Nothing is really what it seems in the interior drylands of the Itata Valley. Here, the head-trained vineyards, watered uniquely with the sweat of their vintners, keep alive a tradition that is growing increasingly stronger in the markets that are starved for wines boasting identity and character. For Guarilihue it’s the dawn of a new day.
José Miguel Neira, aka Neira the Bandit, wears the military regalia of a patriot army Colonel. His complexion is dark, his beard is unkempt. He has a fierce aspect. A highwayman of Cerrillos de Lontué –commonly referred to as the ‘face skinner’ due to his notorious ability to skin the face of his victims– Neira the Bandit is recruited by Manuel Rodríguez and José de San Martín to fight along the patriot troops. Neira the Bandit soon turns into spaniard governor Marcó del Pont’s worse nightmare. A heroic and ruthless rogue who after the decisive battle of Maipú in 1817 resumed his adventures and forays, choosing his victims irrespective of their race or beliefs, and robbing both estates and stagecoaches throughout the Maule region. Neira the Bandit saw the end of his days when he was shot in Talca by order of general Ramón Freire. The relatives of this novel-worthy character immortalized in the work of writer Blest Gana, migrated to the Itata and Bío-Bío Valleys, leaving behind a road paved with blood, gunpowder and supplications.
–So, how do you like my wine? –asks Yamil Neira, a direct descendant of the notorious bandit, while holding a dusty bottle of Cinsault or Cargadora, as they call it in the drylands of Itata.
–It has character –i reply a little confused.
Still, here in Guarilihue nothing is really what it seems. Yamil is a faculty member at Universidad de Concepción, and holds PhDs in Chemistry both in Chile and Germany. Sitting behind his laptop, in a house ravaged by the last earthquake, Yamil claims that the soils in these devilish slopes hide enormous quantities of lithium, magnesium and zinc. Even uranium! I look at him startled while we open a second bottle. And another. And another. The bandit’s dark eyes, coarsely outlined on the labels, watch each one of my movements and study even my slightest gestures.
–No worries. Uranium is not radioactive– he explains.
You can breathe the prehistory of Chilean viticulture here. a tradition of punching down, prayers and hangovers. The Jesuit monk Francisco de Carabantes brought the first vines back in 1548 through Talcahuano to make wine for sacramental purposes. Those very same vines thrived with miraculous spontaneity throughout the Itata and Bío-Bío Valleys. Until well into the 20th century, 80% of the wine produced in Chile originated in those regions. The wines, basically Muscat of Alexandria and País, used to be transported by cart along winding and dusty roads. Only the Tomé port had over five cooperages. Wines used to be barreled and distributed by boat to the rest of the country. The wine activity was flourishing, effervescent and unaffected.
However, prohibitions made their debut in 1938. Nuisances and nonsense by the barrel! in an odd move to curb alcoholism, the government of the time fostered uprooting of vineyards. Itata gradually lost ground. Winegrowing moved up north. The small winemakers, owners of rustic and devaluated cultivars, lost their status to the uptight Bordeaux varieties from Maipo and Colchagua. The Itata Valley and even a sizeable portion of the Maule Valley turned into the backyard of Chile’s winemaking. The large wineries in Santiago would buy –as they still do– their grapes, yet in a wary and bashful manner, almost wrinkling their nose. The dryland winemaking tradition barely outlived that phase.
Today, it is threatened by the unrelenting headway of logging operations. The challenged establishment of Celulosa Nueva Aldea has upset the landscape. Vineyards are now retreating. The slopes are crowded with pines and eucalyptus. Many vintners have felt forced to sell their properties. Entire families have migrated, while others doggedly keep growing their grapes, just as their ancestors used to do it over 400 years ago, battered by the ups and downs of the market and facing the trends imposed by modern times that disrespect both traditions and gray hairs.
–Is cellulose a polysaccharide? –Yamil asks out of the blue–. Claudio Barría, winemaker at Viña Casanueva, stares at him all puzzled.
