‘Natural wine’ might be a relatively over-talked subject in the wine circles of London, Paris and New York, but in the distant stretches of Chile the discussion is only just starting – or arguably never stopped. The growing undercurrent of natural wine production is further proof that this skinny country is not just screw top plonk, it is diversified and thrilling.
Published in The Drinks Business, September 2015
The roots of the natural wine movement in Chile, start in the south. The heart of this artisanal production lies in Bio Bio, Maule and Itata, where vines date beyond 200 years and vineyards are still ploughed by horses.
“We let the juice macerate and ferment naturally and spontaneously, completely at room temperature, it is a very simple and traditional winemaking method,” says Renan Cancino, winemaker of El Viejo Almacen in Maule: natural, old vine Carignan with zero added sulphur. “It is the way that my family used to make wine at home, we are respecting this ‘campesino’ [countryside] method that’s been used for over 200 years.”
While modern counterparts might see natural wine as a romantic return to tradition, for some small producers in Chile, there was never a departure. “I’m the seventh generation on the vineyard, and natural wine for us is ancestral,” says Cacique Maravilla winemaker Manuel Moraga Gutierrez, from Bio Bio. “I didn’t know you were supposed to add anything else to wine! Someone once told me in 2010 to add yeast in the fermentation… it was the worst wine I ever made.”
The natural winemaking movement in Chile is partly due to this local intuition and inherited knowledge, and partly to contemporary crusades against chemical viniculture. One of Chile’s greatest apostles in rescuing old vines and varieties is a Frenchman: Louis-Antoine Luyt. He is outspoken about Chile’s unparalleled expansion into new regions, when – in his opinion – many of the most historic wine regions in the south are being wrongly neglected, and the small family producers with it. His natural wines mainly come from dry-harvested, century-old vineyards that are managed organically by small, independent producers. “In the rest of the world to have vineyards over 100 or 200 years would be spectacular… a heritage site! What is incredible here is the environment in which you can produce the vine – it is healthy, there is little risk of illnesses and it is easy to make biologically-friendly wines, it should be an obligation.”
Protecting this heritage, and observing the high quality of the old vines in Chile, is what has also led De Martino to become a leading larger winery to champion ancestral techniques such as ageing wine in old clay vessels, and include natural wines in their portfolio. “Orange wine is very trendy, but we decided to make an amber wine because in the past Chile made white wines with the skins,” says Marcelo Retamal, De Martino’s Head Winemaker talking about their Viejas Tinajas Muscat. “They made it like this 300 years ago. But it is a niche today.”
While the natural wine movement is growing within Chile, being niche is a limitation abroad. Low demand, and a poor association with the term ‘natural wine’, makes it less feasible to sell natural (and organic) wine in the UK, suggests Retamal: “[Most our lines] aren’t natural wines, because we add sulphur, but we have organic grapes and we don’t use anything else. We produce 1.8 million bottles and export to all parts of the world. Today natural wine is a niche wine… if you produce 1.8 million bottles of natural wine – it doesn’t sell!”
Part of the sales problem is the inconsistency you still find. “I like the idea of natural wines,” says Marcelo Papa, Head Winemaker for Chile’s biggest producer – Concha y Toro – which has some organic lines, although as of yet no natural wines, “but in my point of view what happened with organic wines 20 years ago is happening now with natural wines – the idea is great but you find many in the market with defects.”
Even small natural wine producers in Chile are aware of this double-edged sword in labelling wines ‘natural’. “Natural wine has become so hipster,” says Leonardo Erazo of Rogue Vine, “it seems you can get away with faulty wines by being ‘natural’ – you shouldn’t! Being ‘natural’ and good is not the same thing.”
Even larger industry adopter, Emiliana, have stepped back from their intentions to market a no-added sulphur ‘natural wine’ in the UK because of the concerning impact on branding Head Winemaker of Emiliana (Chile’s biggest biodynamic and organic producer) Noelia Orts confirmed they wouldn’t be launching “until we are completely sure of the quality… We don’t have 100% certainty about how the [natural] wines will arrive to Europe via the Panama Canal.”
‘Natural’ will arguably never have 100% certainty, and perhaps that is part of its charm. But while opening one erroneous natural wine might be forgivable, managing a large brand with limited control at the receiver end is risky. “We don’t add any sulphur before sending our wines,” comments Cancino who exports to Brazil. “The people buying our wine know how we make it, and want to have it without any sulphur. I will take this risk, but I don’t know if bigger wineries want to.”
