Monday, August 4, 2014

From the Fields to the Garage? Chile's Old-Vine Wines

During the 1990s, I met Derek Mossman in Santiago when he was working in the tourism sector and then lost touch with him until last year, when I learned he had formed the Garage Wine Company with his Chilean wife, Pilar Miranda. It’s part of the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (MOVI), an alliance of small-scale Chilean vintners focused on products beyond corporate Cabernet Sauvignon and other industrial varietals.
In March, just before returning to California, I had a chance to visit Derek at the Caliboro vineyards, in the Maule region, where he harvests and processes the grapes for their old-vine Carignan - a rejuvenated sensation in the industry. Recently, he responded to a series of email questions I sent him on his company and other recent developments in the local industry.

WBB: Please tell me something of your background – when we first met, which must have been nearly 20 years ago, you were involved in the tourism industry in Santiago. So far as I know, there are not a lot of Canadians involved in wine - how did you become involved, and how much time do you spend in Maule every year? I understand you still live in Santiago.

DM: I came skiing in the eighties, (a year it did not snow in New Zealand) and then worked bringing skiers to Chile and other adventure travel…

My kids go to school in Santiago but we make the wine in Maule and I spend five to six months of the year there and my wife spends three to four.
WBB: What is the terroir in your part of Maule, and how did you choose it? I was a little surprised how isolated the area was, how dry it is despite the nearby river, and the lack of irrigation. Are you the only vineyard that’s dry-farming?

DM: Dry-farming is the colonial history of viticulture in Chile. Here in Maule and further south in Itata are the two cradles of viticulture in South America. This was the frontier of the Spanish colonies so, whilst they began in Itata, they had to retreat to Maule further north when the Mapuche resisted too fiercely. The horse-plowed, old-bush head vines of today are direct descendants of these times. They have not been planted but rather are mugrones made to fill in the vineyards when certain plants grow feeble. A mugrón is a shoot that is not pruned and is bent back under the earth to create a new plant. A few years later the umbilical is cut as the roots are big enough to support the new vine.

WBB: Most of Chile’s wine country closely resembles California. What California wine district would be the closest counterpart to your part of Maule?

DM: I do not think Maule should be compared with anywhere else in the world. The centuries-old history, the unique vines, the undiscovered quality and the fact farmers still plow by horse is unknown anywhere else on this planet.

WBB: What varietals do best in your part of Maule? I know you specialize in old vine Carignan, but I have a bottle of your 2011 Cabernet Franc from Alto Maipo that I’ve been saving for a special occasion. What other varietals (and blends) do you produce? Do you acquire grapes from elsewhere?
DM: Each wine since 2001 has a Lot # number: 1) Cabernet Franc – Maipo; 2) Cabernet Sauvignon – Maipo; 3) Carignan – Maule (we make four different wines each from a small farmer’s own field blend). Since the [2010] earthquake we have been investing in the farms and guaranteeing a fair price to the farmers.

WBB: What is your annual production, and what percentage is exported? What acreage is devoted to wine, and do you produce anything else?

DM: We produce 3.500 cases per year. We also produce port, on 11 hectares of old vines.

WBB: Who controls the Chilean wine industry? Is the Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes a response to the big producers? How many of you are there, and where are you? Would you say you’re less conventional than big producers like Concha y Toro?

DMMOVI is a healthy counter-culture aimed at a burgeoning worldly wine public. And yes we are heaps less conventional - a convent is less conventional than the Chilean wine industry, I am afraid. That said, we are but a small minority, for the majority of the world's romance will continue to be made over a ten dollar bottle of wine made in a large vat of a corporate winery for many years to come. The good news is that a ten-dollar bottle has gotten a lot better over the past few years - especially if you buy Chilean.

It is not so much that [the big producers] control the industry, although they certainly keep tight control on the price of the farmers' fruit; what irks me is that they feel they 'own' the wine business. They own their shares of their wineries and that is all. No one owns an industry, anywhere. More lately I think the powers that be have come to realize that the spirited, smaller produces have in fact helped to raise the tide as it were, and that all of the boats big and small are rising with this tide. And thus the small are not such a nuisance anymore.

WBB: Are you open for tours and tasting? One thing that’s always caught my attention is that Chilean winery visits are expensive – more so than in California and much more so than in Argentina (particularly Mendoza). Why won't or can’t Chilean wineries have free or low-cost tours and tasting?

DM: If there were traffic tours would cost less, but if there isn’t traffic it is hard to subsidize the costs. I think anyone wanting to taste good wines is willing to pay 10 dollars per great wine tasted and this is the real market. Any less and you must necessarily have a big winery that is selling their brands by giving away samples.

WBB: Is there anything I’ve overlooked that you would like to add?

DMThe roofs of reticence placed atop unknown areas such as Maule have been lifted by a new taster and in Parker’s report the best wine from Chile is a Carignan from Sauzal – the heart of this god-forsaken dry scrubby wine country from yesterday in the process of being re-discovered.

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