The Spring of Itata
The Itata Valley had its days of glory with its hardened reds and dry, floral whites. But somehow, in the second half of the 20th century, its wines became trapped in the murkiness of seamy bars. The low price of its grapes, the failed reconversion projects and the violent encroachment of forestry companies brought a five-century winemaking tradition to the edge of the cliff. Today, the sun rises again in the valley, making its traditional wines shine with a renewed glow.
This is a land of winding landscapes, steep and gentle slopes, bloody battles between the Spanish conquerors and the native Mapuches, battles between royalists and patriots, heroes and countrymen. Always on the verge, always half way between jubilation and hopelessness. This is where it all started, where the first descendants of the vitis destivalis and rotondifolia varieties were propagated some 500 years ago, after the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia gave his comrade in arms Diego de Oro four lots to plant grapevines in the vicinity of Concepción.
In his “Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Chile”, Alonso de Ovalle reports that “in the end of the autumn they begin to gather the olives and the grapes, and this lasts the months of May and June. The wines are most noble and generous (…). The best kind is the Muscatel. i have seen some that look like water; but their operation is very different in the stomach, which they warm like brandy.”
This is also where everything nearly went to hell. Following a time of great splendor that transformed the port of Tomé into the largest exporter of wines from the areas of Ñipas, Quillón and Coelemu until the first half of the 20th century, an era of slow yet gradual downfall took over the region, driven mostly by a market-oriented logic that shows no mercy for the lack of innovation.
During a trip organized by the Association of Enologists and Wine Professionals from the Itata Valley and the Chilean Association of Agricultural Engineers-Enologists, we had the opportunity to revisit these vineyards that keep their heads low to dodge the wind, set their roots deep into the dry-farmed land, fierce like the cacique Maulén, standing the test of time, resisting the tyranny of French cultivars and withstanding the relentless encroachment of forestry giants.
“All these vines are so low that their clusters touch the soil. They sprawl over high hills and have no other irrigation than the rainfall,” wrote the Jesuit priest Felipe Gómez de Vidaurre in the 18th century, a time when the religious order owned numerous large haciendas like Cucha-Cucha, Perales and La Ñipa, where the land was cultivated with blind faith to celebrate the heavenly and, very especially, the earthly aspects of life.
Some areas of the valley seem to have come to a standstill. The Itata Valley is like a living museum that still retains the identity and the most deeply rooted traditions of chilean winemaking, the same that are so vehemently sought after today in order to add value to our wine exports. In some adobe cellars scattered across the irregular topography, wine is produced in much the same way as the spaniards and the first citizens of the republic did.
“The wines were stored in huge bags made of cow hide, boiled and tied with thin ropes to four round sticks bound on the outside. These wineskins were held in place by four pieces of wood 3 to 4 feet in height, planted in the cellar floor at each corner of the tub. Some of the hides that lined the tub bottom had a small spigot made of the same hide that served as a faucet to empty it; other times, the faucet was the animal’s tail,” says Eugenio Pereira Salas in his “Notes on the History of Chilean Cuisine”.
And someone seems to have left the faucet running…
In the Batuco cellar, which still stands erect despite the earthquakes and market ups and downs, the atmosphere exudes moisture, tradition and history. Among its large wine tubs and concrete vats we uncorked many a wine from the surrounding areas, made by small producers who retain and cultivate their plots generation after generation, such as El Ciprés, Entre Valles, Paso Lento and Valle Oculto.
Their Cinsaults and País wines are branded with fire. The wildfire that ravaged thousands of hectares in Itata and Bío-Bío in early 2012 blanketed their sour cherry notes with smoke and ashes. It was an unusual harvest. While a gastronomist’s nose could define those notes as merquén (smoked chili powder), thereby giving the wines an exportable personality, the truth is that they standardize wine aromas and mask the fresh and lively character of their fruit.
We also tried a very flavorful house wine made with no special discipline in those imposing 2,300-liter vats. “This is what cellar masters drink: a mixture of País, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon,” explains Edgardo Candia, a tireless local winemaker who provides technical advice to dozens of small producers who want and need to make their production more profitable.
“We are small producers, without any training. When the large companies come around, they buy our grapes and take them away; these grapes are used to make ordinary wines that are sold in demijohns, tetra pack and 1.5-liter bottles. Part of that production comes from Coelemu and Guarilihue. But it is the large wineries that set the prices. Those of us who do not want to sell at those prices make wine, but we can’t sell those wines to anyone. That is the problem. right now the buying power is in the hands of the large fish. Since our wine is old, archaic and produced without any modern techniques, people are not interested in buying it,” laments Fabián Mora, a producer from Guarilihue, in the pages of “Itata Wineries”.
