Vignadores de Carignan: An Insider’s Perspective

by | 11 Dec, 2011

It was not an easy endeavor, but 12 Carignan winegrowers managed to join forces to boast the wine heritage of Maule’s dry-farmed areas all over the world by bottling –under a single brand– a wine concept that boosts the identity of an industry that strives for distinctness. This is the untold history of these pioneers and their unique brotherhood.

Perhaps it all started under the magic influence of wine with no other pretext than changing the world in a single night. Andrés Sánchez, winemaker at Gillmore, was just back from one of his countless trips to Italy.

I remember we talked about native cultivars, small appellations, and viticultural identity, that word that we always try to catch but inexorably manages to escape our grasp.

“What if we craft a wine, a concept, a category to rescue the heritage of the ancient vines from Maule’s dryland region and that winemaking tradition that has been passed down for over four centuries? What if we go even further and come up with a unique appellation for a Carignan-based wine subject to strictly technical criteria?” we asked quizzically, as if we had invented the wheel.

Yet, there was nothing we would invent. We had the terroir. And the wines were there. All we had to do was to entice Carignan winemakers to join us in this crazy Maulean dream. “We can’t go on doing the same old thing. There is no point in making endless batches of wines devoid of identity. We need to make wines with a unique character and superior quality that will tell the story and boast the winemaking tradition of the drylands.” That was our proclamation to summon winegrowers and winemakers to start working on this unprecedented project nameless at that time.

We first met in Loncomilla, at the Toro Macho restaurant, where the story goes that silverside turns into filet and wines of the year into reserve wines. I couldn’t make it, but what I heard about the meeting was far from encouraging. Why would a successful Carignan label backed by a major branding campaign partner with one of lower quality, prestige or history? What would they gain from joining forces with other producers who, based on strictly economic criteria, are their direct competitors?

Providentially, the Vinos de Chile 2020 cluster liked the idea and we managed to get funding from CORFO to start working to shape this dream into a reality. The impact a project like this could have in a region that for years has had to endure dismal prices for its rustic yet history- filled grapes touched the authorities and started to move forward at a more regular pace, slowly giving shape to this crazy endeavor.

“This association is no doubt one of the projects with the greatest impact in the Maule region and its winemaking, basically because of its three-prong approach: it promotes a territory and its people; it significantly revitalizes small Carignan producers’ activities; and represents the synergy of a group of 12 wineries of different size, but sharing one common passion: Carignan,” Rodrigo Moisan, manager of Vinos de Chile 2020 cluster, explained.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

The first formal meeting of this dawning association –initially known as the Carignan Club– was held at the Baco restaurant in Santiago, on Friday, August 7, 2009. Each of the participants brought a bottle and the conversation flowed naturally along the sour cherry, molasses and bitter chocolate notes. The decision had been made and the dream would come true. We only needed to agree on the common principles and criteria that would guide this winemakers association. Ideas were flowing like crazy. The debate was becoming heated. At times it would go smoothly, yet suddenly they would start to clash and opinions would seem irreconcilable.

Disagreements were mostly related to the winemaking style, particularly varietal composition. Following the lead of Arnaud Hereu, winemaker at Odfjell, many would claim that our wine should be 100% Carignan from ancient vines. Others like Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at De Martino, said that the variety was only incidental and that what mattered was rescuing the viticultural heritage of Maule’s dry-farmed areas by strictly honoring origin and bluntly ruling out the participation of other valleys.

I myself thought this was the way to go. I always found deeper value in the sense of origin than in the cultivar itself. My motivations, as a wine writer, were mostly driven by social and cultural factors. The Maule’s dry- farmed areas consist of only 500 hectares of Carignan, while the area under vine of the unappreciated País is as large as 10,000 hectares. Accordingly, the drama of the peasant communities does not touch Carignan producers, but the owners of that native and prevalent cultivar that has no way to make its production profitable. Leaving the door open for other varieties to be used in the blend, provided that they come from ancient vines in the Maule valley could foster grafting and add value to those plantations.

Viticulturist Renán Cancino fiercely defended this point as well. A native from Sauzal, this farmer –and like myself, not a winemaker– knows and lives the harsh reality of agriculture. As we made progress with the project and meetings became more frequent, he would always speak up to ask his partners in his very distinct style: “I find it all awesome but what do the poor guys who own the frigging vines and have been fighting against all odds for ages get in return?”