–Yep, cellulose is a polysaccharide that consists of glucose molecules. You want to know why I know that?
–Because it’s a chemical– we answer in unison.
–Nope, because I’m a bandit. I am Neira the Bandit.
A LAND OF EXPERIMENTS
In itata, winemaking activities revolve almost exclusively around the cultivar Muscat of Alexandria, or Italia, as it is called here. Its vines crawl up and down the rolling landscape, scattered around like a pack of rogues, barely raising their heads and hiding their fruit under a dense canopy that protects them from the wind and the intense solar radiation. Italia wines are rustic, floral and voluptuous. Take for example Piedras del Encanto Moscatel 2010 from Guarilihue and vinified by Yamil’s nephew Danilo Neira, which we uncork under the scorching noon sun: an earthy,
broad and savory wine that, unlike the area’s traditional pipeños, was not fermented with its skins but using modern techniques.
Itata is once again undergoing a process of reconversion. In fact, years ago the state undertook a number of efforts to give the area’s production profile a facelift and thus push grape prices up. Noble varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère were introduced, but results were far from expected. In most sub-areas, their grapes fail to ripen properly because, even though there are some hot periods, mean high temperatures remain well below the central zone average. Whites and short-cycled reds such as Pinot Noir and even Cinsault respond better to the valley’s climate conditions.
– Choosing the wrong varieties was only part of the problem. The other part was the decision to import the technology. Tending these vines in a VSP system was a big mistake, since the strong winds make management virtually impossible. There is no wonder the traditional method used was head training. It is not a question of replicating recipes, but to adapt to the valley’s special conditions, explains winemaker Edgardo Candia, who for a couple of years now has been working with Itata small producers.
Yamil Neira followed the advice of winemaker Claudio Barría and grafted Pinot Noir on some old Italia rootstock. And things went pretty well. Though only half of the plants produced new wood, he declares himself happy. He did not hire a grafting specialist and instead preferred to do it himself.
– No one’s gonna tell this bandit how to do things around here, he sentences.
We tasted Bandido Neira Pinot Noir 2009, a warm and voluptuous wine with notes of raspberries and dried cherries. Also some vanilla and chocolate from a still ubiquitous barrel. A Pinot of nice volume that still needs some time to tame its rather explosive character and gain in depth and freshness.
Next came a Pinot Noir 2010 from Claudio Barría, a very fruity and velvety wine made with carbonic maceration and aged for four months in the barrel. A clear example of Guarilihue’s great potential for a noble variety sometimes treated with little dignity.
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
The Itata Valley shows two different realities: on the one hand, we find wineries that prefer noble varieties and modern vinification techniques like Casanueva and the young Errázuriz Domínguez, located in Bulnes and on the bank of the Chillán river respectively. On the other, there are small producers who stick to their traditional varieties and either sell their grapes or make artisan wines.
Casanueva, for example, specializes in Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Ariel Muñoz, the winery’s sommelier and sales manager, explains that long-cycled varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère are simply not a good choice, especially in the deep soil of Bulnes, where plant vigor must be kept at bay.
The wines produced here are well structured and their acidity is very natural. Sauvignons show great balance between their citrus and tropical aromas, with a curious and very refreshing nettle note. Casanueva Pinot Noir 2010, the first vintage obtained from vines grafted on Cabernet Sauvignon, is fresh and gentle, though it is still, at least for now, loaded with ripe notes.
– All Itata wines have a common denominator: a rocky, mineral character, says Claudio Barría.
On poorer soil, especially the granite slopes of Larqui and Quillón, it is possible to plant longer-cycled cultivars, such as Carignan. For its part, Portezuelo, an area located at the foot of the Cayumanqui hill, emerges as an ideal spot for
the production of sweet wines. We tasted Tranque Viejo Cinsault 2009, a large-scaled red with jammy notes of cherry, raisins and milk caramel produced by Edgardo Candia and a very promising experiment by Claudio Barría and local producer Marcelino Llanos. A Muscat-based sweet wine reminiscent of Tokaji, exuberant, fatty and with great acidity. Made only from individually picked raisins that should remain, according to Barría, at least another four years in the barrel.
