Monday, 17 March 2014

Darth Vader winemaking in Chile

If I ask you what comes to mind when I say Chilean wine, what pops into your head? I am betting that excitement, experimentation and risk-taking are not at the top of the list. Perhaps you are thinking more along the lines of reliability, good value and consistency?

If ever I find myself a contestant on Pointless and the category of Chilean wine comes up, I reckon I’ve got that round pretty well sewn up. Never mind that neither occurrence is ever likely to happen.   

But back to the matter in hand. Given my hypothesis viz a viz wine from Chile, what would drive an established producer, with a proven track record of critical and commercial success for their international style wines (for want of a better description) to turn their back on all that? What happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Marcelo Retamal, Iron Maiden-loving winemaker at Chile’s De Martino winery for the past eighteen years, puts it simply: he didn’t enjoy drinking the wines that he was making. They represented what he now calls “the Dark Side”.
Marcelo Retamal and some of his large oak foudres

He pinpoints 1998 as a year of change, when the arrival of international winemaking consultants in Chile and demand from international buyers led to a very different approach to winemaking from what had gone before. The trend for soft, sleek and powerful wines meant that grapes were picked later (up to two months later than previously) in order to get super-ripe flavours, which in turn led to the need for routine acidification to correct the low acid levels in such ripe grapes; 100% new oak barrels and selected yeasts became the norm in the winery.

Devotees of this column, should there be any of you, might recall that I wrote about De Martino’s wines back in 2011 when Marcelo Retamal and Sebastian de Martino visited the UK and told the world about their plans for the future. Their 2010 vintages which I sampled then contained tantalising hints of what was to come, but now they have come back to show us the full picture with their 2011 and later wines.

To illustrate his point, Marcelo led a vertical tasting of a Carmenère from De Martino’s Alto de Piedras vineyard in the Maipo Valley.

The 2005 epitomised what Marcelo calls “the Dark Side”: there is plenty of oak and ripe, slightly pruney fruit, but also a swingeing tannic structure, jarring acidity and a lingering flavour of alcohol (which stands at 14.8%). It felt like a wine at war with itself.

In 2010 Marcelo, in partnership with Sebastiàn de Martino, decided that he had had enough of making what he now calls “bad wine”. That meant no more new oak barrels, earlier picking dates, no acidification, use of natural yeasts (that is naturally occurring yeasts which are present all around us and provide, for example, the lift in sourdough bread) and lower alcohol.

The 2011 Alto de Piedras wine illustrated the new thinking. It is light on its feet, with lively fruit and fresh acidity. Alcohol is down to 13.3% and acidity is naturally higher, thanks to earlier picking (20 April compared with 10 May in 2005, some 20 days earlier). The wine is aged in 5,000 litre foudres (huge wooden barrels) instead of new oak barrels holding 225 litres, so the effect of oak on the flavour is minimal. It demonstrates the move towards a more authentic, natural and gastronomic style of wine.

De Martino’s other project is a number of wines fermented and aged in old giant clay amphorae (known as Viejas Tinajas in Chile) from vines grown in the southerly Itata Valley. It may sound wilfully eccentric to use such antique techniques, which would not have looked out of place in ancient Rome, but amphorae (and their modern equivalent, cement “eggs”) are actually becoming, if not commonplace, at least not freakish, in wineries around the world.

Itata is home to some of Chile’s oldest, dry farmed bush vines and the De Martino Viejas Tinajas range comprises a dry white made from Muscat and two reds, one a 100% Cinsault and the other a Carignan/Cinsault blend. Production is not high – only 6,000 bottles of the Cinsault are made – but it could mark the arrival of user friendly Chilean natural wine, with its soft structure and lifted sweet/savoury flavours. 

De Martino wines to try

Gallardia Cinsault Rosé 2013 - £8.95 from The Wine Society, £11.65 from Caves de Pyrène of Guildford
From Itata, but not part of the Viejas Tinajas project, this is a more mainstream, but effortlessly enjoyable wine. It looks and tastes like a classic Provence rosé, with fresh, marine flavours and a gentle finish.

Gallardia Muscat 2012 - £11.65 from Caves de Pyrène
Muscat can be a bit of an in your face variety, with its intensely grapey aromas, which can then seem out of synch with a dry palate. Here, the aromatics are more restrained, with hints of candied fruit. It tastes beautifully fresh and would be a real crowd pleaser (especially if you don’t let on that it’s Muscat, to avoid people like me thinking they won’t like it).

La Aguada Old Vines Field Blend 2011 - £22 from Caves de Pyrène (The Wine Society currently stocks the 2008 for £14.95)
Planting an entire vineyard with a single grape variety is actually quite new technology in many parts of the wine world. It was once common practice to plant a range of varieties together (without necessarily even knowing what those varieties were), though it’s now increasingly rare. This vineyard is predominantly Carignan, usually a despised variety, thought to bring nothing more than colour, alcohol and rusticity to a wine. Old, dry-farmed vines such as this, though, can make wines of real character and depth – and the smattering of Cinsault and Malbec help to give lift and perfume.

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