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Pedro Parra disappears into a hole in the ground. From the edge of the pit – one of 25 dug into a vineyard in Puente Alto just south of Santiago – all I can see is his hat, shielding him from the Chilean midday sun. Then up comes a fist-size stone. Landing between two rows of cabernet sauvignon, it’s covered with a network of roots. “The vine is healthy; the soil isn’t too dense for the roots to dig deep,” Parra murmurs from six feet under. He pries loose more rocks and gravel from the stratified walls with a pick hammer, scribbling a few notes and drawing a picture in a book. He mutters something about limestone and minerality, then looks up and declares: “The potential for a premium wine with balanced tannins is great.”

Expert at deciphering the natural architecture of a vineyard (he’s possibly the only person outside of France to hold a PhD in terroir), Parra is in high demand among a growing crop of Chilean wineries pulling the cork on what he calls “Coca-Cola wines” – standardized assembly-line bottlings that taste identical no matter the soil and the region or topography that the vines sprouted from. (Fittingly, his last name means “grapevine” in Spanish.) He’s part of a movement to create unadorned wines that express a sense of place, whether that means brawny reds with surprisingly silky tannins from sunny Puente Alto in the Maipo Valley, one of Chile’s oldest wine regions; food-friendly whites from the cool coastal valleys; or complex wines from southern old-bush vines brought back from obscurity by experimental vintners.

I get a taste when I reconvene with Parra over mozzarella nests and papas bravas at Bocanáriz in Santiago. Perhaps the most terroir-forward spot in the country, the wine bar is a liquid map of Chile, serving some 300 homegrown choices and offering tastings in a room plastered with portraits of avant-garde vintners. Even the placemats showcase the country’s wine regions. But Parra, who also produces his own wine, has brought two of his bottles that are not yet on the menu: a high-altitude Aristos chardonnay with hints of apples and nuts that’s so delicious I want to chew it, and an un-oaked Clos des Fous malbec blend that shows off plump cherries, spices and graphite. “Wine is not about numbers, it’s about feelings,” he says. “It’s about daring to depart from the homogeneous wines that industrial wineries think we want to drink.” He pours the last few swigs of his red. “Take Marcelo Retamal – he’s not afraid to experiment, looking back to old methods to move forward,” Parra says about the winemaker at Viña De Martino. “Now every young winemaker in the country wants to be Marcelo Retamal. Hell, I want to be Marcelo Retamal!”

EduEduardo Jordán and Marcelo Retamal, vintners at Viña De Martino, Maipo ValleyEduardo Jordán and Marcelo Retamal, the forward-thinking vintners at Viña De Martino, in the Maipo Valley.

At the very least, it’s clear I need to meet Retamal, so I ask my driver to take me to De Martino in Isla de Maipo, south of the capital. Travelling through the Central Valley, an area known as the country’s agricultural breadbasket, we pass fields planted with corn, beans and apricots that provide a mellow contrast to the snow-capped Andean cordillera looming in the east. This is also Chile’s traditional winemaking heartland – lines of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenère appear like a blurry green grid outside the window.

Arriving early at the winery’s Tuscan-style mansion that welcomes visitors, I head for the wine shop (it’s as good an excuse as any to escape the afternoon sun). But before I can peruse the bottles on the wooden shelves, Retamal and winemaker Eduardo Jordán swoop in. They take me to a bodega with clay amphoras that are more than 100 years old (some of them were once used for wine, others for chicha, the fermented juice of apples or other fruit or grains). “I use these for fermenting grapes from our dry-farmed, old-bush cinsault and muscat,” says Retamal, patting the vessels, whose volume ranges from 60 to 1,100 litres. “It’s how wines were made hundreds of years ago – no enzymes, no yeast, no oak that can mask the flavour of the fruit,” which in this case comes from nearly forgotten vines in the Itata Valley, 400 kilometres south of here. In another warehouse we’re dwarfed by Austrian oak foudres that have been air-dried for six years to cut the risk of “contaminating” the contents with wood. We climb a staircase to a room with a conference table set with 10 wineglasses for each of us. I worry I’ll be tipsy in no time, until I see someone has also put out bowls for spitting.

