Tasting Wines with Roberto Henriquez from Itata and Bio Bio
I met Roberto in autumn of 2018 and was blown away by his wines and his determination. Last year Roberto's wines had just come into the US so there weren't too many available and it was a really fast trip. A year's time can make a big difference and this autumn Roberto was back with new wines and more of them available! These wines are completely natural but are very precise and beautiful and pure tasting. They're expressive and elegant and real in a combination that is very rare in my experience. These are, to me, very important wines that demonstrate what Chile can evolve into and prove how pure natural wines can be. They also demonstrate how talented Roberto is!
Roberto has been making wine for 6 years now, 4 commercially. He's down in the central Chile in the Bio Bio valley, about 300 miles south of Santiago and near the border of where the Spanish conquest stopped centuries ago. Wine making is a big part of the culture here; locals have been growing Pais and making wine here since the Spanish conquest brought grapes. Wine culture in Bio Bio and Itata are different from up north near the capital. Much of the wine making up north is larger companies making modern wine for export. Down in Bio Bio and Itata wine making has generally been more small scale, for local consumption, and done by small indigenous farmers. Wine making down here had traditionally been looked down upon by northern Chile and the rest of the world, but that view is shifting. There are lots of reasons for the emergence of Bio Bio and Itata as internationally recognized wine regions, but one is certainly that there's a large amount of 150-200 year old vines planted on their own rootstock. Pais, Corinto (Chasselas), Muscat d'Alejandria, and Semillon are more common but there's also grapes like Trousseau and Pineau d'Aunis that were brought before Phyloxera changed the vinilogical landscape of Europe.
Roberto was born in Concepcion and studied wine making and agronomy there. From there he traveled and made wine in Canada, South Africa, and then the Loire Valley with Agnes and Rene Mosse. The wines and wine making techniques of Agnes and Rene had a big impact on him. Roberto returned to Concepcion and decided to make wines with the traditional grape varieties there, but with the perspective he'd gained from working other places and particularly Agnes and Rene Mosse. Most of Roberto's red wines come from vineyards in Bio Bio and most of the whites come from Itata.
Roberto farms organically and ferments with native yeast.
First up in the line up we had was the Santa Cruz de Coya 2018. This is from a 3 hectare vineyard of 200 year old Pais vines planted on decayed granitic soil in Bio Bio. Roberto said this vineyard is kind of remote and isolated so the vines don't ever suffer from any infestations from other nearby vineyards...because there aren't any. For this reason Roberto doesn't apply any treatments to this vineyard, no copper sulfate or anything. The Coya vineyard was abandoned so Roberto has been working to revive it. I think this is the third year since Roberto started working the vineyard and yields are slowly increasing. In 2018 the vineyard produced 1 ton of fruit per hectare. The primary alcoholic fermentation for Santa Cruz de Coya is always really fast! in 2018 it took about 4 days to ferment dry. Roberto theorizes that's due in part to the lack of any treatments in the vineyard. He doesn't use temperature control but still the fermenting wine only tops out at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 2018 was a cooler vintage than 2017 and these wines are really pretty, elegant, and supple.
The Santa Cruz de Coya smelled a lot like Pineau d'Aunis to me, but the prettiest Pineau d'Aunis ever. There were fresh raspberry, a little bit of aromatic peppery spice, and some cranberry. On the palate the Coya was gorgeous: smooth, supple, bright, really pretty, and still with just a little hint of wild spicy pepper. It had really fantastic purity and focus.
Santa Cruz de Coya is available at Vessel and Vine, The Cheese Shop, Lois's Natural Food, Maine and Loire, and Grippy Tannins
The 2018 Notro Tinto is also from 200 year old Pais vines. This is a separate vineyard from the Coya though. The vineyard for the Notro is a 1 hectare hill that millions of years ago was a bend in the Bio Bio river. The soil around here is volcanic and there's lots of volcanic sand, but this little hill got piled up with alluvial rocks and debris from the river, so it's a really unique outlier. There are other vineyards around here so Roberto has to treat with the usual organic preparation of copper sulfate a couple times a year. And differently from the Coya the Notro tinto takes about 15 days to complete it's primary fermentation. everything else is the same: same building, some lack of temperature control same stainless steel tanks.
The Notro is very different smelling and tasting from the Coya. It's more crisp and crunchy, more angular and has a bit more tannin and acidity to it. The Notro has more power and I can imagine it being better with a lot of foods.
Notro Tinto is available at Lois's Scarborough, Maine and Loire, Blue Hill Wine Shop, and Vessel and Vine.
Fundo la Union 2018: this is I think the first vintage of this wine. It's 150 year old Pais vines from a vineyard in Itata, much closer to the coast than the vineyards down in Bio Bio. This vineyard is also on decayed granite, like the Santa Cruz de Coya. The Union sort of splits the difference between the Coya and the Notro to me. It has some bright cranberry and raspberry and rose aromas. On the palate the Fundo la Union has a bit more mineral angularity in the mid palate than the Coya but more suppleness than the Notro. It's fantastic. Only about 50 cases came into the united States.
Each of the red wines gets about 1 manual punch down per day. Roberto doesn't want to be too extractive with the Pais. He believes that if he works it too hard manually he'll pull out too many of the tannins from the skins and seeds. This is what makes most Pais rougher. The reds are sort of semi carbonic. Roberto doesn't add any C02 but as the natural fermentations get going Roberto covers the tanks with a piece of board and the natural C02 displaces the oxygen.
You can find this at Maine and Loire, Bow St Beverage, Vessel and Vine, The Cheese Shop, and Lois's Natural Foods
Notro Blanco 2018 is 40% Moscatel d'Alejandria, 40% Semillon, and 20% Corinto. Roberto changes the blend each year to experiment. The grape varieties are farmed separately, they're harvested separately and not co-fermented. The juice spends 1-3 weeks on the skins in it's primary fermentation and then is racked off and the skins are pressed. This is a super traditional way of making white wine here in the area. The Notro Blanco smelled like quince, tarragon, and ripe mango. It's an aromatic white that has a bit of color to the wine and some real presence on the palate. The palate is long and it has a bit of spice to it. It tastes sunny and there's a lot of white wild flower in the flavor.
Notro Blanco is available at Maine and Loire, Vessel and Vine, The Cheese Shop, and the Blue Hill Wine Shop
Molino del Ciego 2018. And this is...sort of crazy. This is 100% Semillon from a 1 hectare vineyard right near the ocean in Itata. The vineyard produces about 3 tons from that hectare, which is on the low end. The primary fermentation took about 3 weeks here and Roberto was doing 3 punch downs per day. So this is actually more extrative, has more skin contact, and is made more like a red wine than Roberto's actual red wines. Those 3 tons made about 2800 bottles
Here's a video of me with them all just before traveling to MontanaHere's a video from last year of Roberto talking about how he makes wine
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