I visited the southern winegrowing regions of Chile in October 2022 and tasted many wines from Itata. This is not the feature that I was hoping to write, yet my tasting notes are included below. Above, winemaker Leo Erazo shares a view of his vineyards as the fires rage.
Devastating wildfires have swept through the historic heartland of Chile’s wine industry. Itata, home to some of the world’s oldest vineyards, has been ravaged (for a second time) by the fires. So far, 24 people are known to have died, more than 3,500 have been injured and thousands of homes are destroyed. Current figures estimate that over 150,000 ha (370,658 acres) of land have been directly affected.
It is a cruel and brutal blow to a region that has undergone a remarkable revival over the past decade. A treasured part of Chile’s vinous heritage, Itata was marginalised and maligned for many years, yet its recent renaissance has been arguably the most exciting movement in Chile’s recent wine history. Itata’s revival can be likened to that of the Swartland in South Africa and its forward-thinking producers who catapulted the country’s wines and grabbed the attention of the global wine industry. Home to País and Moscatel vines that are well over 200 years old as well as centenarian Cinsault, Itata’s heritage and its potential have garnered the attention of small and large producers alike.
‘This has been so distressing to see the dreams and work of so many small producers burnt to ashes’, says Ana María Cumsille, one of Chile’s most renowned winemakers, who makes wines in the region in conjunction with local growers. Itata is composed of a patchwork of smallholdings, with over 5,000 growers and an average holding of 1.5 ha (3.7 acres), a far cry from the large estates and vineyards further north.
Derek Mossman of Garage Wine Company makes wines in Itata as well as Maule, which has also been affected (to a much lesser degree). ‘Personally, we have been very fortunate thus far’, he reports. ‘It is so sad for the youngsters who have fallen in love and regenerated the old vineyards of their parents. Also, for the entrepreneurs who have created a pole of interest for wine and food and tourism in and around Guarilihue [one of the villages at the centre of the revival]. We need these companies to maintain their presence and revive themselves.’
Itata is a region that means a great deal to me personally. I lived in Chile for several years and first visited the region 20 years ago when it was largely unknown to those outside the country. My Master of Wine research paper in 2016 was an investigation into the potential for development and investment in the region. Two of my conclusions were that they needed to capitalise on tourism as well as increase producer associativity. Just seven years later and the advance in both areas has been astonishing and Itata has blossomed. It is heart-breaking to see some of the key personnel in its revival be affected so tragically, one of those being Leo Erazo, who makes wines under several labels including Rogue Vine and A Los Viñateros Bravos.
‘In our case, we have lost pretty much everything’, Erazo tells me. ‘So the best-case scenario, the absolute best case, is that we lose two years of harvest. And I don’t know how many companies in the world can actually survive like that. When you miss your production for two years it’s very hard to see what to do.’ I asked Erazo if the old vines could survive the damage, ‘I walked the vineyards to assess the damage in each block. The fire really moves in different ways and there are degrees of burning and damage. Definitely there are some vineyards that won’t recover – the trunks have burnt literally to charcoal. I had a parcel of Moscatel planted in the 1870s that was next to the eucalyptus, and that will not recover. While other parcels saw the fire spread through very quickly, so you see more than anything scorched leaves. The wind plays a big part, too. My guess is that from the 90% of production that we have lost, half of the vines will recover and half will need to be replanted.’
Mossman reflects on the 2017 wildfires and subsequent recovery, ‘Old vines are more resilient than most people think. After 2017 we began a programme of revival where we resuscitated vineyards burned or abandoned after the fires. When customers learned of this work, they offered to pay en primeur to grow the programme. We created a special label and hope others can do something similar. We now work various vineyards where the life force of the old roots created new shoots which depended upon the burned trunks for support as they grew. There is work in this revival but it is worthwhile as the old, deep roots are what lend the complexity to these wines.’
