The Art of Loosening Up

by | 8 Aug, 2014

A new attitude, more daring and relaxed, is gaining ground among Chilean wineries, adding a welcome dose of casualness to their processes and products. Showcasing new casual wines to sell those that pay the bills seems to be the current motto.

Just a few years ago, everyone agreed our wines needed some sophistication, that we had to stop selling cheap and aim at higher price tiers. That was the beginning of the pompous-sounding premium, super premium and ultra premium categories. Now we are living a reverse trend towards a more casual style, one that leaves self-imposed containment behind in favor of some craziness and relaxation. A call to break free from extreme formality and embrace a more dynamic, innovative image.

“For my new position at Wines of Chile (vice-president and responsible for promoting wines internationally) I had to wind down a bit. My wife even bought me a pair of red pants,” jokes the winemaker Aurelio Montes.

And this change is not only visual, but attitudinal. The way in which the Chilean wine industry presents itself to the world has evolved from what Tim Atkins once described as a Volvo (reliable but boring) to a funky bright red convertible.

This puff of fresh air still finds some resistance among conservative sectors, but it has indeed helped to ventilate the room and create an environment that is less isolated and claustrophobic. The new format for tasting events (round tables instead of long counters that look more like desolate islands), themed tastings that include terroir wines and artisanal productions, and the participation of associations outside Wines of Chile, such as Vignadores de Carignan and Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (MOVI), have without question pulled the industry towards a more diverse and inclusive approach to wine.

And this more adventurous attitude will see its peak in November, when the Magical Mystery Tour sets sail. The voyage skippered by Aurelio Montes will take some twenty wine writers from the U.S. and Canada along the Patagonia coast onboard the Australis. For four days, the writers will share with winemakers from Chilean wineries in a number of themed tastings that include Cabernet Sauvignon, whites and cool climate Pinot Noir, Mediterranean reds and wines that embody this new and innovative stance.

A NEW STYLE

But this change of style must go well beyond the mere looks and reflect upon the wines themselves. Perhaps motivated by the communicational success of MOVI and other small producers, some wineries have started more daring wine lines that break away from their ordinary portfolios. “The Outer Limits line represents a blend of passion and innovation. The idea is to look for or revisit wine valleys, incorporate new varieties… be a little crazy,” says Aurelio Montes.

The line originated in the Zapallar project. The quality and attractive personality of the wines grown in this new appellation tempted the Montes team to increase its bet on this concept. So they launched Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Then came the Mediterranean blend CGM sourced from head-trained plantations of Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre located on the granite hills of Apalta, and later an excellent Cinsault from the deepest Itata Valley.

True, these wines will not push the winery up the exports ranking (either in terms of value or volume), but they do add a new twist to the brand, presenting it as an innovative company that does not rely purely on past success stories but is always looking for new challenges and products to cater to the ever-changing consumer needs.

“With GCM I get the greatest accolades but I don’t sell a single bottle. We only make four cases and I drink two of them with my buddies,” he jokes. “It is indeed Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that pay our salary. And that is a truth as big as the sky. But having these new wines in our portfolios is an excellent letter of credence. They keep us in the news. In sum, we showcase the fun side of wine to sell those that keep us in the business.”

True to its name, the line knows no limits. And the future seems bright. Montes has announced plans to introduce a Syrah from Zapallar, and perhaps –only perhaps– to consider Moscatel or Italia grapes from the Itata valley. They want to take it easy and move one step at a time. “A sprinter running the 100 meter dash under 10 seconds is certainly impressive, but you also need to consider all the training and effort behind that mark. These guys run 20 kilometers each day, they lift weights and show great commitment and discipline. Like them, we do not want to go too fast. So there we are, taking things easy to see what happens next,” he adds.

Viña MontGras is on a similar path. Even though during its twenty years of existence it has specialized in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc (not that it will abandon them), this year it plans to launch new versions of ANTU, turning it into a more experimental, freer and colorful line, and leaving the boundaries of Colchagua to explore other valleys and grape varieties.

The traditional ANTU Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenère from Colchagua will be complemented by a blend of Grenache/Carignan/Syrah and a Carmenère from the same valley, as well as a Carignan/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo. There will also be a very limited production of Tempranillo from Colchagua and Syrah and Pinot Noir from its Leyda vineyards.

“Once we decided that ANTU would no longer be produced exclusively in the Ninquén hill but would open to other varieties and valleys, we began our hunt for new varieties to include in small productions,” explains MontGras’s chief winemaker Santiago Margozzini.

The search for new varieties and areas of great quality potential and the change in style (utilizing only used barrels to avoid vanillin and other aromas from toasted wood) constitute new proposals that refresh the winery’s traditional portfolio in hope to seduce the gurus of the wine world and those new consumers on the look for original and innovative products.

BREAKING THE CHAINS

In a large business like Santa Carolina, all changes tend to be slower. The size of the ship and the responsibility towards its passengers (namely its shareholders) make any sudden turns very unlikely. It is important to stay the course and bring the ship safely towards its multiple destinations.

“It is very hard to abandon the usual commercial practices, such as varietal and reserve lines. I would not go as far as to call them standardized products, but they are certainly more formal. Just consider that we export to 90 countries and that, at the end of the day, we need to adapt to those markets and offer a product that is consistent through time, says SC’s Enological Manager Andrés Caballero.