“The secret to a great wine,” Retamal says as we sit down, “is not in the winemaking, it’s in understanding the vineyard – and harvesting early, because raisins are the worst form of standardization.” Jordán nods and explains: “It’s easier to make wines from overripe grapes because you don’t have to worry about when to pick them. But the end result is uniformity, regardless of varietal or terroir.” Retamal and Jordán take me on a virtual trip pretty much the length of the country. A crisp chardonnay with elegant minerality reflects Limarí, a northern river valley that opens up to the Pacific and its air-conditioned breezes, while a dense carmenère shows off the Mediterranean climate surrounding the winery. (In 1996, De Martino made Chile’s first wine from what has since become the nation’s signature grape.) The aromatic syrah from 2,000 metres altitude in Elqui, on the southern fringe of the Atacama Desert, has Retamal go all poetic. “There’s a lot of energy in Elqui. The sky there is the bluest in all of Chile.” And when we get to the slightly earthy, clay-aged cinsault, reflecting southern rusticity and finesse, I go for the last drop. It would be a crime to spit.

Strolling along a quiet street lined with cascading bougainvilleas in Santiago’s Providencia neighbourhood, you wouldn’t guess there’s a revolution under way. But from his home, Canadian ex-pat Derek Mossman Knapp is busy shaking up the wine scene – one terroir-driven bottle at a time.

Winemakers Rosario Álvarez and Julio BastíasWinemakers Rosario Álvarez and Julio Bastías chill out with a glass in the naturally cooled – and partially underground – production facilities at Matetic Vineyards. The biodynamic winery is located in the cool-climate Rosario Valley close to the Pacific coast.

He greets me at his front door and shows me to his leafy backyard, where he introduces me to his wife, winemaker Pilar Miranda Avedaño, and Andrés Solar O’Reilly, the owner of a wine farm 400 kilometres due south. Beside them are a table and a cooler full of wine bottles waiting to be uncorked, including a few from Mossman and Miranda’s Garage Wine Co. and Solar’s Viña la Reserva de Caliboro. Both boutique wineries are founding members of MOVI – Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (Movement of Independent Vintners) – a tiny (18 members and counting) group of producers. Their motto could be summed up as Go Small or Go Home. Their style? “Well, you won’t find any jammy, woody, New World-type wines made by MOVI folks,” says Solar. He’s got an in on the Old World: The co-proprietor of Caliboro’s Erasmo wines is Count Francesco Marone Cinzano (yes, that Cinzano), from Italy.

“Some of us do actually make wine in our garages,” says Mossman, glancing over at the corner of the garden where he and Miranda made their first attempts. “You can do that when you’re only making a few barrels of something.” As we sample Garage Wine’s Lot #34 Carignan – made from another grape brought back from oblivion – he adds that the reason for MOVI’s existence is to promote quality, not quantity (MOVI’s wines account for 0.05 percent of Chile’s total exports). Produced on a vineyard farmed by horse and hand, this carignan is full of juicy cherries, spices and balanced tannins, a far cry from the church wine the varietal was once used for. He explains that because the vines are so old, often more than 50 years, they have such big roots that irrigation is not needed, making for more concentrated flavours, which are more complex on old vines to begin with. When we finally get through our tasting marathon of 17 different bottles, we’re ready to dig into the orange-and-teriyaki-glazed salmon grilled on charcoal made at Caliboro from spiny espino bushes. “This is when the fun starts, so grab a glass!” urges Solar.

That vintage spirit is in full force at Matetic Vineyards, where you really feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The biodynamic winery is tucked away among the rolling hills of the Rosario Valley in San Antonio. Steering through this bucolic landscape less than 20 kilometres from the coast, my driver slows down for a mother quail and her brood so they can cross the winding road safely. When we pull up to the production facilities at the top of a hill, I spot sheep, donkeys, geese and chickens mowing the weeds growing between rows of syrah and pinot noir. But I don’t see the entrance. It’s only when I walk around a huge mound covered with grasses and flowers that I realize that the glass-and-steel-fronted building is partly underground. Perhaps the subterranean aspect is a symbol of a company seeking alternative forms of winemaking.

Cellars in Santa Carolina in SantiagoSanta Carolina, in Santiago, still uses its 1877 cellars to ferment wine.

After checking out the gravity-fed fermentation tanks and naturally cooled oak barrels used by head winemaker Julio Bastías to vinify handpicked grapes from nine different varietals, I head over to La Casona to meet Jorge Matetic. We pass through the courtyard of the seven-room hotel (I’m staying in the Riesling room) to an outdoor patio at the foot of a hill studded with sauvignon blanc. As we dig into tuna tartare and ceviche served in endive leaves, Matetic tells me his family-owned winery was the first in the country to plant syrah in such a cool climate. “It was crazy,” he says, “but we just had to find out what would happen.” Over salmon filet washed down with a slightly chilled 2011 vintage in the Equilibrio dining room, I find out first-hand: Chocolate, spices and black cherries easily conspire against my willpower, and one glass soon becomes two. Que syrah, syrah.