Revival and regeneration are key for Itata, yet the most pressing and fundamental issue is prevention: why is this happening and what can be done about it? This region is one of the centres of forestry in Chile, the countryside marked by swathes of eucalyptus and pine-tree plantations, once heavily subsidised to incentivise planting. It is an incredibly sensitive issue in the region and has been for decades. An adult eucalyptus tree consumes around 100 litres (26 gal) of water per day, leaving the forest floor parched and acting as a tinder box. Many point to the lack of regulation regarding forestry plantations and an antiquated decree (Decreto 701) promoting plantations as issues that need to be addressed. (See The perils of monoculture written just after the 2017 fires.)
‘Someone in authority has to realise there is simply not enough water in the water table for so many non-native trees’, Mossman says. ‘Planting has to be controlled. The forestry companies could do so much more creating better firebreaks. Chile must learn to selectively embrace regulation – there is no other way.’ Erazo believes a potential solution may lie not just with regulation within Chile but also from outside. ‘I think we need to seriously look at some sort of sustainable certification and regulation. The wood produced ought to comply with a thorough protocol that forestry companies must comply with, which has to be socially responsible and include sustainable fire management among other steps. Just as we have with palm oil, cocoa and coffee. Those purchasing Chilean wood should demand these standards and boycott those that don’t conform with the regulations.’
Climate change cannot be ignored within this discussion, yet many within the region are convinced this is not the only reason for the fires. Rodrigo Díaz, the governor of Bío-Bío, has stressed that he doesn’t just think but knows that many of these fires have been started intentionally. Enzo Pandolfi, from Pandolfi Price winery, also has suspicions. ‘We don’t know for a fact that these fires are intentional, but it is certainly odd’, he says.
The support shown within Chile during these current fires for those affected has been heart-warming. Many initiatives to raise money for those affected have been put in place, such as wine tastings, events and auctions. What we non Chileans can do is wherever possible purchase the wines to show support for the producers. The website www.wip.cl has a list of initiatives and events for those within Chile and outside to donate. Anyone wanting further information can use the Contact link at the bottom of any page on this site, marking the message for my attention.
The 46 tasting notes below are grouped by style/colour and then ordered alphabetically by producer (sur)name. You can reorder the wines within those groups if you prefer.
90% Cinsault, 10% Pinot Gris. Lots of red fruits open the nose, mulberry and raspberry. Wild strawberries on the palate with lots of acidity and a touch of sweet candied fruits. Quite a fun wine, lots of acidity to balance the sweet red fruits. (AC)
Moscatel, Sémillon, Torrontel. Fascinating nose, jasmine and chamomile, honeysuckle. The palate is structured, rich, with lemon verbena and jasmine. So much concentration, lots of freshness, as well as a wonderful, tight, slightly tannic skin-contact-derived core. (AC)
Attractive nose, subtle floral hints, jasmine and white peach. The palate is fresh as well as having lovely bite. There is good freshness as well as excellent texture, well-judged acidity and floral character. Lovely fresh style. (AC)
Joint project of winemakers Fernando Almeda (ex Miguel Torres) and Elías López Montero (Bodegas Verum, La Mancha). Very attractive nose, subtle popcorn reduction alongside chamomile, grilled nut and apple skin. The palate has a wonderful subtle tannic bite, white flowers, lime and a ripe stone-fruit note – wonderful texture and freshness. Very impressive and I suspect will improve with age. (AC)
Intriguing nose, not floral as you might expect, more honeysuckle and honeyed notes. The palate shows more floral character with peach, jasmine and a real sense of rich ripeness. A lanolin and wet-wool note alongside wonderful fresh acidity – very well made and a lovely side of Moscatel. (AC)
35% Risesling, 28% Chasselas, 24% Sémillon, 13% Moscatel. A piercingly fresh, mineral/stony nose, smells like marine air. There is a great core of acidity as well as a richness to the mid palate. It’s not hugely fruit-led – just subtle lime and lemon notes. So fresh and with a subtle floral note on the finish. (AC).
