Chilean vineyards a nursery for ancient European grape strains

Long forgotten or undeveloped grape varieties from the Old Continent are being rediscovered in Chile, leading to unique, complex and bold new wines.

With a murky history that may stretch back to the days of the Roman Empire, the French Carmenere grape of the Bordeaux region was thought extinct after an outbreak of Phylloxera devastated vineyards in France, Spain and Italy in the mid 19th Century.

That was until 1994, when the ancient grape was “rediscovered” in the vineyards at the bottom of South America, where it had been preserved unknowingly by Chilean viticulturists who believed that they were growing a local strain of Merlot.

The romantic story of Carmenere, and its bold, original taste, have made it one of Chile’s signature wines.

But though the Carmenere story is being increasingly told around the wine drinking world, what is less known is the fact that this story is in no way unique.

In fact it is far from being a one off; Chile’s vineyards harbor dozens of forgotten, or never-fully-developed grapes from the Old World – some of which may yet be awaiting discovery.

Now, many of these strains are being turned into distinctly Chilean wines by a new breed of innovative winemakers.

As the oldest wine growing region in the country, the vineyards of the Maule Valley have served as the major laboratory for the rediscovery and reinvention of many Old World strains.

According to Yerko Moreno, director of Vine and Wine Technological Center of the University of Talca, the revival of these vines is “a question of getting back to the roots.”

“It’s the new vision about how to make a distinctive wine,” Moreno told EFE, “with a grape that has been considered a bastard.”

A prime example of this new vision is the Carignan grape, grown for centuries in Chile and around the world as a grape used to give color and taste to low-quality blends.

In recent years, a group of small scale producers in the Maule Valley discovered that the grape changes its properties radically as it ages, achieving an intensity and complex aroma that has permitted the creation of a unique, high-quality varietal wine.

Another case of an ancient variety rescued from anonymity is that of the País grape, a strain that was introduced to Chile by the Spanish conquistadores hundreds of years ago, which is currently used for wide-scale production of jug wines in Chile.

However, the perception of País as a strain of modest quality changed radically in 2008, when the Miguel Torres vineyard began developing its Santa Digna Estelado rosé sparkling wine.

Three years later, in January, 2012 the country’s industry body, Wines of Chile, named Santa Digna Estelado the best sparkling wine in the country in 2011.