Brian O´Sullivan is an expert on the O´Higgins region, running O´Higgins Tours. In a series of guest blogs, he writes about “the heart of Chile”: Rancagua and the Central Valley. Today in part one, O´Sullivan writes about the influence of European immigrants on winemaking in the region.
The grape was first introduced to Chile from Peru by Spanish conquistadores and local legend has it that Pedro de Valdivia’s aide Francisco de Aguirre planted the first vine in the Central Valley.
The Spaniards also made the area of Rancagua a community vineyard before the city was founded in the 18th century, although production was limited as most wines were legally required to be imported from Spain and the exportation of Chilean wine to Spain itself was forbidden.
As Chile was culturally and historically connected to Castilian Spain and administered by Andalucians, common grape stocks from the traditional Spanish vineyard varieties such as Muscatel, Torontel, Albillo and Mollar were grown. These grape varieties were the ancestors of the local País variety, which is among Chile’s most common today.
Chile´s independence and the introduction of French wines
Shortly after Chile’s independence and the emergence of the Basque-Chilean nobility as its ruling class, this started to change. A new, definitive trend began when local Basque aristocrats Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta and Maximiano Errázuriz, inspired by their own visits to France, began importing and using French varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet franc, Malbec, Sauvignon blanc and Semillón for their recently founded vineyards here in the Central Valley.
Errázuriz also enlisted the services of a French oenologist to supervise production in accordance with the techniques of Bordeaux and by the late 18th century, viniculture in the region had been largely fostered by Basque landowners and heavily influenced by wine production in south-western France.
A phylloxera epidemic known as The Great French Wine Blight broke out in Western Europe during the mid-19th century, destroying much of most of its vineyards and devastating its wine industry, particularly in France. This event ultimately proved beneficial to the local wine industry here, as many French wine-making families immigrated to the region and other parts of South America, bringing their experience and techniques with them.
In addition, winemaking in the O’Higgins region has also been further shaped by Catalan settlers such the Punti family, owners of the Punti Ferrer vineyard, who arrived in the region from Catalonia in 1953.
European legacy in the O´Higgins vineyards
The legacy of the Spanish, Basque and French hands in our local wine industry lives on today. The names of various vineyards of the O’Higgins region such as La Ronciere, Los Vascos (¨the Basques¨) and Lapostolle bear witness to the origin of their respective founders, and as previously mentioned, the País variety, a local descendant of varieties originally from southern Spain, is still among the most common varieties of stock in Chile.
The most famous and prestigious Chilean wines are of French stock and include such French-named labels as Merlot and Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay and the rediscovered Carménère. Furthermore, although its production is largely eclipsed by that of Chile’s more famous red wines, Chile is still the only country in the world apart from Spain which produces Chacolí.
Chacolí is the hispanicization of the Basque name Txakolin, and is a somewhat acidic white wine from the Basque country. It is produced today in the vineyards of many Basque-Chilean families including among others, the Viña Errazuriz in the Aconcagua valley, Viña Undurraga in the Maipo valley and the Viña Los Vascos in the Colchagua valley here in the O’Higgins region, along with the Viña Echeverría in the Curicó valley further south.
Here in the O’Higgins region and near Rancagua, the small town of Doñihue, has an annual Fiesta del Chacolí, and in nearby Camarico, it is traditionally served with a slice of orange.
Central Valley wines
Chilean law defines the “Central Valley” winegrowing region as the Maipo, Rapel, Curicó and Maule Valleys. The Rapel Valley in the O’Higgins Region includes the Cachapoal and Colchagua Valleys, and is home to nearly 36,000 hectares of vineyards. Along with mining and agriculture, viniculture is an essential part of the regional economy in the O’Higgins Region.
The Central Valley is located roughly between the 33nd and 37th latitudes, at equidistance from the equator with southern Spain, Gibraltar and northern Morocco.
As Chile is relatively isolated from the rest of the world by its great natural boundaries of the Pacific Ocean, the Atacama Desert, the Andes and the Antarctic, it is not as vulnerable as its European counterparts to potentially devastating pests such as phylloxera.
This allows Chilean vineyards to avoid the laborious and costly process of grafting of more resistant varieties to their rootstock. This saves the vineyards a great deal of time and money and also maintains a “purity” of the stock grown that is evident when tasting the wine.
The Central Valley and the O’Higgins Region in particular also enjoy exceptionally fertile terrain, as well as a favourable location between the Andes and Cordillera de la Costa mountain ranges providing natural protection from coastal wind and rain and prevents warm, dry air from escaping from the zone.
The rediscovery of Carménère
With the rising popularity of Chilean wine towards the end of the last century, connoisseurs began to notice that Chilean wines labelled Merlot were inconsistent with the fundamental characteristics of the grape, and in 1994 a renowned French oenologist studying the vines discovered that an earlier-ripening vine in the area was actually Bordeaux Carménère, and not Merlot as previously thought.
Carménère had been believed to be extinct as a result of The Great French Wine Blight in 1867, when it was wiped out in Europe. However, prior to the outbreak, Chilean winegrowers, who were greatly influenced by viniculture in the Bordeaux region, had been importing Carménère cuttings and planting them in the Central Valley.
Chile’s favourable winegrowing conditions lead to healthier crops of Carménère, while its natural isolation prevented the arrival of phylloxera. However, Chilean winegrowers had been confusing it with Merlot for years. This had lead to it being collected and processed together with Merlot grapes and thus resulted in local wines such as Merlot Peumal (from the Peumo Valley here in the O’Higgins Region) having characteristics quite different from Merlot proper.
Today, Carménère is grown mostly in the O’Higgins region and in the Maipo province of the Metropolitan region and is officially recognised as a stock in its own right by the Chilean Department of Agriculture.