100% Cinsault. Appealing nose, reds fruits, earthy – great typicality. Such a vibrant palate with a core of fresh acidity, red fruits, liquorice, all supported by chalky tannins and a layered finish. VGV (AC)
60% Garnacha, 30% Cariñena, 10% País. Meaty nose, savoury as well as strawberry and liquorice. Nice freshness on the palate with taut and fine tannins, both red and dark fruits and a saline note on the grippy, tense finish. (AC)
Deep, inky and with balsamic notes. Rich and dense but with a distinct liquorice note beneath. Brooding with marked and fine tannins and a graphite, saline, acidic finish. Very smart expression of Carignan. (AC)
Fresh and waxy nose, rose hip and sweet red fruits. Approachable and a pure core, liquorice. Clean palate, nice finely tuned tannins, a lovely weight on the palate but always with so much energy. Refreshing, with electric freshness. (AC)
A subtle wild-floral note on the nose. A sweet, ripe red-fruit note on the palate, tight tannins and a grippy mid palate. Lots of concentration. Still youthful and a little introverted, fresh, ripe and with taut tannins. (AC)
Waxy with a white-pepper and herbal note on the nose. Super-peppery and herbal on the palate as well. Thyme, bay leaf and rose hip. Excellent crunchy freshness and depth as well as a lightness of touch – excellent. (AC)
Relatively mute on the nose. The palate is juicy, with red and dark fruits, such salinity and freshness on the palate. The tannins are tightly wound and very fine, good intensity of fruit and a herbal twang on the detailed finish. (AC)
Wonderful pure nose, mulberry, crushed raspberry and a subtle floral character. A core of red-cherry fruit, liquorice, pepper and wild strawberry – finely tuned and detailed tannins. The acidity is excellent and lifts the wine. This has a real sense of energy, vibrancy and purity. Should age very well. (AC)
Field blend: 80% País, 20% San Francisco. Quite the nose, intriguing – spice, cinnamon, black pepper, rose hip and thyme. The palate is sappy, crunchy, brittle and with wonderfully taut tannins. There is great concentration here, with well-judged alcohol and a herbal core – pepper, thyme and a tea-leaf and savoury note. Superb definition and precision on the palate, very impressive. (AC)
100% Cinsault. Subtle herbal notes on the nose. Ripe dark fruits, firm but fine tannins and a lovely juiciness too. Fun, appealing and accessible. Packed full of fruit, and excellent value for money. GV (AC)
Coconut, raspberry pip and violet aromas. The fruit on the palate is quite concentrated with a firm, chewy, tannic core, good acidity – a brooding, ripe style of Cinsault. Needs a year or two to settle. (AC)
98% Cinsault, 2% Syrah. Dark fruits on the nose – a little introverted at the moment. Juicy, ripe and sweet fruit on the palate with good refreshing acidity and taut tannins – certainly has a sense of sweet dark fruit and the firm tannins need to tame just a little, but there is a good core of fruits beneath. (AC)
Joint project of winemakers Fernando Almeda (ex Miguel Torres) and Elías López Montero (Bodegas Verum, La Mancha). Pale crimson. Smoky and reductive notes on the nose, cherry kernel and red fruits. A layered palate with rounded edges, fine tannins, bitter almond, red fruits and a smoky tinge – earthy with a mineral note. Very impressive. (AC)
Quite perfumed, floral and spiced nose. Distinctly floral, violet and notes of coconut, raspberry and liquorice. The tannins are dense, firm and muscular and are supported by good fresh acidity beneath. (AC)
A deep cherry-cola nose, spiced plums, inky, dark and brooding. The palate is textured, ripe and has a subtle smoked-bacon note. The tannins are firm and fine and there is lovely salinity throughout. The tannins need to settle a little but this has wonderful depth and purity. (AC)
Wild forest-fruit aromas. The palate is powerful and dense with a streak of fresh, lifted acidity, violets, plum and liquorice. Powerful stuff with a brightness and vivacity alongside the fleshy opulent core. (AC)
