First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 20th April, 2019
“Everyone was going northwards, to Casablanca, Leyda and Limari, so we went in the opposite direction,” says Pedro Parra, partner in Clos des Fous, one of the first companies to make quality wine in Itata. This region, along with neighbouring Bío-Bío and Malleco, are the most southerly vineyards in Chile, a four-hour drive from the main wine-producing areas.
Until recently, Itata had been seen as a backwater, useful only for producing the cheapest jug wines for home consumption. Yet more than 400 years ago, Itata was one of the first places the Spanish missionaries planted vines, essential for religious purposes. In those days it was the humble país grape. They brought the same variety to Argentina where it is known as criolla chica, and California, where it is known as mission.
Until recently it was always dismissed as being of inferior quality. “It will never produce truly great wine,” says Parra, “But it can make a very fresh and beautiful ‘vin de soif”. Along with two other ‘lesser’ grapes, cinsault and carignan, it is an ingredient in the Pour ma Gueule (or ‘for my throat’) below. Incredibly, some of the vines here are 200 years old, making them among the oldest in the world.
Close to the coast, this is a cool-climate region that receives sufficient rain for dry-farmed vineyards, unusual in Chile. Itata was and is a very poor region, inhabited by small farmers who practise mixed farming, with corn, tomatoes, pumpkins and fruit all growing alongside the vines. The vines are completely untrained, and flop along the soil, radically different from the neat manicured rows usually found in vineyards. Poverty aside, it is a delightful region, with picturesque rolling hills and forests. The best soils are granite, “very beautiful soils”, says Parra, a highly-regarded expert in wine geology.
Clos des Fous is not alone in the region. Roberto Henríquez, a recent visitor to Ireland, is a local boy, who travelled the world making wine before returning home to neighbouring Bío-Bío, where he produces some fascinating natural wines. The larger companies, including de Martino, Torres and Concha y Toro also offer wines from the region.
I have written about in glowing terms both white and red wines from Itata before. The reds are light and refreshing with crunchy, cool red fruits; think of a cross between Loire cabernet and beaujolais. The whites vary in style but the muscat-based wines tend to be floral, with succulent crisp dry fruits; well worth trying out if you enjoy sauvignon blanc. For a while Marks & Spencer stocked a very good example for a bargain €15. Sadly this has been withdrawn. But do look out for some of Chile’s newest wines, made from some of the oldest vines.
Clos des Fous “Pour ma Gueule” 2017, Itata valley
14 per cent, €19.99
A blend of cinsault, país and carignan, this is a very moreish, lightly grippy wine with crunchy fresh red-berry fruits. By itself, with cold meats or ham with parsley sauce.
From Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; wineonline.ie; Grapevine, Dalkey, Co Dublin; Martin’s off-licence, Clontarf, Dublin 3
Montes Outer Limits “Old Roots” cinsault 2018, Itata
13.5 per cent, €23.99
Floral, with vibrant mouth-watering pure black fruits, subtle notes of spice, and a sappy dry finish. A very versatile wine that would suit salmon, tuna, cold meats or lighter cheeses.
From Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Baggot Street Wines, Dublin 4; wineonline.ie; Michael’s, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin
Rivera del Notro 2017, Itata, Roberto Henríquez
12 per cent, €24
A very engaging, gently perfumed “vin de soif” that mixes nicely textured plump orange and pear fruits with a reviving mineral acidity and a long dry finish. By itself or with grilled sea bass or bream.
From Loose Canon, Drury Street, Dublin 2; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6; Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Coach House, Ballinteer, Dublin 16
Volcánico País 2018, A los Viñateros Bravos, Itata
12.5 per cent, €22.95
Light and juicy, with captivating dark fruits, an earthy, herbal touch and fine grippy tannins on the finish. With posh sausages served with green lentils.
From Blackrock Cellar, Co Dublin; Green Man Wines, Terenure, Dublin 6; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer Street, Dublin 2