Winds of change in Chile

(by peter)

‘The world has changed.’

It’s not an uncommon remark. Often accompanied by a wistful statement about how things are not what they once were, and how we are the poorer for it.

But not in this case. The speaker is Marcelo Retamal, one of Chile’s finest winemaking minds, whose hugely influential standing in the industry is belied by his modest bearing and distaste for the limelight.

Retamal has seen it all during his 15-year tenure at De Martino – a rarity in itself, given the alarmingly regular job-hopping that seems to be the norm among Chilean winemakers.

‘I’ve made all possible styles of red wine,’ he reflects. ‘In 1996, we made reds at 12% alcohol, which were green at the beginning but which aged well and were very easy to drink. By the time of the 2003 vintage, we were doing the opposite: lots of extraction and alcohol – perfect for competitions but hard to drink.’

Retamal is now committed to what he terms ‘a slow transition’ back to wines that are ‘easier to drink’. As for why, he patiently explains that the world has changed – or, more specifically, the worlds of both winemakers and wine drinkers.

‘Many of the world’s top wines have lost their personality and become standardised. Oak, for example, is one of the most standardising factors in top wines from across the globe. But today’s consumers are looking for typicity, complexity, drinkability. Paradoxically, that’s now often found under £10, where wines have an identity. But the wine market is changing faster than people realise and if the top wine names don’t wake up to this, they risk losing key markets and being forced back to the drawing board.’

To achieve his aims, Retamal has undertaken a complete overhaul of his production policies and instigated far-reaching reforms. These include the decision to stop maturing De Martino’s top reds in new oak barrels (in fact, to stop buying barrels altogether from 2011) and instead buy a number of large Austrian oak ‘fudres’ (vats), each of which holds 5,000 litres of wine.

‘That’s 22 times what a barrel holds,’ explains Retamal excitedly. ‘The bigger the capacity, the less the oak marks the wine with its aroma and taste. And the idea is never to change them, so that over time they won’t give any flavour at all. We want wines that are balanced, complex, food-friendly and easy to drink – but also with an identity that speaks of its origins in Chile. We don’t want wines that burn your mouth and taste like dry Port, or like when you used to chew your pencil in school.’

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the use of no new oak on a top South American red is something akin to winemaking heresy in that continent. De Martino’s top reds, including Familia and the Single Vineyard range, are established names and sell at high prices. In this context, doing away with new oak completely and buying in Austrian fudres is a telling statement of intent.

What might be termed Retamal’s ‘drinkability drive’ doesn’t stop at forsaking new oak, however.

Also in his firing line are herbicides, cultured yeast, enzymes and techniques such as micro-oxygenation. The latter three are all deemed standardising influences and are being phased out completely. As for the viticultural side of things, all De Martino’s own vineyards have been managed organically since 1998 and Retamal is now urging similarly strict policies on his many growers.

Retamal is also harvesting his fruit earlier than before to avoid excessive alcohol and to promote freshness and drinkability. When quizzed as to whether this might risk unripe flavours in the wine, Retamal responds with considered firmness.

‘The risk of green tannins [in Chile] is more of a myth than a reality. My many trials have shown that our warm climate and high solar radiation levels mean that our grapes rarely have excessively herbaceous character. Everyone focuses on waiting for tannins to ripen – as I did for 14 years – but you end up with wines of 15% alcohol. I don’t want unripe grapes, of course, but I do want grapes that give a recognisable typicity with moderate alcohol: a refreshing style that’s easy to drink between two and allows you to leave the restaurant without falling over drunk.’

For proof of this effect on the wines, Retamal notes that none of the reds from the latest vintage (from Alto de Piedras and Legado down to the Estate wines) exceeds 13.6% alcohol.

Retamal is one of Chilean wine’s ‘early adopters’, those Stephen Fry-esque figures who are one step ahead of the curve. He was one of the first to focus systematically on studying Chile’s different terroirs for key varieties – making anything up to eighty different wines in any given vintage in the process. He has been a pioneer in developing the likes of the Choapa Valley (for Syrah), coastal Limarí (Chardonnay), Maule’s old vines, Carmenère in general, high altitude vineyards in Elqui…the list is long and impressive. Where he goes, in short, others follow.

