Chile’s Great Icon Rescues its Past

by | 2 Jun, 2014

Trapped inside Greater Santiago and resisting the fierce pressure of real estate developers, the producers of Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo Alto –the birthplace of Chile’s most prestigious wines– are rescuing the heritage and diversity of their pre-phylloxera vines in search of new quality thresholds that looks to the past to write a new story.

On this sunny and cool autumn morning the ground is moist, dark, and soft. the woody grapevines that grow in Quebrada de Macul flag their veiny leaves as a salute to an aristocratic past that seems to defy the relentless growth of the Chilean capital. after the rain, the terroir of Maipo alto looks spectacular against an unusually clear Andean background.

Introduced during the second half of the 19th century by Matías Cousiño, at a time when the phylloxera louse had not yet ravaged the vineyards of Médoc, these
first cuttings that still survive the postmodern rituals of hastiness, noisiness and real estate speculation constitute a live heritage of Chilean viticulture and the origin of its main quality icon: Cabernet sauvignon.

This beautiful plantation that surrounds the old cellars and the park of Cousiño Macul is not only a testimony of the dawn of modern viticulture, but also the birthplace of the traditional Antiguas Reservas line and the first wine Lota.

The direct descendants of these old French vines, these plants of over 80 years are surprisingly elegant and healthy. According to the winemaker Gabriel Mustakis, their roots easily reach 10 meters of depth, which results in perfect natural balance in this gray loam soil. Laid out to allow horses to pass between the rows and with furrow irrigation, the vines seem happy and indifferent to the pressure of concrete.

We are now in the tasting room for a vertical of Antiguas Reservas, where a dusty bottle of 1981 stands out from the rest. the wine offers a sweet nose, with notes of tobacco and clove, some moist earth probably from vinification in wooden casks, and surprising freshness and intensity. Verónica Cousiño and the winemaker Rosario Palma look at me with an inquisitive grin while I continue inhaling a history that will continue to be written in large red letters.

A THREATENED SPECIES

A few blocks away from Cousiño Macul, in this aristocratic neighborhood of Chilean viticulture, are two other emblematic wineries that stoically resist the temptation to sell patches of land instead of liters of wine.

Clos Quebrada de Macul, which belongs to the Peña family, continues to make history with its Domus Aurea, a Chilean classic that commands respect with its character and consistency while truly reflecting its origin through its characteristic notes of red fruit, spices, and herbs.

the other winery is Aquitania, whose partners Felipe de Solminihac, Paul Pontallier, Bruno Prats, and Ghislain de Montgolfier decided to move on with their project, build walls around its vineyards, vinifying Lázuli, a Chilean-French blend that very elegantly reflects the freshness of Cabernet sauvignon grown in the Andean foothills.

According to the viticulturist Samuel Barros, head of the Vine-Wine unit at Univiveros, Cabernet sauvignon from Maipo alto is an endangered species. “Given
the enormous pressure for real estate land, it is now impossible to buy agricultural land.
It is really funny that the old vineyards that best express our Cabernet are now threatened. They should be protected and declared a national monument,” he affirms.

But Chilean Cabernets must dodge another obstacle: many of these vineyards that miraculously escaped the uprooting and reconversion wave due to their low 

productivity now suffer the typical diseases of third and fourth age plants, like fungi in the wood and viral attacks. in Barros’s opinion, the 1990s fashion of over-prolonging the season in order to harvest grapes with riper and crunchier seeds not only produced wines of higher ph and more black fruit, but also affected plant structure.

“Overstressing the plants took its toll. today, these Cabernets have short roots and simply cannot withstand heat waves, especially those planted on sandier soil. those vineyards produce dehydrated berries, which result in wines that are more vegetal and alcoholic. the truth is that this was a dark age that we are fortunately leaving behind,” he says.

Today, wineries are moving at a brisk pace, as they need to renew their vineyards. the problem is that many of them have opted for clones that are very productive, like 46 and 341, in an effort to homogenize their vineyards and achieve greater yields. “Wineries should protect this rich genetic heritage and we, as nurseries, should provide them with all possible alternatives to grow vines with identity so they express the diversity of our fields at their best,” he concludes.

BACK TO THE ORIGINS

The earthquake of 2010 severely damaged the historical cellars of Santa Carolina. But such misfortune also unearthed some treasures, like very old documents and bottles aged 50 years and more. these findings let the team to undertake an ambitious and transcendental project called Bloque Fundación Herencia. Its main objectives are to rescue pre-phylloxera vegetable material, increase our country’s genetic variability and ultimately add a more attractive, multi-dimensional personality to its wines.

According to Jimena Balic, winemaker in charge of R&D, they already have 90 selections that are free from viruses in their different vineyards. of these, 28 have been identified using genetic and ampelographic analyses conducted by Andy Walker, a renowned professor from the university of California. By doing this, not only did they individualize the best plants of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, or Carmenère, but they were also surprised by an interesting discovery: the Romano variety, also called César Noir, that was brought to Chile in the 19th century among a pool of Bordeaux and Burgundy cultivars. 

