Curicó revisited

Thursday, 08 February 2018 09:53

Over the last few years, Curicó-based wineries have been scouting the valley with great detail, discovering many interesting locations that have restored their faith in Curicó’s suitability for something special. Not for nothing was the valley the home of the country’s largest wineries and the birthplace of Chile’s premier wines during the last century. Today, Curicó has a new story to tell.

he Lontué region is one of the richest. The entire vineyard is cultivated following the French tradition and its yields are the highest in the country. The area is home to Chile’s largest vineyards and production cellars. The wines are harmonious, full-bodied and with good alcohol content –12° or more. It is also a known fact that grapes here ripen faster than those grown further north. White wines are of exceptional quality,” wrote Gabriel Infante Rengifo, professor of Enology at Universidad de Chile in his book “Grapes and Wines from Chile” published in 1947.

Back then, the area under vine was about 100,000 hectares and Lontué –located in the Curicó Valley– was the birthplace of the great Chilean wines. Established in 1880 by Alejandro Dussaillant, Viña Casa Blanca owned 500 hectares, making it the country’s most important and best known winegrowing estate. According to the book, “the winery keeps a reserve of 12 million liters of high-quality and diverse wines, making it the leader in domestic sales and a worthy exporter to the world’s main markets.”

But then the valley began a slow and relentless process of decline. The wines from Maipo and Colchagua, closer to the capital and the large enterprises, made a strong debut. Its fame as the most prestigious area for white wines was soon overshadowed by the emergence of new coastal valleys, especially Casablanca with its Sauvignon Blancs. The crisis of the 80s forced producers to reconvert Curicó’s old vineyards, replacing them with more fashionable fruit groves and leaving Maule and Itata as the only owners of centuries-old varieties.

Why has the image of Curicó wines suffered so much over the last decades? Why has recovery been so elusive? Why do critics focus only on Maipo, Colchagua and the emerging coastal valleys? Why does the Pan-American Highway become a dark tunnel after Colchagua only to see the light in Maule with its re-discovered Carignan and País?

“Fortunately, we have a great diversity of climates and soil types. We are not focused on competing against other valleys like Maipo or Colchagua. Our aim is to compete with an aspect that the industry has not considered yet. The diversity of terroirs in Curicó is different. Our Chardonnay from Vichuquén smells and tastes like true Chardonnay, a real delicacy. Similarly, the Merlot grown on the Andes hillsides is totally different; it does not need to compete. It wants to be truly authentic, just like us. And Curicó gives us the opportunity to do whatever we want,” says Matías Rivera, managing director of Viña Aresti.

Although Curicó produces some of my favorite wines such as Manso de Velasco Cabernet Sauvignon from Miguel Torres or Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Echeverría –the area was also known as the paradise of Sauternes-style wines– the local wineries slept on their laurels and failed to engage in an active search for new and more extreme terroirs to produce wines of fresher and more daring personality to compete with novel valleys like Limarí or San Antonio and boast them to wine critics.

“Valley producers did not use the best marketing strategy either. If we had united and said what needs to be said, consumers would understand much more. Despite the short distances within the valley, Curicó has special micro-climates, intense luminosity, and an incredible diversity of landscapes. Due to its topography, at 5 pm most vineyards are already shaded, thus creating temperature differentials that make its wines unique. The problem is that the large companies show no interest in promoting Region VII. Still, we have almost 50% of all vineyards in the country. There is a reason for that. There is a reason for the presence of large domestic and international companies. The Curicó valley is blessed. It is the Sistine Chapel of Chilean wines,” says José Puertas, owner of Viñedos Puertas.

Matías Rivera believes the valley is undergoing a period of late blooming. “Consider the super publicized Maipo Valley. You have Maipo Alto, Maipo Medio but not Maipo Costa. That is why we have developed our Trisquel Series, to cover the entire valley, from the Andes to the ocean. To be honest, Curicó is under-exploited. Even within our own vineyards there are specific locations that we are just beginning to discover. Unfortunately –or fortunately, perhaps– global warming is moving southwards and what was good for valleys further north will be good for valleys further south. Cabernet Sauvignon, the most planted cultivar in Maule, has some fantastic examples here, just like in other valleys, but with features and aromas of its own,” he points out.

José Puertas says that Curicó has been left behind because its wineries “have followed in other valleys’ footsteps, believing more in their neighbors than in themselves. So, when you don’t know your worth, when you don’t believe in your own potential, you start to imitate your neighbors. That was our big mistake.”

“We are now in a phase of discovery. We are gradually beginning to understand our potential. We have a presence in 10 different sub-valleys, but to start a plantation you need to know the area well. You have to study the soil, the climate and many other factors. Then you can assess the luminosity, the amount of rainwater, etc. I am quite saddened by our inability to market ourselves successfully. More than the Curicó Valley, I would like to promote Chile. But Chileans are very complex individuals, we are individualistic and do not realize that we are a global agricultural powerhouse. We could be a superpower if we all helped each other and do what has to be done,” he sentences.