Next we ride up a winding and dusty road that leads to the top of the Cerro Verde hill, from were we can enjoy the view of these sublime vineyards that crawl and coexist with rosehips, blackberries and quillay trees, trying hard to repel the unrelenting invasion of pine plantations. The slope is steep. We imagine ourselves carrying the large-handle wicker baskets filled with grapes during harvest time. “Here even small lizards fall on their backs,” comments Candia.
The heights of Itata are home to the freshest grapes in the valley, ideal to produce dry and exuberant Muscatels, wines brimming with aromas that gracefully retain their natural acidity. In the words of the German explorer Poepigg, who traveled the area in 1828, “for several reasons the southern provinces are much more apt for making wine than their northern counterparts; the wine from Concepción is better in quality than any other, and is highly demanded in the capital. in general, the wines from Chile contain so much alcohol that they can be easily lit after warming them up a little on a stove…”
WHAT TO PRESERVE
The Itata river marked the limit between the Spanish and the Mapuche worlds, between the conservative and the liberal. Today it maintains its borderline spirit, torn between tradition and innovation. The recent decades have been rich in initiatives aimed at making the vineyards profitable, such as the creation of the Coelemu and Quillón cooperatives. The latter even counted 200 members from Ránquil, Quillón and Portezuelo, and was quite successful with its low-volume, low-price wines such as the much remembered don Francisco Demijohns. However, poor administrative management and the growing overproduction of wines that made it impossible to compete with the great wineries of the north caused it to close its doors in 2003, after becoming a corporation.
On the other hand, a number of government incentives such as the cooperation Program for Poor Municipalities aimed at reconverting and adding extra value to regional wines. To that end, 200 hectares of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère were planted in the area. In Tropezón, on the southern exit of Coelemu, a large winery was built and equipped with stainless steel tanks and a temperature control system. But it did not work. The valley seems to resist giving up its tradition. The so-called fine varieties do not feel at home here. They can’t get used to the wires and espaliers. They prefer to grow free, spreading their fruit on the ground.
Other producers like Renato Zenteno, the owner of the Coimaco estate – perhaps the oldest family winery that has remained in the same family since the 18th century – have achieved commercial success with his 40 hectares planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère and Chardonnay, which he sells under the brands Valle Hermoso, Los Vargas and Los Encomenderos. However, this descendant of Portuguese-born Antonio Vargas does not turn his back on history. He still retains 1.5 hectares of País grapes that grow in a wild state among native and fruit trees.
Zenteno’s País vineyards, which must be over one hundred years old, are true survivors. Guided by the human hand, they have adapted to the new conditions and withstood the test of time, as Barros Arana so well describes: “(In Itata) they surrounded the vineyards with fig trees, for their second fruit, the almost worthless fig, was used to attract birds so that they would leave the grapes unharmed.”
Claudio Barría has undertaken numerous other efforts to highlight the viticultural legacy of Itata. Having vinified many inspired wines in Huara and Portezuelo, the winemaker has rallied a number of producers to make luminous bottle-fermented sparkling wines in hope to add value to their Muscat and Cinsault grapes.
“There was no sparkler tradition in the area. Grapes were picked while still green. That was the hard part. Go tell an old vintner to harvest on February 29. Not a chance! But the wines are out there and the idea is to ensure sustainable development for small producers. We hope entrepreneurs will decide to invest in the technology needed to set up a winery to continue making these original wines filled with history and personality,” he adds.
Traditional Itata wineries and some new undertakings like Errázuriz Domínguez, Chillán and Casanueva certainly make up a unique and sometimes contradictory landscape marked by the persistent desire to restore the valley’s wines to their much deserved glory.
Under the Ñipas bridge that spans the furious Itata river, we had the chance to be a jury in the XVI Competition of Wine and Traditional samples of Ránquil. Even though the event included some of the so-called fine varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère, the spotlight was stolen by the area’s quiet and dry Muscat and Cinsault wines. Producers like Piedras del Encanto, De Neira, Casa Nova and Adriana Torres show the way into a steep and rocky road that may provide come clues on the future of this appellation.
As the biologist Humberto Maturana puts it, prior to introducing any innovation, we should ask ourselves what we want to preserve. In the case of Itata, it seems that the most innovative idea is precisely to rescue these traditional wines and introduce them to the world with confidence and pride.
Subscribe to our website
Be the first to receive our good news and event offers