EPICENTER: TABÓN, LONCOMILLA

Much wine flowed under the bridge. Perhaps too much. We met at Toro Macho, Miguel Torres’ restaurant in Santiago, at Colo Colo restaurant in Romeral, at Locos de Asar in Talca, until we finally reached a consensus. Wines must consist of at least 65% of Carignan –I proposed 69%, but all it did was to cause them all to burst out laughing–, and the whole blend must exclusively originate in Maulean 30+ year-old head-trained, rainfed vines. That was the triumph of terroirists. The letter of commitment was signed on Thursday, February 25, 2010, at Gillmore Estate in Loncomilla. We were all convinced that the project would then be unstoppable.

As you all know, only two days after that our country, mostly the South, was ravaged by a brutal earthquake. The towns and villages of this winegrowing region were left in ruins and the ancient drama of small viticulturists grew even worse. Farmers faced the harvest with their minds clouded with uncertainty and their homes in rubble. The very same winery where we had held our founding meeting at Gillmore Estate was severely damaged. Andrés Sánchez and his wife, Daniella Gillmore, had to practically rebuild the winery and the hotel, where just a couple of days before we had all been toasting and celebrating the consolidation of a winemaker’s dream.

Ironically, history had repeated itself. One more time, a natural disaster had come across Carignan’s destiny like back in 1939, when the Ministry of Agriculture decided to import stocks of this variety to boost the wine industry after the devastating Chillán earthquake. After the February 27 earthquake, from which the South of Chile is yet to recover, the establishment and implementation of the Carignan Club was more urgent than ever and thus grew into a more consolidated project that blended into the pride and determination of the inhabitants of the rainfed areas.

CARIGNAN TAKES OVER LONDON

In May 2010 I received an invitation from the Circle of Wine Writers to lead a master class on Carignan during the London Wine Fair. The proceeds from the class, although modest despite the strength of the British pound, went to aid the earthquake victims. Little by little, Carignan and the character of the Maulean dry-farmed wines awakened the interest of critics who were used to commercial wines and blockbuster bottlings from more sumptuous valleys, like Maipo or Colchagua.

Not only Carignan, but also País started to draw the attention of wine critics like Tim Atkin, Jancis Robinson, Jim Budd, Charles Metcalfe, and other British wine writers. Michael Cox, director of Wines of Chile UK, took the project as his own and raised it as a differentiating flag. Soon after wine writers started to blog about this new Chilean finding. “I’ve spent almost my entire life belittling Carignan –the workhorse of Languedoc grapes– and now, here I am, delighted under the spell of this Chilean reincarnation,” Fiona Beckett wrote after the London tasting.

Thanks to the valuable coordination work of the Vinos de Chile 2020 cluster team, the joint efforts and the drive of its marketing committee –Pablo Morandé, Andrés Sánchez, Derek Mossman, Dean Hrabar, and myself– this Maulean workhorse entered the final stretch. Yet, something critical was missing. We didn’t even have a name! We lacked a common image to identify with and grow renowned around the world.

Collective work sessions, led by the advertising agency Estímulo Creativo, were conducted one after the other. Perhaps the most emblematic of those meetings took place at Odfjell. All the members met there and started working on names and logos, just as school kids, in groups, with crayolas, construction paper and no shame. Like it always happens in Chile, Mapuche names and some icons of the Maulean folklore were very popular. One of the most interesting proposals that inspired the name we finally chose was “Carigno,” a play on the words Carignan and Cariño (Affection in Spanish).

But, it was finally in one of those meetings of the marketing committee that used to start at the agency and finished at the Galindo restaurant, when Pablo Morandé came up with the magic word: “viñadores”, an ancient term to designate a winegrower, which we all thought as musical and even poetic. We immediately thought of replacing the letter “ñ” by the latin root “gn” in Carignan and thus ‘vino’ (wine) became in a symbol and a brand: Vigno, Vignadores de Carignan.

“This association may well grow into a signature initiative to show some of the winemaking wealth of this winegrowing melting pot called Maule. By rescuing ancient vineyards, advancing a sustainable management philosophy and high quality standards, but most of all by committing to a generous collaborative work, we are paving one of the roads Chile must walk to attain the differentiation and value our wine products deserve,” said Yerko Moreno, director of Universidad de Talca’s Technology Center for Vine and Wine.

Vignadores de Carignan labels were launched on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at noon. The association consisting of Bravado Wines, De Martino, Garage Wine Co, Gillmore, Lomas de Cauquenes, Meli, Miguel Torres, Morandé, Odfjell, Undurraga, Valdivieso and Viña Roja met again to make their alliance official and to present its wines. The right venue could not be other than Gillmore Estate, located at the epicenter of this history of earthquakes and ancient vineyards grown by proud and industrious winegrowers who year after year face nature and markets’ whims to harvest a dream.

 

     

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