Although he recognizes the limitations of being a large player, working at Santa Carolina also offers many advantages. First of all, the resources available enable a good deal of research and development. And it is precisely this work in the fields that has opened the door to a new, more casual line. “We needed room to explore other interesting things. The Specialties line was created to break chains and offer new products,” he adds.

The heart of this line is Dry Farming Carignan from Maule. The good reviews received have encouraged the team to extend the project to other varieties and regions. Later on they have introduced Ocean Side Sauvignon Blanc from San Antonio, Wild Spirit Mourvèdre from Cachapoal, Hidden Creek Chardonnay from Limarí and Coastal Maipo Syrah from Leyda. All of them are finely crafted, offer a juicy texture and faithfully portray the singularities of their various origins.

Mr Caballero explains that the wines are not the same every year. “If the wine lacks the personality I want it to have, I simply do not bottle it. The idea is to play the mystery game a bit,” he says. Working with such limited productions offers greater flexibility and the option to explore further. Mr Caballero announces that Specialties will continue to add new labels, with concept-oriented wines that do not necessarily reflect the typicity of new varieties or areas, but wines associated to a certain style, such as Mediterranean or Bordeaux blends.

THE ESSENCE OF FREEDOM

Originally conceived as a learning exercise to teach consumers about the behavior of the same variety in different terroirs, the wines from the Collection line sparked so much enthusiasm that they eventually turned into an experimental, minimalistic line of their own that has gained increasing recognition for a winery like Lapostolle, renowned for its successful French-Chilean recipe.

Collection was developed by winemaker Andrea León and debuted with two grape varieties: Carmenère (sourced from Portezuelo, Apalta and Pumanque) and Syrah (Elqui, Casablanca, San Antonio, Maipo, Cachapoal and Apalta). But soon they added other cultivars like Carignan (Melozal, Cauquenes and Empedrado), Mourvèdre (Apalta), Petit Verdot (Apalta), Grenache (Elqui or Caliboro) and, maybe, Muscatel (Itata). The base wines are already maturing in the winery’s tunnel, waiting for the winemaker’s OK. All these wines convey honesty, freshness and finesse. Crafted in the old traditional way, using a vertical press, bins and old barrels, the wines not only surprised the critics, but its authors as well.

Ms León considers the Collection line to be a space for freedom and experimentation that has allowed the production team to come closer to the markets and fill the wine education gap with wine consumers. “The Collection line is a testing ground for things that may set new trends in terms of vineyards, varieties and styles. Today’s market is light years away from what it was 10 years ago and the changes in preferences are evident,” she adds.

In the case of wineries with consolidated classical portfolios like Lapostolle, these wines have opened new niches and helped refresh the relationship with some importers. “These wines are perfect for an artistic folly, provided your creations make good sense and do not go against the winery’s line. Some markets have welcomed them with open arms, like North America and Europe, which make up the bulk of our sales. In other markets people get a bit confused and are more reluctant to accept them. You must understand that and take a moment to think about your target markets. You need to make a commercial decision before making the wine,” she explains.

And Grupo Belén has bet all its chips on this new concept. Not only has it given its winemakers the freedom to do whatever they want. It has also created the House Casa del Vino workshop, a place in Casablanca where they can experiment and unleash their creativity.

Two vintages have been released of Tirazis, a fresh handmade Syrah crafted by Sven Bruchfeld. This year they launched Despechado, a Pinot Noir sourced from a small lot that surrounds the wine tourist road in Casablanca, which for many years was looked down on by the winery’s winemakers. The winemaker Daniela Salinas harvested its grapes early in the season and fermented them in a concrete egg. The wine was then stored in a tub for four months. The result? A wine with only 12o of alcohol but brimming with personality.

And the proposals from the group’s winemakers will soon follow suit: Malmau (a Malbec from Pencahue, Maule, created by the Argentinean winemaker from Zorzal Matías Michelini); El Gran Petit (Petite Sirah/Petit Verdot from La Moralina, Cachapoal, created by the winemaker of Vistamar Irene Paiva), Bestiario (Malbec/País del Maule, created by the Michelini brothers); Aterciopelado (País/Malbec from Maule, created by the winemaker of Mancura Jorge Martínez); and Creole (Cinsault/País from Itata and Maule, created by the winemaker of Morandé Ricardo Baettig).

According to Maureen Halley-Harris, marketing director of Grupo Belén, the spirit, the essence and the freedom are also present in the packaging and advertising. “In this case we do not have one fixed rule as we do in Morandé. Here everything has to follow the style the winemaker wishes to achieve. What is interesting about this is the coordination between the winemaking and the marketing teams. You must ask hundreds of questions in order to retrieve all the information needed to capture the essence of the wine, and then be able to properly convey it. It is really a line that keeps all the wineries in the group connected.”

Ms Halley-Davis points out that in Chile our labels are extremely formal. In Argentina, on the other hand, producers cannot use the terms Reserve or Grand Reserve because they have not been homologated with the European Union. But this gives them plenty of room to be creative. “With House we have no limits, so we are free to innovate and be different. This is a proposal that opens new market doors, showing them that we are alive, that we are connected as a group. It reflects our faith in what we do, a true faith,” she concludes.

A faith of action and mystery that creates expectations and brings some very welcome fresh air to Chile’s wine portfolio, at last.

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