Appealing and inviting nose, red and dark fruits. The palate is taut and linear, with very finely tuned tannins and a streak of salty acidity. Seems very young at the moment, but the concentration is excellent – the finish is remarkably long! (AC)
Forest fruits, a slight herbal note on the nose. Ripe and rich dark fruits, earthy and a slight charred note on the mid palate. A lick of saltiness and good fresh acidity beneath. Liquorice, spice and a layered finish. (AC)
85% Cinsault, 15% País. Appealing and inviting nose, sweet liquorice, red fruits, spice and crushed blackberry. The palate is tightly wound with waxy red fruits, pepper, good concentration and fine and firm tannins. The acidity is refreshing, well judged and gives vibrancy. A mineral, saline note on the dense finish. (AC)
100% Cinsault from Ránquil. Vibrant and juicy, inviting nose with bay-leaf and pepper notes. A slight leather and cola note on the palate, ripe firm tannins and good acidity. The tannins need to tame a little but there is lots to enjoy. A nice mineral note on the finish. (AC)
Liquorice and crushed strawberries on the nose. A tense palate with good freshness, taut and grippy tannins and power. A saline note on the finish – needs a little time for the tannins to integrate. (AC)
65% País, 35% Carignan. Stewed red fruits and spice on the nose. The palate is quite dense with a waxy note, dark fruits and a saline, mineral grip throughout. Good fresh acidity and a detailed peppery finish, fine and firm tannins grip the palate. Very nicely put together. (AC)
Cinsault. Super-smoky and volcanic nose, tight and with a red core of fruit. Fresh red fruit, sappy with a crunchy, refined, tannic core, leafy with subtle ashy whole-bunch notes. Slight waxy feel and a pure, light but concentrated finish. Super-saline on the finish, smoky reductive note throughout. Fine, elegant! (AC)
Cinsault. Smoky and flinty, graphite nose – ashy, ripe red fruits. The palate is dry, tight and taut and has a rawness – young. Deep, with a salty feel – light yet with intensity. Peppery, fresh and with real brightness … (AC)
País. Smoke, volcanic with a red-fruit note, rose hip and spice. The tannins are vertical – dense and very concentrated, a smoky note with spice and a violet note. Crushed violets, cranberry and such tension. (AC)
Red and dark fruits on the slightly wild nose. Packed full of fresh acidity, fine and firm tannins, mulberry fruit and plum skin. Very racy with a tight core, firm vertical tannins that need just a little time to soften out. Good concentration and a fresh finish. (AC)
60% País, 40% Cinsault. Liquorice, spice, and a herbal note underneath. The palate is firm with marked fine tannins, plenty of acidity and a tautness on the mid palate. A stony, crunchy freshness gives energy – it feels a little introverted at the moment and could do with a year to settle. (AC)
70% Cinsault, 20% País, 10% Carignan. Attractive dark-fruit nose. The palate is firm and dense with taut, upright tannins, liquorice, red fruits and mouth-watering acidity – quite serious for the price and still integrating those tannins. Clever use of Carignan really lifts this wine. GV (AC)
A fresh, appealing, red-fruit-led nose – rose hip and pine cones. Tight and fine tannins with a good dark-fruit core, subtle spice and cherry and a liquorice note on the finish. A lovely introduction to País and GV. (AC)
Good typicality on the nose, red fruits, liquorice and an earthy note. A peppery, slightly herbal note on the palate alongside ripe red and dark fruits, spice and a really salty kick through the finish. Ripe in style, very approachable and with rounded, supple tannins. (AC)
Ripe mulberry fruits on the nose. The palate has sweet red fruits, a distinct floral note and plenty of zippy fresh acidity as well. Very energetic on the palate, cranberry, pomegranate and crushed raspberries. The tannins are firm and should allow the wine to age well. (AC)
Quite shy on the nose. The palate has good freshness, firm and tight tannins and a juicy fruit core – the mid palate is packed full of saline notes, dark fruits and a taut tense core. Needs a little time for those tannins to be tamed! (AC)