Let me start with this first: One day is not enough to visit Itata Valley! I am sure after reading the article, you will agree with me on this. Even if it was a very fast visit, my day in Itata Valley was a very special experience.
Early in the morning, I’ve met Guillermo Pascual who is the Enology professor of Universidad de Concepción and Francisco Diez who is a Master of Science of Enology and Viticulture.
Guillermo has been working 6.5 years in Itata Valley, but in related with viticulture for all his life. Currently he is making a PhD in Universidad de Concepción, teaching enology classes, managing the wine laboratory and experimental winery of the university and also act as an extension for the producers in the valley. He is consulting around 30 grape growers in the region.
Unlike me, Francisco was not a stranger to this region, since he worked in the vineyards of Itata, in 2010, giving consultancy to the grape growers. Back then, he was studying Agriculture Engineering in Universidad de Concepción. Later, he decided to continue his education in viticulture and enology in Europe. Currently, he is working for a wine growing region in Canada. However, he always have some parts of his roots in Itata Valley. Back in 2016, Francisco and Guillermo, with their two more partners, produced a wine of Cinsault grapes from old vineyards of Itata Valley. Thus, I was very lucky to spend the day with them to discover “Itata Profundo” as they say, deep Itata!
On our way, as we were getting away from the city center, I understood better why it was a very good idea to travel with a truck. If you ever want to visit this breathtaking wine region, I’d suggest you two things: First, go with someone who knows the roads and second, use a jeep or truck to be able to travel safely. Because the roads are very bumpy and dusty and the directions are not very well indicated since it’s a pure country side.
Before starting, let me tell you couple of things about Itata Valley. It’s known that in 1550s, the first vine of Chile has arrived to vicinity of the city of Concepción, which is close to Itata Valley. This was a red grape variety called País. Although Itata Valley was one of the first regions to produce grapes in Chile, it had lost its fame when the wine growing regions have started to localize more in the central regions. To be honest, it was sad for me to learn that some of the old vine plantations have been pulled out in Itata Valley. Still, thankfully, there are some producers who make the best of their region and who keep alive the tradition of wine production; by producing some unique wines from their land.
We have started our tour with a visit to the vineyards of Pandolfi Price in Santa Inés. Actually, I’ve been wanting to visit these vineyards since 2015 when I’ve tasted one of their wines occasionally in a dinner that I was invited in Bordeaux; Los Patricios Chardonnay from 2012, and it was paired with some delicious oysters from Cap-Ferret. This pairing has been in my mind since then, and making me want to visit where the grapes were grown.
As we arrived to Viña Santa Inés, the vineyard dogs welcomed us and they accompanied us all the way through the vineyards.
Pandolfi Price is a project of Pandolfi family who decided to produce wine in 2002, in Santa Inés. They started to plant Chardonnay in the coast of Larqui River, and today they are producing worldwide recognized high quality wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.
After this visit, we said goodbye to the vineyard dogs and heading deeper to Itata. Our bumpy drive continued until we arrived to Ránquil. Here we started to see the local varieties of the valley which are Moscatel de Alejandría, País and Cinsault.
Moscatel de Alejandría is a member of Muscat family from Vitis Vinifera. It is known that, in Chile, Muscat of Alexandria started to be grown in La Serena, in the early 18th century. It became linked to Pisco industry almost since its origins in La Serena, a relation that has remained until today. In Itata Valley, it is grown to make still or sparkling wines. País is a red grape variety known as Mission, Spanish missioners introduced it to America for using it to make sacramental and table wines. And finally, Cinsault, I believe most of you know this variety already from red and rosé wines from South of France. In Itata Valley, Cinsault is used as single varietal or in blend with País to produce fruit forward young wines.
Not very far from there, we headed to winery called Viña Mirador del Valle and to meet the grower and winemaker, Lucía Torres. If you want to see what it’s possible to be achieved when you are committed to your terrain, you should meet Lucía Torres. If you decide to do so, I’d suggest you to contact her in advance and let her know that you are coming, so she could prepare a tasting for you. And one more suggestion: When you arrive, beware of the vineyard dogs – they were not very friendly as the previous ones.
When you arrive, the winery building will not impress you: It is an old cottage with some tanks inside. But what achieves Lucía Torres inside, will definitely impress you. She is producing wines only from her own grapes, makes a dry, a semi sweet and a sparkling wine from Moscatel de Alejandría. She won international recognition and medals with her wines. In each sip of her wines, it is possible to feel all the work and sacrifice done to produce them.
Lucía Torres was very pleased to receive us, and to see Guillermo. She and Guillermo has been collaborating for different projects, both in the cellar and in the vineyards. Guillermo explained these projects briefly: First project was in 2013, funded by Minister of Agriculture (FIA – Fundación para la Innovación Agraria) to produce a straw wine from Moscatel de Alejandría. And the second one was from 2014 until 2016, for the Master thesis of Guillermo, to examine the effect of light and heat on terpene accumulation on Moscatel de Alejandría with gobelet training system. Both projects were beneficial for different aspects of the production.
