An 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of south-central Chile in the early morning hours of Feb. 27, 2010, causing widespread damage throughout much of the country. At the 123-year-old cellars of Santa Carolina winery in the Macul neighborhood on the outskirts of Santiago, the capital, the temblor also opened a door onto Chile’s past.
When winery employees arrived to inspect the damage, they found hundreds of old library bottles scattered on the floor. They also discovered a forgotten hidden alcove with bottles and old winery records. But these wines weren’t cabernet sauvignon, merlot or sauvignon blanc, varieties that modern Chile is known for; rather, they were rare varieties like pais, semillon and Romano.
The find inspired a “rescue project,” as Santa Carolina tries to restore Chile’s wine traditions by reviving old grapevines descended from the company’s vineyards planted in the 1870s and early 1900s. It also inspired chief winemaker Andrés Caballero to move away from the modern style of winemaking in favor of older methods.
Such wineries as Santa Carolina, De Martino, J. Bouchon and others are reaching back into Chile’s vinous past to redefine its future. These vintners — many of them a new generation taking the reins of established wineries — are reviving old vineyards and forgotten grape varieties. While not exactly altogether abandoning the Bordeaux model of wines based on cabernet sauvignon and merlot, they are moving away from the international style of fruit-forward, oaky and alcoholic wines that became popular in the 1990s just as Chile’s wine exports boomed. And they are creating wines that are uniquely Chilean.
For Caballero, the project gives him a chance to experiment with small bottlings of semillon, a minor Bordeaux white variety that has been eclipsed in popularity by sauvignon blanc, and Romano, an obscure red grape (also known as César) now virtually unknown in its homeland of northern Burgundy in France. But his main pride is the Luis Pereira, a cabernet sauvignon-based blend named for Santa Carolina’s founder. Made with old-vine fruit harvested a month earlier than most wineries pick and aged only in old wood, the wine is an elegant statement of the way wine was made a half-century or more ago.
“When I started making this wine, I had to throw out what I knew about winemaking,” Caballero says. Instead, he follows the method outlined in the documents discovered scattered around the cellar after the earthquake.
For the De Martino family, the search for history goes back to the 1550s, when Spanish conquistadors and missionaries planted Chile’s first vineyards in the southern Itata and Maule valleys. Tired of making wines in the international style, the De Martinos scoured the country looking for amphorae, the terra cotta vessels the Spanish used to age their wines. They found 144, of which they now use 80 to make cinsault, a red variety from France’s Rhone Valley, and muscat of Alexandria, a white grape aged on the skins in the style known as orange wine. The grapes come from steep, stony vineyards in Itata Valley, where the Spanish first planted vines more than 450 years ago.
“The new generations are interested in going down south and finding these vineyards that are old, have never been sprayed, and cannot be worked by machine,” says Sebastian De Martino, who is part of the fourth generation of a family that moved to Chile from Italy in 1934. “It’s very old-school. We’re going back to rescue these old traditions.”
De Martino is part of group of wineries called Vignadores de Carignan. These wines, all labeled “Vigno,” are from old vineyards of the Rhone grape carignan, which was brought to Chile a century ago to add color to basic farmer wines. Vigno wines tend to be vibrant and rough-and-tumble, rather than polished and sophisticated like top cabernets.
In their Legado and Estate series, the De Martinos still follow the Bordeaux model for red wines, but they too have drawn away from the international style. They stopped buying new oak barrels and favor large casks that allow wines to show “purity” without interference from wood flavors, De Martino says. They are also picking earlier to avoid excessive alcohol in the wines.
A few years ago, brothers Julio and Juan Bouchon took over the reins of J. Bouchon winery from their father, Julio Sr., and embarked on a program of “precision viticulture.” This technique, prevalent in Bordeaux and in the United States, involves extensive analysis of vineyard soils to match vine to land. Again, this modern technique pointed the way toward the past.
“Our oldest vineyards, in the Maule Valley, have lots of granite, not at all like Bordeaux’s gravel, clay and limestone,” the younger Julio Bouchon told me. “So we decided to focus on local varieties.”
Those were pais, or the mission grape, and semillon, planted much later by French winemakers to blend with the pais and add acidity. Bouchon is part of a small group of wineries working to promote semillon, as well as working with Vigno and carignan.
The Bouchons make several fascinating bottlings of pais, including one called Pais Salvaje, first made in 2015. This wine is harvested from wild vines growing along the roadside near the Bouchon’s cultivated vineyards in Maule, mostly crushed by hand and fermented without added yeast or filtration.
Bouchon gets animated discussing his family’s “back to the future” effort. “We can survive with cabernet sauvignon in the market,” he says. “But my heart and soul is with the pais, carignan and semillon.”