“Climbing up a hill, coming down a mountain” – Exciting new movements in the Chilean Maule Valley
So I find myself clambering up on an unmarked mountain track, following Cesar my new Chilean friend, through shrub land full of bushes that he tells me are full of natural remedies. He tells me all this in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish but I remember being surprised at the time that all scientific sounding words seem to be quite similar in Spanish to my native English tongue. In fact when put in a position where one doesn’t really speak the local language and your companion really does not know any English it is amazing how one’s ability to really listen fires up. How, just understanding or recognizing a single word or a couple of similar sounding words in a sentence could, in light of the surroundings, be enough to understand what the hell is going on! How, with a lot of facial movement and pointing, one can communicate on a level making both of us feel comfortable considering the predicament we find ourselves in. Two of us, alone, in the middle of Chile, bar his dog and a flock of giant condors that soar on the thermal currents, rising up from the Maule River and up through the foothills of the Andes.
“Depression” Cesar says pointing at a bush; “Si” I say nodding my head in understanding. It’s another natural remedy. He then grabs a stem of a bush blocking our way: “no touch señor”. I move away from it forcing myself instead into a rather unpleasant spiky number. Cesar mimics itching his body, “not nice” he says, “but good for sleeping” he adds. Now I’m guessing it is not administered in the same way for sleep or have I just perhaps misunderstood something? Who knows, and I was doing so well!
Finally we reach the summit and the view is spectacular. It is now I understand why he wanted to bring me up here; it wasn’t for a lesson in pharmaceuticals but a lesson in the climate and typography of one of the most exciting regions in Chilean wine country.
Looking down into the Maule Valley we see the Erasmo vineyards that Cesar spends most of his life tending to. The vineyards lie alongside the meandering Maule River, which protects the vines from potential frost damage as the warm body of water counteracts the cold autumn nights. A sudden frost he warns me when just approaching harvest could wipe out the entire vintage! The great drop in temperature at night is just another wonderful natural phenomenon that makes this place an ideal setting for grape growing. The change in temperature from night and day helps maintain the acidity in the grapes and allows for a longer slower ripening process which allows the grapes to pick up rich and complex flavors.
As we stand on the summit I can also feel the cool wind, which as Cesar points towards the ocean is rushing off the South Pacific and funneling down into the valley. This cool air also helps slow the ripening process but more importantly so does it keep the air dry and without humidity and the addition of regular sun one has a disease free vineyard and no need for pesticides. I look up and in the far distance are the majestic snow capped Andes, another vital component that makes up this rather special climatic region. Cesar points out to me the different volcanoes and which belong to Chile and which to Argentina although from what I can gather there is still some dispute.
As both Cesar and I plant ourselves down on a large rock at our conquered summit, Cesar reaches into his bag and pulls out two bottles of beer. It is 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning and with only the sound of the local Church choir singing far in the distance down in the valley it almost feels somewhat sacrilegious, but Cesar was right, our walk to the summit deserved to be celebrated and the beer went down well.
The Maule Valley is huge and historically a place for the production of largely unremarkable bulk wine. However, after being in the region for just a short time visiting the boutique vineyards in the area, I have found the wine to be anything but unremarkable. The wineries (like Cesar’s) in this certain region of Maule argue that when the large corporate bulk wine growers bought land in the valley they actually planted their vineyards in the wrong place!
While Chile is famous for its ideal grape growing climate (regular sun and low rainfall) its reliance on irrigation from the Andes snow melt has often been detrimental to the quality of Chilean wine. Over-irrigated vines mean the vines don’t have to work hard in digging deep into the ground for its necessary nutrients and water sources. The grapes therefore fail to pick up any interesting flavor components and one is left with largely unremarkable wine. Back in the UK I always remembered being largely unimpressed after visiting Chilean wine fairs. I also remember never really having much of an opinion on Chilean wine, even the wine we sold at the merchants I worked for. Looking back I think it was a bit of an unwritten rule that Chilean wine on our list didn’t have to be remarkable it just had to be a certain price (i.e. cheap) and not taste bad and I think this view is not uncommon among a lot of merchants in the UK.
This permeates down to the consumer who buys Chilean wine, not because it is interesting but because it is cheap and doesn’t taste bad. But this was my main reason for visiting Chile and other southern hemisphere wine regions. I was sure these regions had more to offer than what we find on the UK shelves and I was right. Things are changing, there is movement in Chile by independent boutique wine growers who feel that their terroir is as interesting as say Europe and that they too should have a greater share of the wine market at price points where wine does in fact become interesting. And they do in fact have a point. Just because in the grand scale of things, the “new world” of wine regions in places like Chile were initially targeted by large corporations focusing on bulk wine production in countries where labor and land were cheap, does not mean that this is all these places have to offer. Arguably this may be the necessary early foundations of a wine producing country proving its mettle, proving its ability to consistently offer a well-made product. Perhaps now that Chile is firmly established as such a place, it is time for its true identity to reveal itself.
So what makes Cesar’s vineyards and others like him different to the bulk wine growers in Chile? Well, unlike the bulk wine growers in the Maule Valley Cesar and his neighboring wineries are in the right place! They have set up their vineyards in a part of the Maule Valley where the vines can survive without irrigation. Parts of the Maule Valley have higher annual rainfall and alluvial soils that can lock bodies of water away for when the vines are desperate and dig deep to the water source at the same time absorbing nutrients and minerals that add interesting flavor components to the wine.
One thing I have definitely learnt on my travels around the vineyards of the southern hemisphere is the importance of micro climate. The climate conditions of particular vineyard sites rather than general wine growing areas, play an absolutely vital role in the difference between those fabulous, interesting, exciting wines we sometimes have the good fortune to taste and the rather dull lifeless unremarkable wines that flood our supermarkets in the UK.
While price is always an issue for the UK consumer it is worth pointing out that these interesting wines coming out of Chile are not expensive. And what small price difference that does exist is justified by how good these wines make you feel. Be assured that your money spent has gone to artisanal pioneering wine makers in Chile that are reinventing a wine industry that has historically supported large corporations making unexciting and unsustainably cheap plonk.
As Cesar, myself and the dog descended down from the summit and back into the valley buoyed by the thought of lunch back at the winery and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cesar turned to me and said smiling “la Vida” and motioned his hands outlining the shapes of mountains. I couldn’t have agreed with him more; life was like walking up and down mountains! Anyone who thinks you can’t communicate with only a basic grasp of another’s language, must be surprised by the depth and profundity Cesar and I reached that day on our mountain walk in the Maule Valley!