IN SEARCH OF THE TREASURE
In the rolling landscape of Guarilihue, the quartz pebbles appear as true constellations on the red clay soil. Here, the dominant varieties are Italia and Cargadora, and the land has numerous secrets in store, like Piedras del Alto Riesling 2009. A warm, generous wine with white flower and basil notes. Citrusy, mineral, and full. The grapes it’s made from originate in a 80+ year old vineyard, a hidden treasure we rushed to hunt for.
We crossed the town of Guarilihue and its imposing evangelical temple, we went up and down narrow and dusty slopes, we asked around until we found Leonel Ruiz, a modest, passionate local vintner with a face weathered by the sun of the drylands who takes us to visit some of the most scenic and original vineyards i’ve ever seen.
Riesling boasts its noble bearing as it grows sturdy on a slope, sharing the land with a multicolor mix of Muscat, Cinsault, País and other unidentified cultivars. Leonel Ruiz told us that this tiny one-hectare vineyard was formerly part of Las Viñas estate, and was planted by a winemaker called Ediberto Fuentealba, who ran a true experimentation center in this property.
Ruiz loves Riesling. This variety offers great yields of rich grapes with outstanding sugar-acidity balance. He likes it so badly –he says– that he’s propagating it thru air layering.
–See? This is the mother and these are her four kids – he stops to contemplate a vine. once the kids have grown up and are healthy, the vintner cuts the umbilical cord to separate them from their mother. That’s how reproduction takes place among these vines that will grow strong in these soils and sway peacefully in the wind.
Dry-farmed viticulture is organic on its own, say, it needs no certification. Management is very simple and, in Ruiz’s case, it’s virtually personalized as he works on one vine at a time. Pruning is the most critical ritual of all. He applies a bit of sulfur once or twice a year, usually before the Spring when he breaks up the soil with the pick to oxygenate it and remove other plants that compete for the water from rainfall.
Harvest labor is scarce. Many farmers are now working at logging operations while others have migrated to the north to work in mining. The price of grapes has been dismal over the last couple of decades, so low that many times it has not even covered the production costs.
However, the sun has been shining bright for dryland vintners again during the last two harvests. The low yields attained all over the country have spurred prices. Esther Hinojosa, Yamil’s aunt and owner of a lovely resort in Guarilihue, comments that this year’s price is as high as ClP 170.00 per kilo of grapes. But, they’ll wait. They won’t sell their grapes for less than ClP 200.00 a kilo. Now –she says– it’s their turn.
Esther is married to Omar Sandoval and together they manage a family-owned operation devoted to winemaking, logging and transport. Their house, located amid farms and cabins, could perfectly be the cover of a decor magazine. Marble, antiques, halogen lamps everywhere. Tradition, overflowing love, a religious spirit. This is all the product of their own hands and painstaking devotion for even slightest details, like the pipeño they serve us for breakfast along with freshly baked bread, fresh cheese and blueberries. Here in Guarilihue nothing is really what it seems.
Following Yamil’s truck we take a winding path. We drive thru wire fences, wake up napping cows and run deep thru a pine forest until we reach a wide Italia vineyard owned by Candelario Hinojosa, Esther’s brother. Amid the vines stands a majestic quillay tree that bestows its shade and a touching love story.
–This is where I first kissed Elizabeth, my wife– Yamil confides.
We stroll throughout the vineyard, dodging the vines bathed by the afternoon sun, and make a stop at a pond: an oasis concealed among vineyards and woods.
–You know what I feel here? Freedom. Yep, here I feel free– he adds.
I walk towards the pond and bend over to touch the water with the tip of my fingers but I slip and start plunging towards the water. Yamil swiftly grabs my arm and holds me tight. Yes, I am one of the very few who can claim: I owe my life to Neira the Bandit.
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