Itata is not a region which the wine cognoscenti know a great deal about
The wines from here are very particular, deeply embedded in the traditions of the locality. Our knowledge of Chile tends to be based on matching certain grapes to certain regions– Syrah with Choapa & Elqui, Chardonnay with Limari, Sauvignon with Casablanca and the coastal regions, Carmenere & Cabernet with Maipo. You have to journey further south to where the Spanish first colonised to find the original varieties, Pais (ironically known as the Mission grape) for red and Muscat of Alexandria for white. Rather than the huge monocultural estates of the north, the land here is spread across wild rolling hills, a patchwork of small organically-farmed, horse-ploughed vineyard parcels of thick-trunked bush vines still owned by the local huasos.
When the Spanish colonizers landed at the Port of Concepción, they brought with them the Muscat of Alexandria and Pais (Listan Prieto) grapes. As a result, the first grape vines in Itata were planted in 1551. These grapes came from the Canary Islands originally and had been collected en route to Latin America. Due to destruction caused by subsequent earthquakes and the desire to “improve” the quality of the wines, other grape varieties –including Cinsault and some rare whites that are only known by their local names (such as Corinto) – were introduced to the region at the beginning of the 20th century.
From the beginning, Itata wines were highly-regarded as evidenced by the following quotes:
“Vine growing adapts much better to the southern wine provinces, the wine of Concepción is superior in quality to the ones from other areas” – Eduard Poeppeg, German traveller. 1828.
“The French have a singular affinity to the city of Concepción, and they claim the reason is the excellence of their wines”- Miguel de Olivares, priest. 18th century.
As winemaking and grape-growing expanded across the country other wineries began to gain influence. These factors, in addition to Chile’s increasing centralization, caused Itata to slowly lose its prominence and eventually become all but forgotten as a wine region. However, in recent years the valley has recovered its relevance and is now recognized as a treasure of the Chilean countryside. In this way, the Itata Valley has allowed growers to return to their origins, rediscover forgotten varieties and examine the work carried out by the first winemakers in the country.
The gorgeous landscape of the Itata Valley and the surrounding coastal areas where vineyards are located include steep hills planted with vineyards and imposing pine forests. The fast-flowing Itata River complements this stunning panorama, and its crystalline waters make this a truly unique location. In Itata there are a variety of small subsistence farms for whom viticulture is a way of life; they produce artisanal wines using traditional methods and sell their products locally. Thanks to their resilience, it is still possible to find vestiges of history reflected in vineyards that date back over 150 years
Vineyards are worked using horses, and axes are still the pruning tool of choice
The local cuisine is dominated by rabbit, hare, and chicken stews, as well as legumes and local sausages that are famous all across Chile. Wild mushroom foraging, which is carried out during the autumn and spring, is also popular. On the coast, blue crab (jaiba), conger eel (congrio) and corvina, similar to a sea trout, are the main attractions. The vibrant and taut Itata wines perfectly complement these traditional dishes.
The climate of coastal Itata experiences high levels of precipitation – up to 1,000 mm per annum – and makes dry-farming (without irrigation) possible. The Pacific Ocean also exerts a cooling influence which tempers the climate and helps to produce fresh and vibrant wines.
The soil is composed of granite deposits from the Coastal Mountain Range formed during the Jurassic period. The mostly loam soil has excellent drainage and close to 20% clay content, which helps retain humidity and fortify the plants during the driest summer months. Quartz is also commonly found in the soils of Itata.
The vineyards are dry-farmed and use a very low goblet training system (known here as “cabeza”) creating an unsupported bush vine. The vines are planted on original rootstock and the oldest vines in the area date back over 150 years. Vineyards are worked using horses and axes are still the pruning tool of choice.
Amphorae in Chile
An amphora is a ceramic vessel whose properties vary according to the characteristics of the soil from which it is derived. Chilean clay comes from a variety of sources, including granite, calcium, volcanic rock, and ochre. The latter is the most common type of clay found in the central coast and the most utilized for making these earthenware containers.
Amphorae arrived in Chile with the Spanish conquistadors, however historian Gonzalo Rojas assures us that, “From an anthropological point of view, the amphorae are a powerful symbol of the mestizaje between the Hispanic world and the pre-Columbian indigenous world. Not only because both indigenous and Spanish artisans — laymen and religious men — participated in their production, but also because of the craftsmanship that’s entailed; this work also had its roots in the ancestral farmer-potter traditions of the America´s indigenous populations.”