It’s not just the small producers who are carrying out search-and-rescue missions. The giant Viña Santa Carolina, which churns out some 20 million bottles per year, has shifted from making a predictable product to focusing on lower-alcohol wines with more complexity and acidity, and harvesting earlier to put the spotlight on the fruit and the soil. “We’re going back to older ways of vinifying grapes, and cloning old vines to rescue them from extinction,” Jimena Balic, the vintner in charge of R&D, tells me as she takes me on a tour of the urban winery. (What was established in 1875 as a country estate with vineyards has since been swallowed by the constantly growing capital, leaving only the winery and cellars intact in what is now a residential neighbourhood.) “It’s about keeping Chile’s winemaking heritage alive.” Maybe that’s why visitors can snap selfies in front of the disused foudres made in the 1930s of raulí, Chilean oak.

To show me what she means, Balic takes me to a tasting room in the casona, a colonial-style mansion at the heart of the winery. She brings out a bottle that’s partly caked with dirt. “It’s a 1959 Reserva de Familia, but we don’t know of what; we’re guessing it’s a blend, mainly of cabernet sauvignon,” she says. The wine pours slightly brown, oxidized from age, and shows smoke and earth, with tannins softened over time. “It proves that we can make wines that age gracefully.” Taking that idea forward, chief winemaker Andrés Caballero and his team are working on identifying unknown varietals in their fields and cloning the vine material that might have produced this particular wine. They rescue pieces and sticks from, for instance, the vines that would have been bulldozed when the city grew, and replicate their DNA to make new plants. Until recently, they also tapped into the expertise of Ruy Barbosa, Chile’s first winemaker (he passed away in June at the age of 95), to figure out how to make wines like they were made in the 1950s, including fermentation, filtration and bottling. Balic caps my visit with a white-tablecloth dinner in an underground cellar that’s now a national monument; its construction started in 1877 using bricks held together with clay and egg whites. As we’re clinking glasses of Caballero’s aptly named Herencia (“heritage”) carmenère, it’s clear that what’s old is new again.

Matetic Vineyards’ La CasonaNamed after different grapes, the seven rooms at Matetic Vineyards’ La Casona will have you tucking in among the vines. Wake up early so you don’t miss out on the organic blueberries grown by the owners, then stay up late so you can sample the range of cool-climate wines, including Old World-style syrah and pinot noir.


Travel essentials

 01 Taste the results of forward-thinking winemaking at a dinner with a member from MOVI, set up by Santiago Adventures.
(movi.cl ; santiagoadventures.com)

 02 South America’s principal wine exporter, Viña Concha y Toro, offers tours and tastings; don’t miss the icon wine, Don Melchor, a silky cabernet sauvignon vinified by Enrique Tirado. (conchaytoro.com)

 03 Bike through the vineyards at Viña Casas del Bosque, in the cool Casablanca Valley, then cap your outing with dinner at Tanino; we recommend the crispy octopus, washed down with Grant Phelps’ Pequeñas Producciones sauvignon blanc. (casasdelbosque.cl)

04 With more than 300 wines (35 of them by the glass), Bocanáriz in Santiago’s Barrio Lastarria is like a passport to the country’s terroir-driven producers. In addition to sommelier-led tastings, the wine bar also hosts tastings with a MOVI member on the last Thursday of the month. (bocanariz.cl)

 05 Need a break from wine? Head to the laid-back Café 202, around the corner from Bocanáriz, for a mean café cortado or a cold beer from artisanal brewers like Kross and Soma. (202.cl)

 06 Pair viticulture with arts and culture at Viña Santa Rita, whose Museo Andino showcases a stunning collection of silver art created by the Mapuche. (santarita.com ; museoandino.cl)

 

Tags

CHILE     FEATURES     WINE    

Getting There

Air Canada flies five days per week to Santiago from Toronto; between December 14 and February 15, 2015, the service increases to six days per week. From Santiago, the Maipo and San  Antonio valleys are less than a two-hour drive away.

Comments… or add another

Chris Bee

Monday, August 11th 2014 18:01
Great article.I have visited the Casablanca Valley .Who runs wine tours out of Canada ?

Dina van den Hanenberg

Tuesday, August 12th 2014 10:39
Having been in Chile last October and enjoying some time in Santiago and Valparaiso, we were able to enjoy the wine valleys close to both these great cities. Chilean wines have become a favorite especially accompanying their great food.
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