But he is not alone. Other early adopters in Chile include the likes of über-winemaker Alvaro Espinoza, the massively influential Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro and Rafael ‘Legs’ Urrejola, one of Chile’s most astute – not to mention rangiest – winemakers.

Espinoza has been the pioneer of organic and biodynamic vineyard practices in Chile. As well as consulting for many wineries, including the large-scale Emiliana Orgánico, Espinoza makes small amounts of his own wine Antiyal near his house at the foot of the Andes Mountains in the upper Maipo Valley.

Not only is Espinoza pursuing a biodynamic production policy at Antiyal, he is also experimenting in the winemaking department, most notably by using concrete ‘egg’ tanks imported from France for the maturation of a new wine, Viñedo El Escorial Carmenère .

These vats (see photos) are not uncommon to find in some top wineries around the world (they are popular with the biodynamic crowd and are also used by producers such as Clos Mogador in Priorat, Eben Sadie in Swartland and Napa’s Harlan Estate). They are, however, cutting edge for Chile. Espinoza made his first El Escorial (2009 vintage) using a blend of wines matured in oak barrels and 600-litre concrete egg tanks. However, for the 2010 vintage, it will be 90% matured in concrete egg vats after the ‘evolution’ of the wine was deemed to be ‘impressive’. Depending on size, the vats cost anything from US$4,500 to US$12,000.

Espinoza brought in the concrete eggs from manufacturer Nomblot in France together with his colleague Rafael Urrejola at Undurraga. Urrejola elaborates on the appeal: ‘I wanted to make wines differently from the common techniques. Stainless steel is fine and easy and secure, but maybe too clean, too hermetic and the wines tight and rigid in a way. Barrels are the opposite. Concrete in my opinion stands in the middle.’

Urrejola is making his TH Limarí Chardonnay and Leyda Pinot Noir in the concrete tanks, which hold 1,600 litres. Without the masking effect of oak, Urrejola found the fruit expression in both wines to be notably more intense, with beneficial results also in terms of texture (the egg shape allows a greater surface area for lees-wine contact, hence promoting textural richness). His idea is to go 100% concrete egg with his Limarí Chardonnay in the future.

Urrejola concedes, however, that the concrete eggs don’t allow minimal amounts of aeration as barrels do, meaning more racking can be necessary, especially with the reds, to avoid the wines being ‘tight’ in feel. He is currently working on fine tuning this aspect of the winemaking.

While Urrejola and Espinoza busy themselves with their concrete eggs, their colleague Marcelo Papa is experimenting with large glass demi-johns, similar to those used in the production of fortified wines in southern France.

Papa is using them on experimental batches of his Limarí Chardonnay as part of the Maycas del Limarí projected owned by Chilean winemaking behemoth Concha y Toro. Like Urrejola and Retamal, Papa is on a drive to maximise complexity and distinctiveness in his wines, notably his Limarí Chardonnays.

Coastal Limarí is fast making a name for itself with its structured, savoury styles of Chardonnay which feature notably brisk acidity. Ordinarily in Chile, winemakers tend to avoid the softening secondary, or malolactic fermentation with Chardonnay to promote freshness in the wines and avoid sickly butterscotch notes.

Freshness, however, is not a particular issue in cool coastal Limarí, so Papa is using the glass demi-johns to allow his Chardonnays to do malolactic fermentation, hence broadening the palate feel of the wines. He reports that he is ‘very happy’ with the results, which show little or none of the toffeed heaviness that classic malolactic fermentations can give in his other Chardonnays. The trials, he says, are giving him ideas as to how best to improve production methods with his Limarí Chardonnay in general.

It’s worth remembering that Papa, Urrejola, Espinoza and Retamal are all involved in some of Chile’s largest and most traditional winemaking enterprises. While Chile has a nascent ‘alternative’ winemaking scene (see MOVI for one very visible representation of this counter-culture), these guys are not maverick players. They are, to a large extent, the establishment. An establishment that has often been criticised for being overly conservative in its approach to viticulture and winemaking.

So the fact that they are between them using concrete eggs, glass demi-johns, biodynamics – not to mention a ban on new oak barrels, enzymes, and cultured yeasts – is significant indeed. And all in the quest for identity, drinkability and a point of difference in the wines.

As Marcelo Retamal points out, the world changes. And the world of Chilean wine changes with it.