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Unearthing Treasures from Chile

Unearthing Treasures from Chile

Vineyards in Maule © O. Fournier

If you know just a little about Chile’s wine regions and imagine it as a ‘new’, modern wine country with high altitude vineyards, then the following won’t add up: Chile’s most important wine region has not only some seriously old vines of classic red wine varieties, ungrafted of course, but most of these are grown in dry-farmed vineyards (no irrigation) at altitudes no higher than in Burgundy or Alsace.

In recent years it’s been fashionable to talk about Casablanca, Leyda (San Antonio) and Limari as ‘newer’, cooler (in both senses) wine regions of Chile; and of Maipo and Colchagua (especially Apalta) as classic regions for fine, long-lived reds. All these regions have had extensive new vineyard plantings in the past decade giving a very young average vine age, and they pretty much rely on irrigation – finding a decent water source in the newly developed areas of Chile in particular has been as much of a challenge as it is in Australia. But, while these regions are all potentially excellent, perhaps the time is right now to talk about the Maule Valley, which represents around 43% of Chile’s vineyards and it seems, has simply been forgotten about whilst everyone raves about developments in other regions.

I drove through the Maule about ten years ago and was struck then by the beauty of the region, and also by the fact that the vines looked so old, often trained as bush vines with no sign of an irrigation system. At the time the region was mainly dismissed as a bulk wine area with slightly erratic (i.e. less than perfect) weather especially at harvest. Just occasionally back then someone mentioned the old vines – Valdivieso’s curious but delicious Cabernet Franc I remember in particular came partly from Maule vineyards that were claimed to be over 70 years old. Well it’s taken a few years, but after attending an excellent seminar at the London Wine Trade Fair last month where Maule was referred to as the Cinderella region of Chile it seems that Maule is at last being taken a little more seriously.

One champion on a mission to support the area is the exuberant Spaniard José Manuel Ortega of Bodegas O. Fournier who spent several years looking for his ideal wine regions in Chile, having already established a base in Argentina as well as in Spain. He finally selected San Antonio to plant Sauvignon and Pinot, and has his feet placed firmly in Maule soils for all other reds. Here, however, there are no new plantings planned, instead he contracts exclusively with local farmers who have old vines, between 65 and 120 years old. Maule, whose main city is Talca, about 250km south of the capital Santiago, is a very poor farming area of Chile and up until recently vine farmers have received extremely low payment for their grapes. Bodegas O Fournier supports them by helping them to graft old Pais vines over to Cabernet Sauvignon as part of a social re-structuring project. José Manuel explained that the extreme temperature variations in Maule, during the growing season which can go from daytime highs of 30-35°C to night-time lows of 6-12°C, give naturally high acidity, low pH and a more moderate natural alcohol level than other regions in Chile. He stressed the importance of the old Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan vines in the region and has even found some 120 year old Cabernet Franc vines (see above). The produce from the vineyards he works with was going into tetra-packs (wine cartons) before he arrived. After tasting the lively red-fruit flavoured Urban red 2008 blend followed by a young oaky Centauri 2007 blend we tasted two 2008 barrel samples. One was from very old Cabernet Sauvignon and the other from the even older Cabernet Franc – both had surprisingly elegant structure combined with intensity of fruit that promises serious wines in the future.

Maule is a large valley and has several sub-districts that, as elsewhere in Chile, vary in climate from the Pacific western side to the Andean eastern side, becoming hotter on the valley floor in the middle. Another champion of Maule is Rafael Tirado, the winemaker for VIA wines who have vineyards throughout the region. In their flagship vineyard near the town San Rafael, it is the sheer luminosity from the Andes that adds to the quality of the wines, Rafael explained. He presented four excellent wines starting with an unusual Sauvignon Blanc blended with 15% of the red Carmenère pressed directly after picking. I had tasted this earlier in the year when Rafael had explained that the Carmenère added a chilli pepper and tangy character to the Sauvignon, which is not famed from this area – it works to give a highly balanced wine with a good texture. Before we tasted two young reds, Rafael gave us a complete surprise of a wine from his own personal production, a 1997 Maule Cabernet Sauvignon that I wrote down simply as lovely. Then we finished with a delicious Cabernet/Merlot blend and finally a barrel sample of 92% Carignan blended with 8% Carmenère again showing structure combined with finesse.

It’s time I returned to visit the Maule Valley again to see these old vines up close and taste the wines in situ – there’s even a Wine Route there now, grouping some of the region’s wineries with visitor facilities. And if you were harbouring any of those misconceptions about Chile being a new wine country, perhaps it’s time you reconsidered the terminology – with vines of 120 years old it can hardly be called new, can it?