Local pre-Columbian cultures are thought to have used their amphorae as vessels for making alcohol around 1500 AD; however these vessels were of a different shape and design than those brought by the conquistadors. Chilean amphorae developed as a result of the blending of both cultures and styles. In this way, the amphora became a uniquely significant cultural artefact for the country. Production peaked during the La Colonia period (1598-1810), when they were primarily used for fermenting and storing wine, an activity which was carried out across the country, from the Atacama region all the way to the BíoBío River. On a smaller scale, amphorae were also used to store grains, olive oil, and other liquids, as well as transporting goods.
With the arrival of barrel-making in the 19th century, amphorae were replaced by containers made from other materials. The wine industry preferred wood as it requires less care when being moved, was relatively light-weight and easy to repair. In this way the raulí barrels (known as “pipas”) became the container of choice for wine fermentation and ageing throughout the country, relegating 200 years of tradition to the resilience of a few committed artisanal producers immersed in the depths of the countryside.
They are wines that will make you smile
De Martino and the amphorae
The idea of producing wine using traditional terracotta amphorae emerged in 2010, as a result of De Martino’s decision to craft wines with strong, unique personalities, while maintaining a fresh and gastronomic winemaking style. This project inspired them immediately as it tied in with their mission to recover ancestral winemaking techniques.
The Viejas Tinajas wine range began as an experimental programme with only 14 amphorae, which collectively produced their 2011 Viejas Tinajas Cinsault. The following vintage they incorporated new vessels and added the Muscat grape variety, thereby completing the range’s white and red duo. They currently have 172 amphorae of all different shapes and sizes, ranging between 200 and 1,800 litre capacity. Many of these are over 200 years old. Wines fermented and aged in amphorae have a unique textural signature and stand out for their varietal purity, freshness, and delicate nature.
Q & A with Sebastian De Martino
What attracted you to Itata initially – had you ever tasted wines from this region?
What attracted us was its history (quite unknown and mysterious even), the southern location (high rainfall and dry farming), the varieties not found in the northern regions, the maritime influence, the landscape dominated by rolling hills, plus the granite soils. Even in Chile it was difficult to find wines from Itata as in the past either they were sold locally or wine companies from the north would buy the grapes at low prices and blend them into their basic wines.
We therefore decided to organize a scouting trip where we discovered several new wines. Unfortunately, at the time although you could find great fruit behind the wines you would also see various “commercial” practices that militated against the expression of terroir. This was no doubt due to these local producers selling wines for blending or being advised by oenologists with different philosophies.
How different is Itata to the north (I mean the area around Santiago) in terms of the people and the culture?
The area is where Chile’s first vineyards were planted and the original vignerons are still found. Properties are smaller and more fragmented (no fencing, for example). In the north the wine culture followed the “Bordeaux” model since the wealthy families travelled in the 19th century to France to learn from the examples there. The south, however, is wild with a long standing history that we are just starting to rediscover ourselves.
Why did Itata lose its fame as a wine region (considering this region was important in the origin of vine planting and culture in Chile)?
Good question – we are still trying to understand what happened! Most likely since the arrival of the French practices in the 19th century, and the planting of vines in the northern regions of Chile, everyone thought that the wines of Itata were in the “past” and no longer relevant.
How many wineries other than De Martino are producing wines from Itata region alone (ie not blends between two or more regions)?
Besides the local producers, some of whom are making surprisingly good wines, there are about 8 companies which have come down from the “north” to produce wines in the area. The style of these wines spans a broad spectrum and tends to reflect the philosophy of each of the wineries behind them. We are proud though to be the first who committed to the region by acquiring a small plot containing historical old vines and field blends of varieties that we are just starting to understand .
What do you see as the future of this region?
Itata, in our opinion, has a very bright future. As I have mentioned there are few places where you can find such old vines, dry farmed, granite soils and unique grape varieties. The history of the place is just beginning to be rediscovered and the style of the wines – or the possibility which Itata offers to produce wines – are not found in in the northern regions of the country and, in our experience, in few places of the New World. We feel we are still just scratching the surface, and learning about the potential of the area; there will be more to come.
Are there any other regions in the world that you think have the same feel as Itata?
Parts of the region resemble Galicia in Spain, whilst the fruity style of wines tend to remind one more of Beaujolais (the natural producers who work there) or perhaps even the new Languedoc. The wines are defined by their vibrant character and nerve.
They are wines that will make you smile.
Doug Wregg. Photographs courtesy of the author.