AN UNDERGROUND TRAIN

Today, Curicó is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. With new plantations in coastal areas and on the Andean foothills, with innovative projects and new strength to convey their capacities and accomplishments, producers are gaining visibility and becoming aware that their future is in their own hands. Led by Viña Korta, the wineries located in Sagrada Familia have joined their forces to promote the area as an appellation of origin. Viña Requingua relies on old Cabernet Sauvignon vines to protect the grapes from the scorching sun and achieve greater balance. Viña Altacima surprises with its Syrah and Gewürztraminer. Viña La Ronciere bets on Idahue, located 25 km from the coast, by planting 200 hectares to produce fresher and more vibrant reds. Viña Aresti climbs the Andes in search of diversity and differentiation, bottling one of the most attractive Merlots of Chile’s new wine scene.

“We have the opportunity to produce wine in this area, basically in Molina and Río Claro, the two largest municipalities in the Curicó Valley. We are lucky to have 1,100 hectares in fields and 350 hectares in vineyards, with some unused land. For three years now, we have covered the entire valley, from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. We climbed to 1,250 meters above sea level with our Merlot. Today we produce Sauvignon Blanc in Hualañé, Chardonnay in Vichuquén, Semillon from our own vineyards and Cabernet Sauvignon from our older vines planted back in 1951. We want Curicó to be recognized not only for its quality but also for its productivity. We want to be the drum major of the Curicó band,” says Matías Rivera.

According to Valdivieso’s winemaker Brett Jackson, the winery has actively promoted the Curicó Valley as an appellation of origin. Let us not forget that the La Primavera field located in the Sagrada Familia sub-valley has been the backbone of its Single Vineyard line, with Cabernet Franc as an outstanding example, and the birthplace of Caballo Loco Grand Cru Sagrada Familia, a blend of Carmenère, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. In his opinion, the areas with the greatest potential include the Andean foothills near Los Niches, an area with a cool climate that currently produces Sauvignon Blanc but has the potential to develop Pinot Noir and other white varieties like Albariño, Verdejo or Grüner Veltliner. For its part, Sagrada Familia has a very torrid though short summer season. The area produces exceptional Cabernet Francs and Malbecs, with good potential for Grenache or Tempranillo. Finally, the coastal area of Hualañé has enormous potential for white varieties.

Mr Jackson believes that global preferences are leaning towards fresher, more acidic wines. “This might be Curicó hour,” he affirms. “The style of the 90s and the 2000s was to make ripe wines of low acidity and smooth tannins. But those days are gone. Curicó is after something else. Its summers are intense but brief, good for developing aromas and wines of greater freshness and distinct personality.”

HOORAY FOR DIVERSITY

Many Chilean valleys identify themselves with a certain variety that has been crucial to its success, like Maipo with Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua with Carmenère, Limarí with Chardonnay and Casablanca and San Antonio with Sauvignon Blanc. But Curicó seems to have embraced diversity from the very beginning. It is so large and its mesoclimates are so diverse that it is hard to find one variety that stands out from the rest.

“We do not need a flagship variety and that is what makes Curicó so special. We can go to Vichuquén for some Chardonnay, or to the mountains for some Merlot or Cabernet Franc. The truth is that we don’t know yet. The valley remains largely unexplored. I am sure that Curicó will eventually be recognized as a producer of prime varieties,” says Matías Rivera.

“Sauvignon Blanc from Curicó was one of the most recognized in Chile for many years, until other valleys began to appear.But it is still a major player. Its wines are savory, enticing and drinkable. In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, I believe that 10 years ago the climate was not on the valley’s side. But all that has changed. Our most emblematic wines come from Curicó, like Código de Familia (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Today, Cabernet ripens very well in Curicó. Thanks to global warming, our wines continue to improve.”

According to Carlos Torres, winemaker of Viñedos Puertas, all Chilean wineries have a presence in Curicó and Maule, starting with Concha y Toro with more than 4,000 hectares; San Pedro with more than 1,000; Santa Rita with 1,000; etc. “The valley produces nice wines. Thanks to our east-west topography –and not north-south like most other valleys– we have temperature differences that allow us to grow 20 different varieties, with an optimum location for each one of them. Near the Andes we have Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In the center, we cultivate all those varieties that require a warmer climate. And towards the coast, the cool weather allows growing many different cultivars.

A Sauvignon Blanc from the cooler areas of Curicó can compete side to side with one from Casablanca. Every year, we export half a million liters to New Zealand. And that is like selling ice in Antarctica. We grow some excellent Sauvignon Blancs here. Maybe we do not use the right marketing tools, but neither do the large wineries. Most of them sell SB like Central Valley. If they promoted Curicó, probably they would have to pay more for our grapes,” he adds.

- And do you buy that story?

- Of course we do! My father did, I do and I hope my children will buy it too. We have been making wine for 76 years now. And that is quite a long time. In Chile, very few people know us, but abroad everybody does. Our wines have great consistency and the best companies in the world buy them -replies José Puertas.

- This is a true paradise, a great place to live, with nice people and a very healthy wine philosophy. My grandfather started, my father followed and I hope to continue this tradition, promoting this land and helping the people of Curicó and their wines –his son José Puertas Lohmann concludes.