Stories from my Crazy Wine Trip to Chile
Wine Making in Southern Chile is Insane
2 weeks ago I was pressing grapes in southern Chile
And I was doing it by hand over a bamboo mat!
Earlier this month I went to rural southern Chile to seek out a metaphorical legendary lost city of wine making. It was crazy on it's own, but now in the perspective of the pandemic and shut down of normal life it seems even more surreal! In a normal world I would have come back and hosted all kinds of events to share what I experienced, but instead I came back into managing health risks, advocating for a small business bail out, and doing financial damage control.
But wine is special. At it's best, a bottle of wine is a little fragment, a preserved piece of culture, history, and the environment from somewhere else in the world that can be transported and enjoyed by many different people. The wine makers, the wines, and what they're trying to build in their communities really moved me and I'm anxious to share these stories, so I'm trying something different:
A Virtual Wine Tasting with Maine and Loire
Maine and Loire has brought in 5 wines from the people I visited and they're available for order all this week. Maine and Loire and I will send out more detailed info about the wine makers, links to videos I made while I was there, and even a link to a free online pandora music station so that you can listen to the local music I listened to while I was there. On Friday at 5 I'll open some of them (not all 5, I drank plenty in Chile) and taste and talk about the wines live on Zoom. Any of you who have bought a bottle is invited to open it at the same time and join in. I may not be able to see you in person, but through the magic of wine we can all share an experience from different locations. Thanks Dionysus!
Give Maine and Loire a call at 207-805-1336 to order any of the wines
That's a 200 year old Pais vine
My interest in Chile really started with Roberto Henriquez. I met him in 2018 and his intensity and openness got my attention; also his wines were gorgeous. I started hearing more rumors about super old vines and a unique wine culture inherited from Spanish conquistadors but maintained for 300+ years by indigenous people. I started looking for more and eventually picked up the Brazos portfolio. As I tasted more and heard more stories I decided that I absolutely had to go to southern Chile and see for myself. I'm writing this now just after spending 6 days in BioBio, Itata, and the Maule valleys of Chile. I visited Roberto Henriquez, Jose Luiz at Gonzales Bastias, Mauricio Gonzalez at Estacion Yumbel, and Manel Moraga at Cacique Maravilla. It was amazing, powerful, and memorable for the rest of my life.
BioBio, Itata, and Maule are all south of the more famous Chilean wine regions. Maule is about 3 hours south of Santiago and then BioBio and Itata are about another 3 hours south. The Bio Bio river is where the Spanish conquest died. There was a powerful native tribe here, the Mapuche, who fought the Spaniards to a draw and eventually the two cultures coexisted and then blended. So the people here have a different outlook compared to Santiago up north. Santiago is almost more like going to Europe, but once you get down into Maule it's almost like you've stepped back in time. Most of the red vines are Pais but there's also Cinsault. For whites it seems like it's Moscatel de Alexandria, Corrinto, and Semillon. There are a lot of vineyards and Pais is a very vigorous productive vine, but many are abandoned. We saw abandoned vines all over the place that were growing aggressively up trees and thriving. This is so special because the wine making traditions are descended un-altered from Spanish colonists 300-400 years ago and the vines are all ungrafted.
Most people that own and maintain their vines seem to mostly sell the grapes at terribly low prices to big companies and or make small amounts of wine for their own consumption. The paper industry occupies a majority of the land in the area and is also a majority of the economy. Many people have ripped up their 200 year old vines to plant trees for the paper industry since pine trees take no maintenance. But it's a very extractive industry in BioBio and Itata with pines planted in monoculture and then clear cut. Most people in the area are farmers but it's very small scale subsistence farming.
Before I went I had a theory that most of the Chilean population lives up closer to Santiago and saw southern Chile as backwards superstition Indians. I had no idea though and I was hoping the situation might be more complicated than that. But over all that's how the situation was. Everyone we spoke to who worked up in Santiago said that no one up there would think if drinking a Pais. When we were in the Santiago airport we looked in all the wine shops and all the restaurants but we couldn't find a single wine made from Pais or that came from down south!
I think that will change though. This is a wine making culture that's unique in the world. I feel like the culture of Pipeno and these ancient vines should somehow be a Unesco World Heritage site. All of the wine makers we visited produced great wines that are vivid expressions of the land that they came from. The wine makers all had subtle variations in their motivations, but passion for the land and pride in their unique ancient traditions was in all their hearts.
