Interviews with Chile’s wine industry innovators

In part one of a series on Chile’s leading winemakers, ThisisChile speaks to Miguel Torres about a project to restore Chile’s oldest grape.  

Thursday, May 03, 2012 Category: Business - Food
The El País grape, shown in the Maule Valley, is one of Chile’s oldest strains. Photo by Joe Hinchli The El País grape, shown in the Maule Valley, is one of Chile’s oldest strains. Photo by Joe Hinchliffe.

In April, ThisisChile reported on the viticultural archaeologists digging up forgotten strains in Chile’s centuries-old vineyards.

Since then we’ve spoken with leading innovators in the industry, who are re-imagining some of the country’s traditional grape varieties, creating distinctive and award-winning new wines.

In part one of this series, ThisisChile speaks with Miguel Torres, of Miguel Torres Chile, about a project that he’s been involved in that prizes not only the production of high-quality wine, “but also ... the recuperation of the history of Chilean viticulture.”

And though he is at the forefront of new developments in Chile’s wine industry, Torres certainly knows his wine history.

A brief history of Chilean wine

“In Chile, viticultural activity began with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores,” Torres says. “In the mid-16th Century, missionaries introduced the vines necessary to produce wine for Mass. The first vineyards registered in the history of Chile were those planted by Francisco de Aguirre in his lands in Copiapó, in the north of the country.”

Torres goes on to explain that in 1554 the first vineyard made its way to Santiago, again to produce wine for religious purposes, and over the next hundred years the vineyards began expanding to different climates and advancing further south.

The winemaker says that the El País, Moscatel and Torontel varieties where initially the most prevalent, though the versatility and hardiness of the El País quickly made it a favorite.

“The País variety could be related to the Listán Prieto that is found in the Canary Islands,”  Torres says, speculating on the origins of this grape.

“Surely, the Spanish conquistadores, who almost obligatorily passed by these islands to stock up on food before crossing the Atlantic, could also have harvested this variety. It was a variety widely used to make wine for Mass, for many reasons, primarily because it was very resistant and grows almost anywhere, including places with very limited water - for this reason, in Chile it can still be found in dry areas - the roots of El País stretch very deep and tap into nutrients and water deep underground.”

Given its flexibility in different climates and productivity, El País soon became Chile’s signature grape for hundreds of years - before it fell dramatically out of fashion.

How humble Chilean families saved El País from extinction

“Until the arrival of Claudio Gay in 1810, the reign of El Pais would be indisputable,” he said. Yet soon thereafter, “Claudio Gay - a French expert agronomist - brought varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, considered more ‘noble’ and began an unstoppable tendency for planting this French variety.”

Ever since the arrival of Gay, El País has been relegated to the status of a blend grape.

Though the price of the variety “dropped inexorably,” it remained widely planted - Torres says that there are between 30,000 and 37,000 acres (12,000 and 15,000 ha) of the vine around the country - thanks to Chile’s many smaller producers.

“This variety is planted in general by a great number of lower-income Chilean families who lack the resources to invest in other varieties or to invest in their vineyards,” explained Torres. “These families have carried these vines, in some cases for up to 200 years.”

Now, Torres wants to help restore El País to its former glory, and help the many humble Chilean families who’ve preserved the strain along the way.

Re-imagining El País

“Five years ago, (former Chilean Minister Foreign Affairs) Mariano Fernández asked us if we could study what could be done with the País variety. He initiated then a collaboration between three groups, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Foundation for Agricultural Innovation, the Universidad de Talca and Miguel Torres Chile.”

“I have to say that initially we didn’t know if the País variety would work. The País variety had been left to one side enologically and it was not an easy task to recuperate it,” says Torres.

Then the team came up with a entirely new approach for the variety - making a sparkling wine.

“We soon learned that to make a high quality sparkling, the best method of production is the ‘traditional’ or ‘Champenoise,’ that is with the second fermentation in the bottle, as is done with Cavas or Champagnes.”

Starting from scratch and progressing by experimentation, the team ended up with a “light pink” wine with “the slight presence of tannins and anthocyanins (colors)... with a superior complexity and very interesting aromas of raspberry and blackcurrant.”

The product was met enthusiastically by a market always on the lookout for a new taste.

“We experimented for four years and our technical team, headed by Fernando Almeda, did extraordinary work. Basically we learned how to handle this variety as a sparkling. Finally in 2010 we made the first 1,000 cases, which we sold in a few months. In 2011 we made 10,000 cases and in 2012 we are thinking of continuing this growth.”

The signature wine of this project is the refined Santa Digna Estelado, which won the Wines of Chile’s best sparkling wine award in 2011, though Torres has not forgotten its “humble” origins.

“Perhaps the most beautiful of these is the Santa Digna Estelado,” Torres suggested, naming one of his vineyard’s brands that is fully certified “Fair Trade.”

“This international certification guarantees a higher price for the farmers and a portion of that price goes to social projects in the community.”

Local farmers grow and harvest the País grapes and sell them to the vineyard, receiving fair prices and, most importantly, restoring faith in the grape that Torres says is “undoubtedly the most Chilean (grape) we have.”