De Martino Wines – A New Natural Idiom

De Martino family and Les Caves de Pyrène are teaming up to put on a special event, “Looking Back, Moving Forward”, celebrating the 80th anniversary of this Chilean winery and demonstrate the creative culmination of a journey wherein a unique new take on traditional winemaking has utterly transformed the wines.


As well as a tasting of new releases and natural wines from around the world that have influenced De Martino on their expedition of self-discovery there will be also a ticketed masterclass with a tutored tasting hosted by Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at De Martino and Sebastian de Martino, and chaired by Peter Richards MW, who has written the most comprehensive and authoritative report on Chilean wines. This will include a mini-vertical of Carmenere to demonstrate how De Martino’s winemaking has come full circle in the past twenty years and will discuss possible future trends in Chilean viticulture and winemaking.

For where De Martino leads, others will surely follow. There is a current backlash against identikit wines and one-size-fits-all winemaking and an embryonic appreciation that Chile has some terrific natural advantages, namely fabulous diversity of terroir, vines on original rootstocks and a largely benevolent climate. However, the wine industry has been locked into a retrograde mindset which endorses the homogenous “Chilean style”, where it is considered an asset that varietally-correct wines can be manufactured more cheaply than in other countries – where regional expression, historical and cultural identity and gastronomic appeal have thus been sacrificed in the scramble to project a uniform message and capture greater market share. Brand Chile became in the 1990s, and is still – to a certain extent – bland Chile.

The first release 2011 Single Vineyard range wines, which are a considerable departure in style from previous vintages exemplify De Martino’s objective in rediscovering authentic terroir flavours in their wines. They also reveal the extent of De Martino’s voyage to arrive at what is essentially a “house style”, producing wines of greater balance, delicious freshness and gastronomic appeal.

Two years ago De Martino winery held a landmark Carmenere vertical to show the way the wine had developed over the years since the first vintage was commercialised. The earliest vintages were lovely, more-or-less naturally made without additives and fermented with wild yeasts in foudres. New oak started to creep in at the end of the 90s, extraction increased, and the wine moved from pale red, fresh and savoury to something entirely different: dark, bitter-chocolate fruit texture and tannic to boot. In 2008 a more characterful style re-emerged as the alcohol levels reduced and the oak was used with greater sensitivity. With 2011 the wine returned to foudre, the fermentation was natural, and the change complete.


Sebastian DeMartino

“We feel we’ve matured; we know now what we stand for and what we like. Such change would have been impossible to achieve if we had not experimented with the extremes”, says Sebastian De Martino.

“A Mosaic of Terroir”

De Martino’s vineyards stretch from the high Andes to the Pacific coast, from the 2,000m high Alto Los Toros in Elqui to unirrigated old bush vines in Maule and finally, to the cool, maritime climate of Itata with its thrilling potential (tipped by Peter Richards MW to be “one of Chile’s most exciting regions in the next decade”), and where their new releases, Tinajas (amphorae) & Gallardia, hail from. Sympathetic winemaking to bring out the nuances in all the wines is achieved by using indigenous yeasts, gentle extraction, and maturation in vessels ranging from large foudres to clay pots.

De Martino’s winery itself lies an hour’s drive from the airport in the Isla de Maipo, a commune of the Talagante Province in central Chile’s Santiago Metropolitan Region. Predominantly rural, this is a landscape of colonial houses, cultivated farms, vineyards, natural sites and the predominance of agricultural activities, which is carried out by the majority of its population. The Maipo River is the most important in the whole metropolitan area, because it supports the highest population density in Chile and is also the main stream which irrigates the area.

Terroir tech-talk

In a masterclass on Chilean terroir, De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal explained that the name of the DO, Maipo, was the name of the river, and that the Central Valley of Chile – that land between the Jurassic coastal range and the Andes – had a very young geology. Volcanic activity, earthquakes and shrinking glaciers dislodge and shift rocks down to the alluvial terraces of Maipo where the most expensive wines in Chile are made. The alluvial soils tend to favour Cabernet Sauvignon, whilst other soil types include sand (by the Andes), silt (in the central areas) and clay (near the Pacific Ocean). Granite, giving soils of low PH, is found in both coastal regions and near the Andes, and imbues reds with plenty of acidity and high tannin. Colluvial soils with their angular rocks promote rich, powerful wines. Limestone can be found 550 km north of Santiago in Limari and Elqui; near the ocean it is sometimes combined with clay. These soils are excellent for Chardonnay and also for Sauvignon. Finally, there is a vein of schist in southern Chile (350 km south of Santiago).

Generally, ocean climates are, as to be expected, much cooler, although the coastal range, which rises to 2,000 metres in parts, is a moderating influence. Casablanca, for example, has a variety of climates, from very warm (better for reds), descending to the cooler ocean region (more appropriate for aromatic whites). Sunburn is a problem for grapes and east-west exposures are best for reducing the light, whilst the shadows of hills and trees can also be used to protect the vines. Northern Chile is very dry, receiving only 90-300 mm of rain a year; vineyards need to be irrigated here; whilst further south rainfall is more in the order of 800mm and so dry-farming is an option.

