Curious about: Southern Chile

I love, love, love Chile! I visited on a whirlwind trip in 2009 with Wines of Chile, and the impression that it made on me may last a lifetime.

After many false starts, I returned to Chile in late 2018, a woman on a mission! I wanted to explore and get my head around the southern wine region, which comprises of Itata, Bío-Bío and Malleco. Not quite as far south as Tasmania, but they have that pesky Humboldt current bringing penguins and cold air from the Antarctic up along the coast of a narrow country, averaging only 177 kilometres wide. There is a high diurnal temperature variation, cool, cool nights and beautifully warm days that run to the high 30’s during summer.

On the Eastern side of the country, the glorious Andes reign supreme and run the entire length at heights of up to 7,000m. Plus there are volcanoes. And free roaming cows as I later found out. 

Part of my curiosity about this southern region was not just to taste the wines but also to understand the lay of the land. Was it going to look like Tasmania? There’s not a lot of land between us once we have flown by our whanau in New Zealand. What is this part of the world all about?

Getting there:

Drive from Santiago with an envelope of Luca (1,000CLP notes) for the bazillion tolls that you will go through over the 5+ hour journey.

Or, you could be sensible and fly to Concepcion and take it from there.

Blood Alcohol limit for driving is zero. Safety never takes a day off.

Cacique Maravilla

What an experience that I will never forget! Meeting Manuel and Paula Guitterez was an education in passion, family, history, winemaking, viticulture and humanity. Manuel’s family has farmed on the land for over 300 years.

Located in Yumbel, part of the Bío-Bío region, it is five hours south of Santiago. Sitting at a latitude of 37 degrees South, 50 minutes south east of the coastal city of Concepcion and 90 minutes west of Antuco, a small ski community on the approach to the Andes.

The first view of the vineyards is staggering. Gnarled old vines, trained more for support than anything else. Bush vines, squat and majestic, stretch out up the sloping hillside. All the vines are on their original rootstock and the vineyard has Pais, Malbec, Cot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Muscat de Alejandria, Torontel and Corinto.

Visiting Cacique Maravilla is to learn about their history. For me, wine is about stories and for a magical few hours, I was a part of theirs. I learned about the hundreds of years since the family first arrived in Yumbel and planted vines on the land that I stood. We talked about the best time for putting tomatoes in and that mine were going to be late because I was away. We looked at the dam and talked about the rainfall and snow melt over the cold season, spring was in full flight, and that the dam was not as full as it could be for the time of year.

Most of the rain falls in the late autumn and winter months, averaging around 1,100mm a year. If it hasn’t rained enough by late spring, many do not anticipate that more water will come for the rest of the growing season. The vines are dry grown here, much as they would have been in the 1600’s.
Like the vineyards natural and wild existence, the winemaking is very much the same. The wines are made in the same way that they would have been made originally. There are no herbicides and pesticides used in growing the grapes and when they arrive in the winery, they are left to ferment naturally. The winery is still in a state of flux since the 8.3 earthquake hit in 2015 with more modern plastic vats brought into the adobe and brick-walled building. The wine is an expression of the place. I tried the wines in the Guitterez family kitchen, their daughter cooked an impromptu feast whilst her parents talked to me about their wines. We ate, drank, laughed, listened to music and bonded as people.
Luckily, their Pipeño can be found in Tasmania and I look forward to sharing it with my students in the same way as it was shared with me, to enjoy, laugh and tell stories. To be human.

Pandolfi Price 

I nearly didn’t make it to Pandolfi Price, a small family owned vineyard in Chillan Viejo, an hour north of Yumbel. Chillan Viejo is part of Itata, the oldest wine region in Chile. My tiny rental car looked about the same size as the puddle blocking my way to the vineyard. In the very modern way of What’s App-ing pictures and concerns, Enzo assured me that it actually was not that deep and that my miniature box of a hire car would have no trouble getting through it so long as I just didn’t stop! I was rewarded for my bravado with the discovery of the wines of Pandolfi Price.
In complete contrast to Manuel and his family, Enzo’s family has not always been in the wine industry. The vineyard itself was planted in 1992 but the family did not purchase the Santa Ines property until 2002. Originally they were focused on growing for others, but, like many others, the seductive potential of the site changed all of that.
Enzo and I hopped into his far more suitable 4×4 to explore the different influences of the property. Pointing to the volcano in the distance, he explained that some of the vineyards are influenced by the volcanic soils from an ancient eruption. This is combined with basaltic sands and clay which the roots penetrate through. Other parts of the vineyard have clay soils with a large mineral presence including  quartz and decomposed granite. The Rio Larqui, known by the indigenous people as the Larkün, brings an important source of water, particularly in very dry years.
The vineyards slope and twist around the property highlighting the need for that chunky 4×4. The dogs make light work of it, happily jumping and skipping around the car as we explore.
Pandolfi-Price have Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah planted in their vineyard. The Chardonnay is the oldest planting, established back in 1992 but the Pinot Noir didn’t appear until 2011, the same year as the Syrah.
Larkün is also the name given to their younger drinking wines that see no oak intervention. The Chardonnay does not go through malolactic fermentation spends 12 months on lees in stainless steel tanks, the Pinot Noir  12 months in concrete and the Syrah 24 months in stainless steel.
The Los Patricios is about Enzo and his father, the patricians. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir spend 22 months in French oak barrels and are designed for long ageing. The flavours are in the same sort of area that you may expect from cool climate if it were in a Mornington Peninsula sort of way, rather than Tasmanian. This seems like an odd thing to say when I was looking at the snow covered Andes, but being in situ, it made sense.

