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 years of vine-age, has a wonderful character, generally good acidity, and a very pleasurable berry and black-cherry flavor profile with occasional hints of cola nut.
These wines were all generally very good, with a number approaching excellent. In general I'd say there was a tendency towards slightly heavy oak usage (which could easily be avoided) heavy extract (which could certainly be adjusted) and slightly heavy ripeness (which may not be so easily avoided as the climate may simply drive towards higher octane wines). I'm happy to say that most wines are easy to recommend, especially as some are excellent bargains as well.
My tasting notes follow below.
Special thanks to photographer Matt Wilson, who consented to me using some of his great images of Maule farmers and their vines to illustrate this piece. Matt's photography, some of which has been featured here on Vinography, can be found at Mattwilson.cl.
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 9
2008 De Martino "La Aguada Old Bush Vines" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of tart black cherry and mulberry fruit with hints of green briary smells. In the mouth the wine has a very nice balanced quality with earthy, tangy flavors of mulberry, cassis, and wet earth. Thick but supple tannins emerge as the wine finishes with green herbs and wet earth. Very pretty. A field blend of mostly Carignane but also some Malbec and Cinsault. Aged for 24 months in French Oak. Lovely. 14.5% alcohol. $45
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8.5 AND 9
2009 Santa Carolina "Dry Farming" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich mulberry and cassis with hints of wood. In the mouth the wine has a creamy, silky texture with a nice weight on the palate. Rich flavors of cola, black cherry and mulberry mix with an earthy, black tea note. Lightly tacky tannins hang at the edges of the mouth. Softer acidity.. Aged 14 months in French oak, 30% of which was new. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. $20
2009 Undurraga "T.H." Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cassis, and hints of cola. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly smooth and balanced, with light, leathery tannins, and a core of black cherry and mulberry fruit. Nice tangy acidity combines with earthy and herbal undertones that linger in the finish. Very pretty wine. Aged 14 months in French oak (17% new). 14.5% alcohol. $25
2009 Gilmore "VIGNO" Carignane, Loncomilla, Maule Valley, Chile
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich mulberry and cassis flavors with hints of mintyness. In the mouth mulberry and cassis flavors mix with black cherry and that minty quality persists through the finish. Unique and distinctive. Aged 18 months in French oak (20% new). 14.8% alcohol. $35
2009 Oveja Negra "Single Vineyard" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and mulberry. In the mouth, flavors of cola and mulberry mix wit nice earthy undertones Good acidity, and nice texture. A blend of 87% Carignane, 9% Malbec, 4% Petite Verdot. Aged 12 months in French oak. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. $18 click to buy.
2008 Valdivieso "Eclat" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of softer aromas of black cherry and earth. In the mouth the wine has a nice texture and good balance with green herbal flavors mixed into dried cherry and mulberry flavors. The flavors here are somewhat subdued. Good acidity and tacky tannins. Very easy drinking. 14% alcohol. $24
2010 Garage Wine Company "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of grapey mulberry and huckleberry fruit. In the mouth mulberry and huckleberry fruit have a nice purity and scents of cedar. Wonderful acidity makes the fruit quite bright and lively. Faint tannins. Concentrated but not overpowering. $??
2010 Undurraga "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and black cherry fruit. Good acidity makes the fruit bright and juicy, with a sour cherry tanginess along with the core of mulberry and cassis. Faint tannins linger in the finish. 88% Carignane, 12% Cinsault, $??
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8.5
2010 Odjfell "Orzada" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of huckleberry and briary green herbs. In the mouth, sightly tart huckleberry and sour cherry flavors have a brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. Light tannins dust the tongue and the finish has a purple SweetTart quality that is quite charming. Aged in stainless steel. 14.5% alcohol. $13 click to buy.
2010 Garage Wine Company "Lot #27" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and exotic incense. In the mouth flavors of cassis and huckleberry have a bright intensity along with lightly grippy tannins. The wine has a high toned, extracted quality that is a bit overpowering, but the flavors are quite pleasant, as the fruit morphs to a woody earthiness in the finish. Decent acidity. 14% alcohol. $33
2010 Meli Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of woody huckleberry and black cherry. In the mouth briary flavors of cassis and black cherry mix with tacky, green tannins and earthier notes. Decent acidity, but the tannins are a bit leathery and aggressive. A blend of 93% Carignane, and 7% Cabernet Sauvignon. 90% of this wine was aged in stainless steel. The rest, presumably in French oak. 14% alcohol. $16
2009 Canepa "Genovino" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, mulberries, cola, and new oak. In the mouth, flavors of new oak blend relatively well with black cherry, cassis, and mulberry flavors. New oak features heavily in the finish, along with velvety tannins. On reflection, which is to say, after letting the finish linger for a while, the oak is a bit much. Aged 12 months in a combination of French and American oak. 14.5% alcohol. $35
2009 De Martino "El Leon" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and wet wood with hints of cola. In the mouth mulberry and cherry flavors mix with well integrated hints of oak that are subtle enough to let the fruit shine. Good acidity and lightly tacky tannins. Flavors of black tea and green herbs linger in the finish. Aged 15 months in French oak. 14.5% alcohol. $45 click to buy.
