Wine review: Chile’s roots rediscovered

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Christine Austin travels south from Santiago to find out how twisted old vines are producing new wines.

A few weeks ago I left the relative warmth of a UK summer and headed south to the definite chill of a Chilean winter. Apart from spending several days judging wine in blind tastings, which I shall talk about another time, I explored the region of Maule, around four hours drive south of Santiago. This is the more traditional part of the Chilean wine industry, generally regarded as less fashionable, but now its old vines are being rediscovered and new wines created.

It was late afternoon when I arrived at the Bouchon winery in Maule, but despite the gathering gloom, I headed out the vineyards with father and son, both named Julio Bouchon, to inspect a field of old, twisted vines. They think they are around 120 years old, and now there are just two hectares left. The rest have been pulled out over the decades as the push for Cabernet Sauvignon arrived, but these stayed, possibly for nostalgia. These are the País grape variety, the old traditional grapes that arrived with the Conquistadores in the sixteenth century and were planted to provide wine for the Mass. When ships left Spain they called in at the Canary Islands and that is where the variety comes from. It was originally called Listán and in California it is called the Mission, but the vines are the same. Planted on their own roots, long-lived, disease-resistant and able to withstand drought, they produce a few loose bunches of grapes each year, which have generally gone into local wine, but now there is a new idea.

Some producers are going back to the old vines that are spread across the southern regions of Chile and discovering what they can make from them. Rather than uproot the old and plant water-hungry modern vines, these old vines are in balance with the climate. They don’t need miles of irrigation piping, and with good wine making they are producing some of the first País wines to be seen outside local villages for many years.

Having inspected the old vines, the younger Julio drew my attention to the tangle of bushes at the edge of the vineyard. “Some vines grow wild there too and we make wine from those grapes,” he said. Because the old vines are planted on their own roots and can spread, they had escaped from the regimented rows and were climbing over bushes and up trees as they reverted to their natural form. They still produce grapes and so at harvest-time a ladder and a good head for heights are needed.

This whole process of looking back to the old vines is not a marketing gimmick. While there is still plenty of snow on the Andes, acting as a reliable water resource for now, the warning signs of climate change are there. They have had five consecutive years of low rainfall and irrigation uses a lot of water. If there are vines in the south that are in balance with the natural rainfall, then surely it makes sense to investigate? This is a treasure trove of old vines, not just País, but Semillon, Mourvèdre, Cinsault and Carignan varieties, cultivated over the decades and largely ignored as the areas around Santiago became the powerhouse of grape production. And just because the vines are old, it doesn’t mean that the winery has to follow suit. Rolling back the doors at Bouchon revealed up-to-the-minute wooden vats more usually seen in top-flight Burgundy cellars.

We tasted the wines over dinner, and the País was fascinating. País Salvaje 2015, made from wild vines and the old twisted field País, was a light red in colour; light, simple, floral in character, with raspberry fruit and soft tannins. They only make 1,000 bottles of this, so don’t expect it in your local supermarket. Then Canto Sur 2014 was poured – a blend of Carmenère, old Carignan and País. The Carignan element shone out, lively, juicy and with just a hint of spice. This wine recently won a Gold Medal in the Decanter awards.

The Semillon 2015, made from 70-year- old vines was a sheer delight, packed with honeysuckle notes and shot through with lime and lemon notes.

Wine from Bouchon are not widely available, but Concept Fine Wines, a mail order company based in Harrogate (01423 701418), deals with Bouchon and should be able to source them.

This trend towards old, original vines is not confined to small companies. The Chilean branch of Torres was asked by the government to investigate the old vineyards of the south, and now has begun to work with dozens of small growers, some of whom had almost abandoned their vines. “País was worthless, it sold for just 10 cents a kilo and so it was not worth cultivating,” said Fernando Almeda Ollé, winemaker at Torres Chile. “Now we have found people we can work with and we pay them properly for their crop.” The result is a fresh-tasting, juicy, strawberry-scented sparking wine called Estelado, (£13.99 Hoults of Huddersfield) which was named best sparkling wine in Chile. They have also launched a red wine made from País called Reserva de Pueblo which has soft, light, almost Gamay-like flavours with slightly rustic edges. It is the kind of wine to open on a Saturday lunchtime, with a bowl of soup and some crusty bread. Hoults has the current vintage of this wine, Reserva de Pueblo 2013, at £9.99. Old vine Carignan is being revived and used, Torres Cordillera Carignan Vigno 2011 has dark, red fruits, dusted with pepper and with a hint of herbs (Hoults £13.95).

One of the great aspects of this renewed interest in the old grapes of Maule is that it is helping to revive the local economy. Farmers who abandoned their vineyards now have a reason to work them and money is starting to return to the villages. And the work they are doing might just be the foundation of a new range of wines from Chile that truly reflect the place that they come from.