A high output winery would simply put all the grapes into the blender, so to speak, and brew up some nondescript juice. De Martino are seeking points of difference in their wines. Once upon a time grapes were always picked on the early side with resultant alcohol levels of 11.5/12/12.5. Towards the end of the 1990s, Michel Rolland’s (consultant at Casa Lapastolle) massive influence began to be seen and felt throughout the Chilean wine industry (word used advisedly). Wineries started to pick the same grapes later, one month later even, meaning that the wines were bound to be overripe, sweet and absurdly alcoholic (16-17%) and would then have to be reduced to a more tolerable level with water. 100% new French oak – high toast – was used for the expensive reserve cuvées, staves for the cheaper ones. The result? Jam of the highest (and lowest) spec. The classic oenological error is to blindly follow the recipe as if it is holy writ. Unfortunately, there was a perception (fostered by certain wine critics) that dark, intense, overwrought wines is what the target audience were gagging for – as opposed to gagging on – which would be a fairer description.

In 2005 De Martino started slowly rowing back from the conventional “throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-wine approach” and, by 2010, had initiated the first phases of their new project towards less interventionist winemaking. The new mantra was simple: “We’re not proud of the wines we make currently. We don’t like them. They are not good with food. We want to eradicate standardisation.”

Everything changed. Now…

  1. De Martino now pick early. No need to wait for phenolic ripeness.

  2. More skin and less juice than before to provide the protection for the wine.

  3. No more artificial yeasts. Everything natural.

  4. No enzymes are added to the must.

  5. No more barriques. They detract from the terroir. Instead 2-14 year old barrels and foudres (no toast) for the single vineyard wines: used barrels and concrete for Legado; stainless steel for the Classic range.

And then we have the Viejas Tinajas. This wine rescues an old tradition deeply rooted in rural Chile: winemaking using large earthenware jars. Viejas Tinajas has been fermented and aged as naturally as possible in amphorae over 100 years old, without intervention and in search of a faithful reflection of its origin. An old, unirrigated vineyard in the heart of the Coastal Mountain Range in the Itata Valley gives life to this wine, some 450 kilometres to the south of Santiago and just 22 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean. Consider this: Cinsault, old bush vines (35 hl/ha yields), on granitic soils, farmed with horses, whole berries, no punch down, gentle pressing and fermented in century-old clay pots. In the winter the malolactic is ready. The wine is not filtered or fined and there is no added sulphur. A delicious wines that punches our buttons right away with its limpid red colour and aromas of clean bright cherry fruit with a hint of flint, it is soothing and fresh with bright, mineral-charged acidity.

The amphora family

No pumps are used with the tinajas, only good old-fashioned sucking

One vintage later, De Martino added a Muscat to the tinajas range. Grapes are destemmed, fermented in tinajas for 15 days, undergoing a semi-carbonic maceration. The wine spends the entire winter in amphorae with a further six months on skins. In late spring once the malolactic is finished the wine is separated from the skins and decanted into amphorae for a further six months, allowing it to settle. It is then bottled without filtration or fining and just a tiny amount of sulphur to preserve the wine during transport. This wine sings eloquently of tradition. It has an attractive golden-amber colour, a rich bouquet of jasmine, orange blossom, quince and apricot jam and the palate is dry and smooth yet herbal and spicy with just a hint of earthy “bite”. Like the Cinsault it feels natural and somehow complete as if all the parts of wine are in total harmony.

Itata – Rediscovering the past

To De Martino, Itata is a magical place. One of the original regions in Chile for viticulture, it is peopled by small parcel holders and characterised by old dry-farmed bush vines. The region, 450 km south west of Santiago, receives between 800mm – 1000 mm of rain a year. De Martino sources grapes from vines close to the ocean and grown in the pine-forest-clad Coastal Range on granite soils. The Pacific and the southern latitude influence these vineyards with cool growing conditions which are not the norm in the rest of this valley let alone the rest of Chile (Bio-Bio apart), resulting in wines of purity, authenticity, tension and gastronomic character. De Martino are currently engaged in purchasing their own vineyards to assure their future production in this region.

This one of the first places the Spanish planted vines after landing from the nearby port of Concepción – spreading the whole area with these varieties (particularly Moscatel) and also País. The Gallardía (the newest wines in the De Martino portfolio) style is fresh and elegant, notable for its enhanced floral character. Its name comes from a bright, daisy-like wild flower (also known as the blanket-flower) which grows naturally in the vineyards, filling them with colour and aroma. Gallardía also means bravery, a homage to its name by enduring the difficult climate of the Itata Valley in the south of Chile.

All the vines are goblet-trained, dry-farmed and ungrafted from an organically-farmed vineyards near the ocean the better to retain natural acidity in the grapes.

Real change involves listening to your own heart and your heart and maintaining your integrity rather than always bending to the whims of the market. When a critically-acclaimed winery slams on the brakes and drives in an entirely different direction then we should pay attention. The results are impressive. The wines are, in our opinion, so much more delicious, soulful and energetic, surely the result of an artisan approach that has taken care to understand the combined importance of terroir, good organic vine growing practice and less interventionist winemaking. De Martino’s enterprise is like a jewel with many different faces.

De Martino & Les Caves de Pyrene will be hosting a tasting, seminar and wine dinner at Terroirs Cellar on Monday 3rd March 2014. For further information please contact

De Martino will be at The 2014 Real Wine Fair on Sunday 13th & Monday 14th April 2014 at Tobacco Dock, Wapping.

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