Before arriving in Chile, there was little I had tasted from the Southern vineyards, mainly the Cono Sur wine Gewurztraminer, sourced in Bío-Bío, but the things that I had heard and read was that this was the place for cool climate grape growing and winemaking. I found what I thought I was looking for but also so much more. There’s plenty of Chardonnay to be found but nowhere near as much Pinot Noir and aromatic varietals as I thought I might find.

Instead, there were these grape varieties that I knew from southern France and northern Spain and Chilean Muscat de Alejandria that I had only ever drunk as Pisco. This is what I love about wine, visiting the oldest wine region in Chile to find myself talking about the very modern topics of natural wine and low-intervention winemaking. The environmental challenges of managing a vineyard whilst maintaining the natural equilibrium of the surroundings. Of finding suppliers, distributors and the importance of social media.

Each region, each winery is as unique as a fingerprint but with a shared history. My curiosity is not sated, next stop, the Atacama desert…

Grapes of Southern Chile:

  • Pais – known in Argentina as Criolla Chica and Mission in California.
    Brought to the Americas by the conquistadores in the 1500’s. A red grape, that is known for its rustic tannins (it can be a bit rough around the edges) that are often tamed by using carbonic maceration. A smoky, peppery and not overly fruity wine, it can be tricky to tame as the vines often need time, ideally over 50 years, to reduce its rambunctious vigour to more manageable levels. Pais is quite resistant to disease and requires close attention at harvest time, similar to that of Viognier. If you turn your back for too long, the acidity can plummet resulting in a flabby wine. Read more here
  • Carignan – aka Mazuela and Cariñena. A red grape with high tannin and acidity that is prone to powdery and downy mildew.
  • Cinsault – aka Ottavianello in Italy. A highly perfumed red grape with thin skins. Hardy in drought conditions and can make an excellent rosé as well as red wines.
  • Moscatel de Alejandria – aka Muscat of Alexandria, in Southern Italy it is known as Zibibbo. One of the early grapes brought to the Americas by the conquistadores. A highly perfumed white grape with a susceptibility for fungal diseases, coulure (poor fruit set that reduces yields) but can provide lots of sweetness as it thrives in hot climates. Mainly used for pisco and raisins.
  • Torontel – The Chilean name for Torrontes which is indigenous to Galicia, found in Ribeiro but famous in Argentina. A white grape with intense perfume, high alcohol and acidity.
  • Corinto – aka Chasselas or Fendant in Switzerland. A white grape known for its early budding, vigour in the vineyard and soft, often neutral, wines. 
  • Cot – aka Malbec, Pressac and in Cahors, Auxerrois. A red grape with intense fruit, high alcohol and relatively soft tannins. Most famously grown in Argentina.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – the most planted red grape in the world. A small, red grape with thick skin, high acidity, high tannins, high alcohol, deep colour, intense flavour and a high capacity for ageing.
  • Syrah – aka Shiraz. A red grape variety known for full bodied, rich, moderate tannins and well structured acidity if it is not left to over ripen. Syrah is susceptible to coulure (see above) and chlorosis, a lack of chlorophyll due to a deficiency of iron in the soil. High levels of anthocyanins, (see also glycosides) in Syrah make it an excellent option for long ageing. 
  • Chardonnay – A white grape found in almost every corner of the wine world. A pliant grape, responsible for everything from sparkling wines to crisp, zesty white wines to savoury, mushroomy textured wines. An exuberant vigour can need to be kept in check, Chardonnay is also susceptible to early frosts, the thin skins can rot during rain around harvest time and on occasions, millerandage, better known as hen and chicken where the fruit set is uneven resulting in a mixture of big and little grapes. Kath and Kim will insist that the ‘h’ is silent.
  • Pinot Noir – aka Spatburgunder in Germany, Pinot Nero in Italy and Blauburgunder in Switzerland and Austria. A grape that is prone to mutation (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier) and likes to settle itself into cool climates. Known for sparkling wine and light bodied, high acidity, elegant wines, Pinot Noir has thin skins, which can rot in a cooler, damper vintage.