Waking from sleep with an increased heartbeat and overall sense of panic, the woman would often relive her typical nightmare of finding herself falling in various situations, although this time, the nightmare involved her riding a bus that fell off a cliff during an earthquake and that terrifying slow-motion moment of being in midair overwhelmed with frightening thoughts that at any second she would crash to the ground with shards of metal and glass flying everywhere. But she was able to set up a ritual of drinking warm water while sitting on her couch planting her feet firmly on the ground, saying to herself, “I am home, I am safe and the ground is stable,” and it instantly quelled her nerves.
Yet one night, at 3 am on February 27, 2010, she woke up in a cold sweat from one of the most intense falling dreams that she could remember, and so she got up quickly to get her glass of warm water and calm herself on her couch. But she could barely stand, many times falling to the ground as she tried to walk out of her bedroom and she felt she was still dreaming, still asleep, as she desperately tried to wake herself up. After three minutes, the ground ceased to move and after a few deep breaths, the woman realized that she had just experienced a severe earthquake in her home tucked away in the Maule region of Chile that she would later find out registered at an enormous magnitude of 8.8.
The earthquake caused a tsunami with 95-foot waves that killed more than 350 people staying in the coastal town of Constitución, in the Maule region. Since it happened in the middle of the night, many of the relatives and friends of those who died must have hoped that their loved ones were taken in their sleep as opposed to them being awakened by the earthquake and suffered a few minutes of terror before the gigantic wave crashed down. Even with Chile being well prepared for earthquakes and tsunami, in 2010 with earthquake building codes and extensive earthquake and tsunami training among first responders, schools and communities with drills and lessons that were learned from the magnitude-9.5 earthquake in 1960 – the largest earthquake recorded, there were still over 520 deaths, over 40 missing and presumed dead and USD $30 billion worth of damage.
Interestingly, these tragic earthquakes in Chile would greatly influence wine grape growing as a lesser-known red grape variety started its journey in Chile after the 1939 magnitude-8.3 earthquake that took place in the southern central part of Chile, leaving tens of thousands dead, and this grape would ultimately gain a cult following after the 2010 earthquake. That grape variety’s name is Carignan.
According to South American wine expert Amanda Barnes, the red grape variety Carignan was planted in decent quantities after the 1939 earthquake in south-central Chile, as many of the wineries and vineyards were damaged and the grape would ideally help to bolster their industry. Chilean wine regions such as Maule and Bío-Bío in the south-central area of this long skinny country were known for growing the red variety País, planted in the U.S. centuries ago, known as the Mission grape, which had been considered an easy-drinking red with not much backbone that many locals would drink in Chile and so it needed a blending partner with the highly structured and weighty Carignan grape variety. Unfortunately, the government didn’t realize that Carignan was susceptible to mildew, so the project to plant more Carignan was abandoned. Amanda also noted that historically the North was given a lot more investment from the government in Chile than the South, and why today, in the South, there are many elderly men still farming small, dry-farmed old vines of Carignan in Maule, the most southern wine region in the Central Valley, as there was no investment or infrastructure built to help them either with replanting or selling to a big wine company.
But Amanda, who is an award-winning British wine and travel writer who has lived in South America since 2009, states in her highly regarded The South America Wine Guide (a book that has already won as well as was nominated for a couple of prestigious awards), “Maule is the grassroots of Chilean wine” and she continues by addressing that the region was erroneously seen as only having potential for cheap, bulk wine, as the “humble farming” families of Maule were no match for the “sexy new cool-coast regions”. Simply, this area didn’t have a chance to compete with the “wealthy investors that Maipo, Aconcagua and Colchagua” attracted. And hence, these families, producing wines from dry-farmed 50-year vines and older, some reaching over 100 years old, were forced to sell their grapes for almost nothing due to their lack of “market value and status”.
But in the 1990s, a group of wine producers that included a wine journalist realized that low-yielding Carignan from these old vines could over-deliver more than anything they had tasted from the grape’s home in southern France or any place else. The stereotype of the overbearing bitterness and lack of charm that plagued Carignan was not common among these small family growers living in the “very dry and poor” Secano (translates to “rainfed”) area of Maule, and as they have learned better vineyard management, the wines have only increased in quality. These Carignan lovers formed a group that would regularly taste and discuss these wines, and since the market did not seem keen on trying them, they agreed the wines could only be appreciated by each other.
That all changed with the 2010 earthquake that rocked the area, and the group of Carignan enthusiasts decided that the best way they could help the locals was to bring recognition to those remarkable vineyards and help raise the prices for these special vines. They formed an association called VIGNO (an acronym for Vignadores de Carignan) that would also become Chile’s first appellation in a way as it represents a designated area denoting the high quality, dry-farmed old vine Carignan vines in the Maule Secano area.