Roberto is such a nice guy and he's trying to build something bigger than himself that will help other local people make wine. His wines are very thoughtful, elegant, clean and alive. We spent 3 days with him picking grapes, helping crush, moving stuff around and walking all the vineyards. He's a modest and understated guy, but you can sense his intensity: the intensity of his vision for establishing a wine making industry here and helping to empower the local community. He's only been making wine commercially on his own for going on 5 years but he's leading the charge to bring these wines out to the rest of the world and to empower other local people to make and bottle wines as well.
Roberto Henriquez Santa Cruz de Coya $26
Santa Cruz de Coya is all Pais from about 3 vineyard sites in Bio Bio. All are on granitic soil; so bits of decayed granite, clay, some quartz. It's susceptible to erosion, poor in nutrients, hard when dry and super sticky when wet, but it rarely rains. All of these vineyards were previously abandoned and Roberto has been working for 5 years to recover them and retrain the vines. That means lots and lots of manual labor prunig, plowing natural organic fertilizer into the soil, and doing some plowing with a horse to work it. It ferments in open fermenters and then ages in concrete. The vines are 200 years old. This was the most elegant poised and beautiful wine I tried in Chile. It's friendly and reminds me a bit of cru Beaujolais. It's a little floral and has a hint of the black pepper that is a hallmark of Pais but it's so smooth.
Roberto Henriquez Rivera Del Notro Tinto $29
Notro Tinto is also from Bio Bio, but it's an old vineyard planted on a hill side that used to be a bank of the Bio Bio river. It's a super unusual mix of alluvial river deposits and volcanic matter from a long extinct volcano. The top soil of the vineyard is this exceptionally fine black volcanic sand. Again it's nutrient poor and the vines have to send roots down 30-40 feet. But that makes them much more drought resistant. This is made in pretty much exactly the same manner as the Coya, but it has a more mineral back bone. It's more structured and firm. It's pretty and very integrated and beautiful, but the structure is more robust and can stand up to more food.
In Depth Blog Post About Roberto
Jose Luis Gonzalez Bastias was passionate, grounded, welcoming, and had a huge personality. He was totally in love with his family vineyard and to full of joy that he got to wake up there every day. He's the seventh generation of his family to make wine on this land.
Gonzalez Bastias Naranjo (orange wine) $29
40% Pinl Moscatel, 40% Torontel, 20% Pais. All hand harvested and co-fermented all together for 60 days on the skins in open top vats. Then it spends a further 6 months aging in old Rauli wood tanks. This is the most lovely fruit forward, rich, and approachable orange wine I've ever tasted. I don't say that lightly.
Gonzalez Bastias Matorral Pais $23
100% Pais, hand harvested and destemmed/macerated with a zaranda. The wine ferments in open top cement and wood fermenters before being transferred to cement tanks for a year. It's a more broad and substantial Pais. This is really balanced and a delicious rich and meatier version of Pais. It has more force and more body than Roberto's somewhat more elegant expression. This reminds more of some of my favorite central Italian reds. It just seems like Jose Luis' big out going personality expressing itself.
Gonzalez Bastias blog post and Video
That's all of Jose Luis's vineyards right there, with the Maule river beyond. If you zoom in you can even see him walking down the driveway!
Manuel Moraga was also a passionate larger than life character. His family had owned his vineyards since 1776 and he had taken over in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquakes that totally destroyed their winery. His life has been 10 years of methodical rebuilding out of love for the land and vines.
Cacique Maravilla Gutiflower Sparkling wine $21
This is a lovely fun delicious thirst quenching clean pet nat. Manuel Moraga is a party animal. Wines like this: fun delicious and that you can drink lots of, are what he does best. the fruit is juicy and sunny but there's a super cool underlying structure from the aging on the yeast.
Here's a video I made of me harvesting grapes from tiny old bush vines with Roberto.
Also I went skinny dipping in the Bio Bio river. Here I am emerging like Venus.
The sunset behind Manuel's house. I think he just stares at this and goes to sleep every evening.
So that's it. That's what I've been up to. I hope you're all well and feeling ok. This is a difficult time for everyone. Take care and be good to yourself and the others around you.
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