponder when I ask him about the identity of Chilean wine. He then sighs and says: “The identity of Chilean wine? There’s still a long way to go. We have made some progress but there is no well-defined identity yet. The progress made consists of thinking in what we have, rather than emulating what others are, like Bordeaux wines. Some pretty unique wines are being produced, like MOVI and VIGNO’s, the País variety and the growing momentum of valleys like Itata.”
This need to look out the window, to imitate other cultures, to look like something but not being that at all, to search for and not to find, eventually prevailed and became a part of Chilean idiosyncrasy. The way of thinking of large entrepreneurs, mostly mining businessmen, put a seal and set a new status on wines. Restricted by prohibitions imposed by a government concerned about high rates of alcoholism, wine gradually lost its popular roots.
Starting in the 1990s, the boom of Chilean wine exports further strengthened this depersonalization. Wine was no longer an artisan product but an industry. It sacrificed its character and watered down into a commodity. Markets were flooded with wine, but at a very high price: It became the “good quality, good price, good deal kind of wine.”
This lack of identity intensified with the sometimes unjustified use of foreign techniques and technologies, the introduction of vine material that had no place in Chile’s soil and weather conditions, the blunt implementation of flying winemakers’ recipes and the business strategy that seeks to cater to the different market preferences, changing our wineries from producers of unique and distinct wines with a personal seal into order-processing operations.
“When I started in 1972-1973, there was no such thing as identity. Only in the 1990s, the world started asking who we were. Still, we were making the type of wine they wanted. Today we speak of terroir, climate, soil, and respect for the environment. It’s no longer Maipo, but way more specific areas. We are still searching for that identity…. They do respect us now, but consolidation is the name of the game,” said winemaker Sergio Correa.
It was precisely this winemaker, when he was at the helm of Tarapacá’s team, who started sub-dividing his vineyards in Isla de Maipo and launched wines boasting the terroir notion on their labels. Climate but most of all soil studies have fostered a new generation of wines that can interpret both consumer tastes and the unique characteristics of their own origins.
One of the first wineries that made the decision to go out and search for terroirs to reflect a distinctive character was Viña De Martino with their Single Vineyard wines. Then came Undurraga with T.H. (Terroir Hunter) and a couple of years ago, Grupo Belén gave its chief winemakers carte blanche to make the wine of their choice, and to freely choose the origin, grape varietals, even the name and label design. At present, many wineries own a specialties line that has walked away from their regular wines to reflect a more distinctive personality.
“Wine has today a more clearly defined identity.Today you can pinpoint styles, origins, and unique traits. A few years ago, there was no consistency between wines and their place of origin. Today, winemakers put their foot down when it comes to marketing. There’s more apparent positioning,” says Cristián Aliaga, winemaker of William Fèvre Chile and a project of his own called 3 Monos.
The times when viticultors and winemakers used to apply a recipe to all growing activities, like leaf plucking, irrigation, green pruning or barrel aging to design Reserve or Grand Reserve wines seem to be a thing of the past. The same is true for that bipolar practice of making the same wine following a different protocol for the American and British markets. The former, riper and oakier. The latter, fruitier and lighter. No man can serve two masters. Or accommodate all the whims of importers. The key is to make honest, quality wines for each price segment. You can’t lose your way like that. And, while walking that road, you forge an identity.
SO FAR, SO CLOSE
The emergence of new producers and associations like MOVI, Vignadores de Carignan, Slow Vino Chile, VidSeca, and Centinelas del Itata Profundo has shed a new, brighter light onto the image of Chilean wine. Portfolios have been freshened up and awed opinion leaders in the different markets. However, many think that these independent movements are not aligned with the local industry.They are perceived as the weird new kid in town, or amid the vines for that matter. True, Chile equals diversity like the French winemaker of Viña Requingua, Benoit Fitte says, but it needs a more cohesive image.
Grant Phelps, the New Zealander winemaker of Casas del Bosque, feels that Chile lacks a strong signature grape varietal and appellation of origin. He claims that a decade ago, Chile’s wine offer was as boring as boring could be. “However, in the past 5 years, things blew over, even in the local market. I had lost hope, but there are new awesome wines! For example, our Malbec is exponentially more thrilling that the one produced in Mendoza,” says the winemaker.
It is still hard to define an identity capable of reflecting what’s going on in Chilean valleys, without building walls Trump-style; without leaving anybody outside. For Felipe de Solminihac, winemaker and owner of Viña Aquitania, the distinct characteristic of Chilean wines is “their fruit and that they are easy-to-drink because they are gentle and balanced. It may well be that other regions produce similar wines, but Chileans are a natural.
Perhaps that red, sweet fruit and that honest sustainable viticulture alien to marketing tricks or latest fads could be the representation of natural traits that could join together into an identity. Philippo Pszczólkowski, a winemaker and professor at Universidad Católica, homogeneity is the most remarkable characteristic of Chilean wines. They are easy to drink. That’s the thing. Easy. To. Drink! They are pleasant wines. Lovable wines!”
No one is saying that all wineries should sell terroir wines. Or vinify their wines in animal skins. Let alone that they all produce País, Carignan or Muscat. It is much simpler. The first step to build an identity is to stop trying to please everybody and sell a wine with a unique, distinctive character with the unmistakable seal of the house.
According to winemaker Felipe Zúñiga, the owner of Viña San Clemente and chairman of VidSeca, Chile now has the wines with the best price/quality ration in the world, but he would like their humble origin, free spirit, and honest character to enjoy greater recognition. “A free spirit because we grow what we want, where we want. Honest because we strive to show the characteristics of each grape varietal, without any complexes or disguises, with high-quality structure, color, and aromas and a personality of their own.
Paraphrasing the great Gaspar Cifuentes: Gentlemen, I can now responsibly, serenely and confidently express something I did not dare say for many years: We have everything to grow from wine producers into a winemaking nation once and for all.
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