The risk, with an unfiltered natural wine, is not negligible. “When you transport the wine,” explains Retamal, “the problem is summer time inside of the container sometimes you have 40C and if you don’t have sulphur, fungus might develop inside and you have more cloudy or dirty wine.”
Sulphur (a natural component in grapes) is generally added to protect wines from developing fungus after leaving the winery’s controlled environment. There is no fast and strict rule on the sulphur limit for a wine to be considered natural, but bonafide natural wine enthusiasts will give a general consensus that it should contain less than 40ppm (compared to organic wine <140ppm; commercial wine <350ppm, and dried raisins <2000ppm).
Chile’s location puts it at a severe disadvantage in exporting natural wines. Natural wine produced in France only has to face a 400-odd mile journey across the British channel to a consumer’s glass in London; but from Chile, producers have to prepare their wines to travel some 8,000 miles, via the Caribbean. “Our total sulphur is less than 100ppm,” says winemaker Andrea Leon, whose The Collection portfolio in biodynamic Lapostolle follows many natural principles, “so they could be considered organic – which is the minimum we can add considering a trip over the equator!”
Along with distance travelled, price too is a thorn Chile’s side. Organic and biodynamic production (an almost prerequisite for natural wine) is costly. Less than 10% of Chile’s wines sell for over £40FOB (per case of 12), which, simply put, isn’t enough to manage vineyards organically.
The climate however, is there. Chile – similarly to neighbouring Argentina, which also has a blossoming natural, and organic, wine production – has few problems of rot, zero phylloxera, and can avoid nematodes and other pests with the correct selection of rootstock. The natural advantage has promulgated a handful of larger producers to join De Martino in the ranks of producing a natural wine within their portfolio. This year J Bouchon made their first natural wine, Pais Salvaje. “This was a special wine from wild Pais vines, so we wanted to make it in a natural way,” says winemaker Felipe Ramirez. “When you are making wines in a bigger amount you need to control lots of different factors… It’s another reality. You can work in this ‘natural’ way in small quantities.”
Quantity and relative price is certainly a factor holding back producers from switching to organic or biodynamic, but that is changing. “There aren’t more biodynamic producers in Chile because it requires more observation and knowledge of the vineyard – more anticipation of problems – which is maybe harder in the short term,” says Julio Bastias, winemaker of Matetic, a leading biodynamic producer, “but every day there are more people working in this direction.”
This direction is also receiving a big push from the industry body, Wines of Chile, with their Sustainability Code, which is now adopted by over 70% of Chile’s bottled wine production. Sustainability, organic, biodynamic and even ‘natural’ are more on the radar of Chile’s producers than ever before. Winemakers talk of ‘minimal intervention’, they vinify in concrete eggs, amphorae and old barrels, and biodynamic consultants are on the rise. But if exportation is problematic, and demand is low, where is this change coming from?
There’s undoubtedly a wold tendency to be discussed here, but perhaps surprisingly (for a country that exports over 70% of its wine) there’s a domestic trend too. Chilean wine journalists, small producer wine fairs and the new outcrop of wine bars and clubs in the capital are bringing about a resurgence of underrated wines such as Pais, Muscat, Carignan, Cinsault and pipeño, and with them, traditional ‘natural’ winemaking techniques.
While you won’t be seeing a new stream of orange wines from Chile any day soon, change is very much afoot. The undercurrent of natural wine is growing – or returning – in Chile, and with it a general direction towards more authentic, local and stylistically-diverse wines. Whatever your opinion on sulphur is, this new, old wave is something to be celebrated – and savoured.
My pick of 10 Chilean natural, organic and biodynamic wines to try in the UK:
Biodynamic &/or Organic:
Villalobos, Carignan Reserva (Les Caves de Pyrene)
Old-vine Carignan that is unfiltered, unfined and biodynamic with almost hedonistic aromas of Carignan fruit and graphite.
A rich and complex blend of Syrah, Carmenere, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Malbec that delivers on value.
Antiyal, Carmenere-Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah (Hedonism Wines)
Chile’s top biodynamic consultant, Alvaro Espinoza, is also considered one of Chile’s finest garage winemakers for this very blend.