2009 Meli "Dueno de la Luna" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pure mulberry and blueberry fruit. In the mouth, the wine offers thick, rich mulberry and blackberry flavors with hints of black pepper. Decent acidity and thicker tannins. Perhaps a bit overripe. Aged for 12 months in stainless steel, and then 6 months in French oak. 15% alcohol. $35
2008 Morande "Edicion Limitada" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of oak and dark mulberry and dried black cherry flavors. Fantastically bright acidity makes the dried black cherry and mulberry flavors very juicy in the mouth, but the American oak is quite present and adds a whisky quality to the wine that is frankly distracting. Light leathery tannins and good texture. Aged for 20 months in American oak. 14.5% alcohol. $23 click to buy.
2008 Vigna Roja "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of huckleberry and cassis with hints of black cherry. In the mouth, good acidity makes flavors of huckleberry and black cherry come to life. Lightly tacky tannins grip the edges of the mouth. Long finish. $??
2008 De Martino "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of berry and cedar with notes of violets. In the mouth cassis and mulberry flavors have a cedary quality and good juicy acidity. Tacky, leathery tannins linger with a sour cherry quality in the finish. A blend of 90% Carignane, and the remaining 10% is a mix of Carmenere, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cinsault. 14.5% alcohol. $??
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 8 AND 8.5
2011 O. Fournier "Urban" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of mulberry and huckleberry. In the mouth a creamy texture offers flavors of huckleberry and cola with notes of cassis. Decent acidity and a hint of new oak. 14% alcohol. $12
2011 O. Fournier "Centauri" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium purple in the glass, this wine smells of cola and black cherry. In the mouth slightly woody flavors of mulberry and black cherry mix with cola and incense. Creamy texture with decent acidity. 13.8% alcohol. $20
2010 Anakena "Single Vineyard" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cola and black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, slightly dried flavors of cassis and huckleberries mix with a cola undertone. Earthy notes accompany faint dusty, dry tannins, and a smooth texture. Earthier notes emerge on the finish. Pleasant, if a bit extracted. A blend of 94% Carignane, 3% Malbec, 3% Viognier. 13.5% alcohol. $15
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 8
2008 Miguel Torres "Cordillera" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells slightly of cabbage, but then pruney dried cherry and dried mulberry flavors. Fleshy with thick tannins and much less acidity than I would like. Overdone. Aged for 11 months in French oak (30% new). 14% alcohol. $25
2009 Odjfell "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and dried cherries, with bits of incense. In the mouth the wine is high toned with cedar and vanilla and incense mixing with dried fruit. Fine grained tannins coat the mouth. While the wine offers no heat to signify its 15.5% alcohol, the fruit is quite dried, and the alcohol quite present in mouth, $??
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7.5
2009 Bravado Wines "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Very dark garnet in the glass with fading at the rim, this wine smells slightly of wet wood along with cassis and a hint of smoke. Definitely a little odd. In the mouth cassis and mulberry flavors are wrapped in a fleece blanket of tannins. The flavors are all subdued and not vibrant. A second bottle proved much the same. 14.5% alcohol. $??
2009 Morande "VIGNO" Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells mostly of oak with hints of huckleberry and cherry. Good acidity makes the fruit bright, but the flavors are generally dried fruit and new oak. New oak dominates the finish with a creamy vanilla woodiness. $??
WINES WITH A SCORE BETWEEN 7 AND 7.5
2007 Santa Ema "Amplus" Carignane, Cachapoal Valley, Chile
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of new oak. In the mouth the fruit is pretty much obliterated with flavors of new oak. Decent acidity. Hints of cassis linger in the finish along with the oak. Aged for 18 months in new American and French Oak. 14.5% alcohol. $22
WINES WITH A SCORE AROUND 7
2007 Las Lomas de Calquenes Carignane, Maule Valley, Chile
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells heavily of wet oak and notes of dried red fruit. In the mouth the wine has a sour, wet dog quality along with dark cherry and cassis fruit that is obscured with new oak. Somewhat unpleasant. 13.5% alcohol. $??
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By way of full and transparent disclosure, Wines of Chile is a paid advertiser on this site, and these wines were tasted in the context of a press trip funded by that organization.