As Sommeliers and startup retailers we watch the wine industry closely, looking for distinct patterns that in turn allow us to make sound buying decisions for our clients. Our goal is to seek out and perhaps sharpen that cutting edge in the world of wine. My business partner GUY and I attended a trade tasting of Chilean wines guided by a Master Sommelier this past August. That event was immediately followed by excited conversations with many other wine professionals regarding discoveries of new-found and re-found geographic vine-growing locations. Savvy wine folk know there are no coincidences.
Every wine-producing country wants an identity—a peg to hang the proverbial hat. The key to discovering that identity is to first uncover what makes a country unique. For example, Chile sports a climate and geography that has the ability to produce wine naturally, using phylloxera-free vine stock. New producers are actively pushing geographic boundaries by venturing into cool climates and high altitudes with old-vine cuttings. This tactic possesses much upside for potential quality while adding significantly to expense, thus reducing commercial potential. So far the gamble is paying off. However Chile has yet to quantifiably reap the benefits of their uniqueness.
Push and Push Back
Only three wine corporations control 84% of the overall wine market: Concha y Toro, Santa Rita and San Pedro. These three plus Santa Carolina control almost half of total exports. Through the decades of their reign, the Chilean wine industry, as it was known, became complacent, conservative. No outside competition and minimal new internal competition provided little incentive for change. Chileans did not worry about what wine they were drinking and wineries did not worry about significant new investments in vineyard or winery. Chilean producers did not possess the drive to venture into frontier wine regions, where the air is thin and quality potential grows exponentially. Instead Chilean production is traditionally focused on warmer, valley regions with abundant water sources. The tradeoff for this high yield, low risk strategy is a reduced overall quality.
In a statement that sounds benign enough, Ignacio Recabarren, winemaker at Concha y Toro said of current Chilean winemaking practices, “Chile is subtle. We depend on simple, natural things, which the world does not yet understand.” The world understands just fine: Chile is in line for a huge wine culture shift.
At PROTOCOL, we typically say “It’s just wine.” But of course that statement’s underpinning is more complex. Wine is emotional, wine is political, and wine is catalyst: wine is evolutional…
Enter the revolutionary wave in Chile: MOVI (Movement of Independent Vintners) has emerged as a push against the corporations and what could ensue is the most exciting time in Chile’s wine producing history. For those of us in the industry, some of the most transforming wines in the arena today may in fact already be planted in obscure regions of Chile. As Andres Sanchez, MOVI member and winemaker from Gillmore Wines announces, “[We’re aiming at people] who are not just trying to do comparison shopping and find good value at the supermarket, but rather people who have an interest in flavor, histories, and the relationship of the product with its land and country.” What’s interesting about the smaller member-wineries is that they’re pushing the envelope and throwing out the tried and true Chilean wine playbook.
Derek Mossman, owner of Garage Wine Co. framed the scene perfectly when he commented, “Soon articles began to appear about the ‘coveted urban myth’ of Garage Wine Co. that minted our humble garage as a denim-clad David figure up against the enormous odds of agro-industrial giant Goliaths.” Indeed, MOVI is a relatively small group of winemakers, a Halloween who’s who of Italian counts, lawyers, photographers, skiers and ex-pats as varied as the regions and soils they work.
This emerging Chile reflects a philosophical turn from industrialization to farm. Winemakers, who are agronomists first, have returned to the land to work the vines and study the complex soils from higher elevations in the Andes to the coastal edge. Many MOVI members can be found in the Maule Valley, hit hardest by a series of earthquakes, most recently 2010, which left the area’s small family-owned grape-farmers hurting. And yet the movement persists in the Maule Valley where the talk is of old-vine carignane, as mature as 70 years. It seems earthquakes, granitic bedrock, and old-school bush vines are a veritable feast for hungry, multiple-hat wearing revolutionary winemakers.
Something to Watch
It’s too soon to say how this will all shake out. Can the MOVI revolutionaries sustain themselves against the onslaught of big business wineries? Will the dominating wine corporations succumb to change and aid in the search for regionally characteristic sites? Whatever happens in Chile, it’ll be something to watch, especially as Australia, New Zealand and Argentina also make their own push forward. The next few years should be mountainous times indeed. PROTOCOL will be watching…
Tina Morey and GUY, partners
PROTOCOL wine studio