VIGNO includes a group of 16 producers who have to abide by the following parameters to label it under the VIGNO name: sourcing grapes from dry-farmed, gobelet or bush trained vines that are at least 30 years or older located in the Maule Secano area, 70% or more of the blend must be Carignan and it must age for a minimum of two years in any vessel of the producer’s choosing. Also, the name VIGNO must be significantly bigger than the producer’s name on the label.
Pablo Morandé is one of the producers who is part of the VIGNO group, and Amanda notes that he made his name as a “pioneer in Chile’s first cool-climate vineyard” in Casablanca back in the early ’80s. He has also made Carignan wines since the ’90s, but he said that no one was interested in the grape so he didn’t bother releasing it. Chile became known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and eventually Carménère -people realized in the mid-90s much of the Merlot they loved was actually Carménère, as all the vines came from Bordeaux and Carménère is the lesser-known of the red Bordeaux varieties- and so if any wine drinker was going to have a Chilean wine from an atypical variety it was going to be Carménère, and that still holds true for many wine drinkers today.
Today, Morandé makes VIGNO Carignan from vines that are at least 65 years old from one of these families that has been dry-farming bush vines for generations – the bottle retails for only $32.
The iconic wine producer originating in Spain, Miguel Torres, started their winery in Chile in 1979, and is part of the VIGNO group as well. Not only are they committed to promoting the old vines of Carignan, but Torres has been a big advocate of País, the local red grape originally from the Canary Islands, that previously used to make most of Chile’s homemade wines. But it was underappreciated for so long as it was made in a simple fashion, so many locals didn’t think much of it, and it took outsiders like Miguel Torres as well as others to realize the unique potential of the grapes that have vines that go up to 200 years old.
Today Torres is the largest producer of País in the world with his delicious sparkling Estelado Rosé made from 100% País that comes from vines that range from 60 to over 100 years old from Secano Interior DO – a designated area spanning across Maule as well as more southern areas of Bio Bío and Itata. Again, the Secano Interior is known for extraordinarily old Carignan and País vines because it was an underserved area of Chile in the past. Shockingly these bubbles filled with so much history only retails for $20. But the Torres team is also making red wines out of these remarkable País vineyards.
It is impossible to speak about VIGNO as well as País without mentioning the producer Julio Bouchon and his Bouchon wines. Not only is he currently the president of VIGNO, but Amanda Barnes spoke about his evangelizing ability to convert the wine trade and consumers around the world to love País as much as he does, and Amanda notes that his País wines are some of the “best” in Chile. One of the wines he makes called ‘País Salvaje’ – Salvaje translates into “wild” – is made from wild País vines outside of an old País vineyard near a river creek. It is believed that workers were eating País grapes, and they threw the seeds into the river and the vines just grew upwards on trees.
The age of these vines is unknown, but there are País vines nearby that are around 200 years old. The Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ made from these rare vines retails at a jaw-dropping $20, and it is a beautifully complex wine.
Lessons of Catastrophic Events
Initially, it seems almost impossible for most to see the good that comes out of catastrophic events, but for those few visionaries, who are the innovators and passionate evangelists in their particular industries, the opportunities to create a better world among their communities, not letting just a tragedy happen in vain, is crystal clear. And that is precisely what each of these VIGNO members has done for the area of Maule, as well as extending other projects that reach further south.
But it was not about these wine producers giving a handout, as not only does that financially work only in the short-term, but it doesn’t do anything to help with the basic need of someone finding value in their work. In a way, the wine industry in Chile needs these small family growers with their gnarly old vines as much as they need the industry. These growers have been a great way to appeal to some of the up-and-coming sommeliers as these wines are authentically rooted in a long tradition, they are environmentally friendly with no irrigation, based on social responsibility – as they bring more money to poor communities – and let one not forget these wines are delightfully unique and fun to drink.
Chile has been fighting the idea that their wines are just cheaper, lower-quality versions of French or California wines, because Chile introduced their wines into the global market at a low price point, and hence, the misnomer that the wines are inferior has stuck. And therefore it has been a struggle to convince serious wine drinkers that Chile has wines that are genuinely unique to them, outside the entry-level offerings or even the expensive, high-scoring Chilean wines made by top producers who benefit from a tremendous amount of financial backing.
And the answer has been tucked away in vineyards among some of the poorest of the poor – it just took an earthquake and tsunami to finally see it.
The below wines were tasted during the masterclass held by Amanda Barnes in New York in February of 2022.
