I am indebted to the De Martino family for their research into this fascinating region of Chile. It is fair to say that they rediscovered its potential as part of their quest to identify original terroirs in Chile.
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 were to find a more original, Pais (also known as the Mission grape) for red and Muscat of Alexandria. 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 with humility 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.
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 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 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 as “cabeza”). The vines are planted on original rootstock. The oldest vines in the area date back over 150 years; the vineyards are only worked using horses with axes for pruning.
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 care of to the Spanish conquistadors, however historian Gonzalo Rojas assures 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 they 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 1,500 AC; 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 Bio Bio 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.
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.
De Martino produce two wines, one red, one white, in their Viejas Tinajas range. The red is a Cinsault from a three hectare vineyard. The grapes are de-stemmed, but not crushed, before undergoing carbonic maceration with native yeasts in the terracotta amphorae. No additives including sulphur dioxide, are used. The wine stays in contact with its skins for 25 days before the free-run juice is separated from the press. It is then decanted into the amphorae again, and aged until malolactic fermentation is complete, at which time the wine is bottled without undergoing filtration.
The Muscat is extraordinary, a truly vivid wine. The grapes are de-stemmed, but not crushed, before undergoing carbonic maceration in the terracotta amphorae. Alcoholic fermentation is carried out for 20 days using native yeasts, without the addition of sulphur or any other additives. Afterwards, the amphorae are covered and the wine stays in contact with the skins for 6 months. The free-run wine is then separated and left to age for 6 more months to continue clarifying until it is ready to be bottled.