Vinography – Forgotten Jewels Reviving Chile’s Old Vine Carignan

As a child, the lure of archeology cannot be denied. Fantasies of discovering ancient treasures fuel the dreams of many youngsters, as they did my adolescent imagination. These days, such notions have been replaced in my life with interests no less exciting in the wine world. For the curious wine lover, opportunities abound to explore the treasures of the past in the form of old vines, recently discovered and under rehabilitation by vintners around the world. I delight in tasting wines made from gnarled old plants to which no one paid attention for years until someone realized they might make decent wine.

There are few places in the Western Hemisphere more conducive to such explorations than Chile’s Maule Valley. The country’s largest officially designated grape growing region that sits about two-thirds of the way down Chile’s long flank, Maule has long been known for its rather unremarkable wine, much like France’s Languedoc Roussillon. Quite rural and fairly poor, for more than two centuries this region has produced wines made from old, gnarled, dry-farmed plantings of the País grape (better known as the Mission grape in the U.S.) that didn’t get much farther than the gallon jugs of the local populace.
In 1939, however, this region of Chile suffered a catastrophic earthquake measuring 8.3 on the richter scale that brought wine production up and down the country to a halt, not to mention killing tens of thousands of people. In the course of rebuilding the industry following the devastation, Chilean authorities (specifically the Oenology department in the Ministry of Agriculture) encouraged the local farmers to improve their lot (and their wines) by planting Carignane, a grape that in their academic trials had shown some promise. While not widely adopted, a number of farmers did plant this new grape, and continued to do what old farmers tend to do with their fields of grapes. They harvested them together and made field blends of País and Carignane. Nearly
70 years later, these vines had grown as gnarled and decrepit as their País counterparts, to the point that some
couldn’t tell them apart. Many had forgotten they even existed, though the improved quality of the local jug wines continued to tell the tale.
Many had forgotten, but not all.
In the late 1990s, some of Chile’s winemakers began to explore Maule in search of old vine Carignane, and in the early 2000s the first bottlings of these grapes hit the market.
To say they caused a sensation might be overstating the case, but they registered quite clearly on a number of local radars, and the true treasure hunt began in earnest.
For the past 12 years or so many winemakers have gone to significant efforts to search out these old plots of vines, and give them some much needed care, along with some much needed income for the farmers who own them. The results have been quite promising. On my first trip to Chile in 2009, old-vine Carignanes were some of the most exciting wines I tasted.
Around the time I was wandering through Chile’s wine
regions, a group of winemakers dedicated to promoting and protecting this new/old tradition was coalescing. Then, galvanized by yet another massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that hit the region particularly hard, this group of winemakers established Vignadores de Carignane, aka VIGNO.
More than just an advocacy and co-marketing organization, VIGNO has established a set of regulations for its members that resemble the kinds of strictures usually imposed by governmentally defined appellations. Members are encouraged to bottle their wines from Maule under the VIGNO designation, and to do so they must meet several criteria. The wines must be made from dry-farmed, head-trained vines at least 30 years-old or older; they must be made of at least 65% Carignane, and any other varieties added must also be old-vine and dry-farmed; and the wines must be aged for a total of 24 months between barrel and bottle before release.
Not all the Carignane from Maule is made under the auspices of this organization, which boasts more than a dozen members, but it looks to be a significant influence in the region, and not simply because it appears to be an excellent marketing ploy. The members of the organization seem as dedicated to sustaining the region economically as they are to showcasing what it can do in the bottle. From lobbying for and paying higher prices to local farmers for their fruit, to fundraising for general economic development and relief in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, VIGNO seems like it is off to a very good start.
And the wines? Well they’re off to a pretty good start as well. Ten or twelve vintages into this regional experiment, though far fewer for most winemakers, many are still finding their way — learning to work with their specific vineyard sites to have them showcase the best of what these hard-working vines can do. Interest in the
region’s vines continues to grow, and apparently some are beginning to graft Carignane onto the ancient País rootstocks in order to increase the overall acreage of the grape.
Courtesy of the Wines of Chile organization, who flew me to New York for the occasion, I had the opportunity in June to taste the majority of the old vine Carignanes currently being produced in the country. I sat down for a morning’s worth of tasting in the
Puro Chile store in New York’s SoHo district with a couple of other journalists, sommeliers, and industry folks
None of the wines I tasted were phenomenal (though I have had at least one or two wines in the past from the region that approach that designation) but very few of the wines could be characterized as bad. Carignane, especially approaching 70 or 80.

 

 

-Alder Yarrow

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