2018 Miguel Torres, ‘Estelado’ Traditional Method Sparkling Brut Rosé, Secano Interior, Chile: 100% País, vines ranging from 60 to over 100 years old. Aromas of stony minerality and red cherries with strawberry skins on the palate and fresh acidity with a floral finish. Miguel Torres was established in Chile in 1979, and they are considered the pioneer of the modern wine industry and have a focus on Fair Trade practices and the social impact of País.
2019 Carmen DO ‘Quijada’ Semillón, Apalta, Chile: 100% Semillón made from vines planted in 1958. These grapes may come from the more established Apalta designated wine area, but the wine is undoubtedly a special offering with old vine Semillón vines. Intoxicating nose of honeysuckle and citrus blossom with juicy peach flavors and vibrant acidity evident on the palate. Carmen is one of Chile’s oldest wineries, founded in 1850. Their DO range highlights growers and distinctive terroirs and is a winery that employs experimental winemaking techniques.
2020 Longaví’ Glup!’ Cinsault, Itala, Chile: 100% Cinsault from vines over 50 years old coming from the “heartland” of Cinsault in Chile – Itala. The 30% whole cluster fermentation certainly brings out the vivid bright black and red fruit yet there are also complex notes of broken earth with a lovely spiciness on the finish. Longaví was founded by Julio Bouchon and David Nieuwoudt in 2012 and started out focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, but today its focus is on old vines.
2020 Rogue Vine ‘Grand Itala Tinto’ Itata, Chile: 95% Cinsault and 5% País from vines planted in 1960. Herb-tinged red fruit that ranged from zingy cranberry to rich raspberries with a background of dried wildflowers with slightly firm tannins. Started in 2008 by Leo Erazo and Justin Decker, focusing on old bush vines in Itata that range from 70 to 150 years old with no irrigation, no rootstocks, planted in granitic rock, organic farming and low invention winemaking.
2020 J. Bouchon ‘País Salvaje’ Maule, Chile: 100% País with the age of vines unknown, although there are vines nearby that are around 200 years old. Lots of juicy, pure berry fruit with some hints of forest floor and pretty floral notes, and it is round and very inviting on the palate with tons of energy. Bouchon has been producing wines in the Maule since 1977 and has a focus on dry-farmed, old vines, a traditional family wine producer with an innovative outlook.
2020 Viña González Bastias ‘País en Tinaja’ Secano Interior, Chile: 100% País from vines over 200 years old. Before bottling, these grapes were destemmed via a zaranda, a traditional tool made of bamboo sticks, and matured in “tinaja”, 300-year-old terracotta amphorae. Notes of crushed flowers and pinecones with hints of dark chocolate orange peel and blueberry fruit on the palate with refreshing acidity. Viña González Bastias is a fifth-generation grower in Maule, run by Daniela and Jose Luis González Bastias, with old vines up to 200 years old. They are traditional farmers that make small production artisanal wines.
2019 De Martino ‘Old Vine Series Las Olvidadas’ Mezcla Tinta, Itata, Chile: 80% País and 20% San Francisco from vines ranging from 100 to 300 years old. The grapes are put through a zaranda as well and fermented together. Sour red cherry with bay leaf and fresh blackberry with hints of rosebud and tree bark and just an overall wild character with a touch of grip but plenty of fleshy fruit to balance it out. De Martino was started in 1934, and it is now a fourth-generation producer that likes to explore exciting terroirs that focus on the Itata area and old vines.
2019 TerraNoble ‘Grand Reserva’ Carignan, Maule, Chile: 100% Carignan from vines that were planted in 1958. Brooding fruit and lit cigar invites one into a deeply concentrated wine with blackberry liqueur flavor and layers of complexity such as potpourri and new leather with marked acidity and structured tannins that give the concentrated fruit lift. TerraNoble was established in 1993 with its main focus being in the Maule, but they are also exploring other territories and being certified sustainable and vegan.
2019 Morandé VIGNO, Maule, Chile: Mostly Carignan with a small amount of Syrah and Chardonnay from a field blend over 65 years old. If one wants to experience the charm of Carignan, this is certainly a great wine to try with enchanting blueberry and blackberry fruit that expresses itself with ideal ripeness with soft acidity and hints of crushed granite and turmeric powder along with silky tannins and just an overall elegance. Morandé was founded in 1996 by highly-respected winemaker Pablo Morandé. This wine is part of their ‘Aventuras’ line, representing their small production of experimental wines from their Aventuras winery that houses such fun vessels as cement eggs, ceramic tanks and amphorae, and much more.