Romano, which Ms Balic describes as “the Pinot noir of the poor”, was vinified by Pablo Morandé during the 1990s, but was never truly appreciated and remained anonymous. today it barely has a presence in the world’s wine map, but its intense notes of blackberries and violets and its interesting acidity can be a good component for a blend or a solid rootstock for finer varieties. in any case, this discovery, together with other mysterious varieties still to be identified, speak of a country that is diverse, appealing and surprising, far from what some international critics write or think of its wine scene.

Still, the team of Santa Carolina wants more, and so during the last three years they have worked on the Luis Pereira project, named after the founder of the winery. the project includes contributions from Felipe Laurie, professor of Enology at Universidad de Talca, and Ruy Barbosa, the father of Chilean enology, who passed away just a few weeks ago.

The purpose of this project is to rescue old vinification techniques that date back to the early and mid-20th century and to apply them to produce an icon wine that boasts the historic heritage of the winery while showcasing the attributes of a more natural and open-minded viticulture. “In the early days of the winery, during the second half of the 19th century, the winery hired Burgundy-born enologists Louis-Joseph Bachelet and his son Germain –the great great-grandfather of the current President of Chile–; hence, the style closely followed the Burgundian guidelines. it was a different approach. Wines were made differently. There was more patience and less intervention. Back then, there were no stressed vineyards or hyperconcentrated wines,” says Andrés Caballero, Winemaking manager.

Since then, Santa Carolina’s facilities have been renovated and what used to be the Chacra de Macul was the venue for a comparative tasting of Reserva de Familia 1962 –a wine that still shows a fruity and deep character– and a sample of Luis Pereira 2013, still in the vat. in addition to very similar physical-chemical parameters, in both cases the alcohol content is below 13o, aromas and flavors seem to blend together, and the character appears quite the same: lightness, liveliness, pervasiveness driven by balanced notes of red fruits, herbs, and flowers.

“The grapes –a base of Cabernet sauvignon from vineyards in Colchagua, Maule and mostly Maipo Alto– were harvested with total disregard to traditional preferences. Ever since we found in the winery’s historic records, the criterion simply relied on Brix. the truth is that I found they weren’t ripe enough. I wouldn’t have harvested them. yet, once vinified, I had to stand corrected. the wine has evolved spectacularly,” says Alejandro Wedeles, winemaker of the Reserva, Premium and Ultra Premium lines.

Not only does the Luis Pereira project prove that the multifaceted identity of ancient wines can be rescued –with absolute traceability on top of everything–, but
it also demonstrates that a different, colorful and very easy-to-drink wine can be crafted.
“In Chile we have a true treasure that we have failed to tap. today we have the chance to stand out in a world of increasingly more standardized wines,” comments Andrés Caballero while we check a map of 1919 that shows the different varieties grown in the several lots of this pioneering winery now surrounded by housing developments, factories and outlets.

A WALK THROUGH HISTORY

A few months ago, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Don Melchor, Concha y Toro’s signature wine and Chile’s first icon wine, with a vertical tasting of six of its vintages. We joined Enrique Tirado, responsible for this wine since 1997, in a walk through some of the milestones in the successful and thrilling saga that summarizes the recent history of Cabernet sauvignon, from the earliest wines with 12o of alcohol and fermented in raulí barrels to the fruity exuberance and outspoken character of the latest vintages that continue to rely on the fresh and pristine acidity so unique to Maipo Alto.

Its grapes are sourced from a selection of seven lots in the Puente alto vineyard      –Chile’s most acclaimed terroir based on wine gurus’ scores– south of Greater Santiago, a green oasis girdled by housing developments.

Tirado says that this is a unique spot because of the combination of alluvial soil, with insuperable rock, clay, sand and lime content, and a Mediterranean climate strongly influenced by the Andes that produces fresh, lively grapes with the necessary acidity to balance flavors and favor wines’ immense cellaring potential.

“Technology and knowledge have changed with time. We moved on from raulí barrels to stainless steel vats. We went back to modern vertical presses. We have grown more knowledgeable about soil, irrigation, and extraction and we will continue to do extensive research on all aspects of winemaking. In the future, we could add some varieties, make more or less alcoholic wines, yet we will ultimately seek balance, the best quality of tannins, and the best possible expression of the terroir… that’s our goal. that’s where we want to be,” he states.

A little further in this magical triangle made up by Don Melchor, Almaviva, and Viñedo Chadwick, winemaker Francisco Baettig claims that although Cabernet sauvignon has somehow fallen out of the limelight in terms of marketing and promotion, it remains paramount for Chilean viticulture. The true challenge now is to move to another level, to improve quality even more, to boost the image of its wines, and to gain in identity, freshness, and elegance.

“At Viñedo Chadwick I’d like to aim at 13o of alcohol –rather than the 14.5o of a few years ago–, that will vouch for ideal tannin ripeness and the level of acidity that supports a beautiful color, increased freshness, and a sound aging potential. If we add a more balanced use of oak to this equation, we should be able to craft a Cabernet sauvignon with a more refined and elegant style,” he explains.

Chile’s greatest challenge today is to consolidate the best terroirs for each variety, and to move away from that simplistic but contradictory viticulture where Carmenère could be Sauvignon Blanc’s roommate. As Baettig expressed: we should keep in mind that the best wines originate in the most extreme, challenging and perhaps most unlikely places. Like this vineyard owned by the Chadwick family, formerly a polo field, where players would have never thought it would become the birthplace of one of the most prestigious products of Chilean viticulture.

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