Following this, we went to Mirador that gave the name to the winery. The view from this Mirador is just breathtaking. I expect that this trip would be nice, but this was beyond my expectations. When I look down from the terrace, I can imagine all the efforts that has to be done to take care of these vines. In this area all the vines are planted traditionally in gobelet system, it is also known as ‘bush vine’. Gobelet is known as an ancient trellis system that was used by Romans to prune their wines by then. It is generally used in Mediterranean climate, in warm and dry winemaking regions to decrease the effect of direct sunlight to the grapes thanks to its shape like an umbrella. It also can be advantageous when pruned in a way that the clusters of grapes don’t touch to each other and the air can flow freely in between them. However, if the trunk of the vine is not high enough, the clusters touch the soil. This increases the bunch temperature of the grapes and decrease the varietal aromas while it makes them dusty at the same time.
Another advantage of this trellis system is absence of wires, wood or any type of supporting material, which decrease the cost of plantation, it’s just natural. Despite all the advantages, the main reason why gobelet system is decreasing nowadays is the difficulty in adaptation to mechanization. Every work in these vineyards is done by hand, vine by vine, which requires a lot of experience and patience.
Looking to this beautiful vineyards, Francisco is taking my attention to the fact that all the vineyard practices in this region are done by dry farming – meaning no irrigation system is in place to water the vines to avoid stress. He also explained that the dry farming in the region occurred naturally, since the local varieties grown in the valley are very well adapted to dry conditions. However, this doesn’t mean that there are no precautions to avoid water stress: The grape growers till their soil in the region, to allow the water to penetrate and absorbed by the soil.
Our final stop was the vineyards Coelemu. At that point, it was even more bitter to know the loss of vines in such a beautiful grape growing region, with well-suited varieties and unique characteristics. Guillermo explains that the grape prices are so low that they don’t compensate the production costs of the growers. That is why, the University of Conception, in conjunction with government and different private entities, working with the producers, so they can advance in the production chain to ferment their own grapes and putting a value added product into market.
When we were walking around the vineyards and discussing different aspects of this wine growing region, I’ve remembered my visit to Itata Valley in 2016. Back then, I was in Chile to make a harvest in Colchagua Valley. Before the harvest I was invited to a lunch that was organized for Ricardo Merino from University of Conception, who is Emeritus Professor of Concepción University, an important promoter and defender of viticulture in Itata Valley and co-founder of organization of winemakers of Itata Valley (Asociacion Gremial de Enologos y Profesionales del Vino del Valle del Itata AGEPVVI). The lunch was held in the vineyards of Riveras de Chillan. As well as meeting a lot of people from the university and wine sector of Itata, it was a great opportunity to taste traditional food of Chile and pair them with wines of Itata Valley. I still remember how the still and sparkling wines from Moscatel de Alejandría paired well with ceviche. Elegant red wines from Cinsault were just perfect companion for that warm autumn day. I was happy to finish my day in Itata Valley with these flavors in my mind and unforgettable views of the valley.
Before finishing, I’d give you couple of more suggestions. If you visit Itata Valley and would like to turn back home with some local and rare wines, I can suggest you two wine shops to visit: First one is in the Mall Arauco Chillán, called Tienda Mundo Rural, they have only wines from the region. You can find both still and sparkling wines, produced with traditional grapes of the region including Semillón, Moscatel de Alejandría, País, Torontel, Cinsault and Carignan.
The second one is called “De Blancos a Tintos”, from whites to reds. This shop is owned by a sommelier, Fernanda Chartier Muñoz, who works there and chooses the best wines of the region for her shop and she has very rare findings! I strongly recommend this place. She frequently organizes some wine tasting for the consumers that you can attend to have a chance to taste some local wines.
I am finishing my “one day” in Itata Valley with the stunning views of vineyards in my mind, and with different thoughts and feelings. After seeing those ancient vines, my appreciation to this glorious, strong and fructiferous plant increased even more. These vines are like history books of the region, and people who are managing these vineyards and making wine are the ones who protect the history. In that sense, it was a pleasure to spend some time with Guillermo Pascual who is working for Itata Valley to improve the quality of grapes and wines, people like Lucia Torres who is adding an immensely value to her grapes, and Francisco Diez who always keeps the region in this heart, although he lives far away.
Altogether, it was a great experience to be there even for a short time, and taste the wines that the valley offer. I look forward to tasting more of them in the earliest opportunity.
All images © 2018 by Neslihan IVIT. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Guillermo Pascual and Francisco Diez for this visit.