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Vitis vinifera, the Eurasian wine grape, arrived in Chile in the 16th century. The grapes that arrived were either Pais or the common ancestor it shares with California’s Mission, the Listán Prieto of the Canary Islands, and a set of other red varieties closely connected to the history of Spanish colonialism in the Atlantic and the Americas. Pais remained the main grape of Chile late into the 20th century, but in the global wine trade it was Cabernet Sauvignon that came to dominate Chilean exports. Pais was steadily relegated to domestic consumption, and plantings steadily decreased.
That is beginning to change due to the tireless hard work of growers like Roberto Henriquez in the Itata, Bío Bío, and Maule river valleys at the southern end of Chile’s viticultural area (about the same distance from the Equator as Spain or central California). These river valleys, with their difficult granitic and sandy soils, were among the first vineyards in South America; it is fascinating and exciting to witness their reemergence, and a joy to taste the wines made from these grapes. Adding to my interest is one of Chile’s unique blessings: its freedom from the scourge of Phylloxera. The North American louse, which decimated vineyards across the globe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, never reached Chile. The result is very old vines and vineyards, some dating to the 19th and even 18th century, that endure and thrive.
Roberto Henriquez farms these old vines in Bío Bío and in Itata. All of his red wines come from the ancient Pais grape, and all are single-vineyard expressions of this very terroir expressive variety. The white or orange wines come from Semillon, Corinto (Chasselas) and Moscatel, varieties whose arrival in Chile postdates Pais, but was long enough ago that these vines are 90 or more years old (I don’t know and I haven’t been able to find out when they showed up in Itata and Bío Bío – if you have any insight, please reach out!). Roberto doesn’t own all of the plots that produce the wines on offer today, but he does manage all of the (organic) farming.
In the cellar, Roberto is focused on tradition. His winery features few ‘modern’ or industrial tools and is not temperature controlled. The white and red wines are made identically, just as they were in the past: all grapes are destemmed then allowed to ferment in tank (only indigenous yeasts) with the skins included. There are no pump overs, and the length of the skin maceration is determined by the length of the fermentation; once fermentation is completed, each tank is pressed.
Sometimes, when I write these emails about a producer, I feel like I’m broadcasting something that has somehow remained a secret to the whole Chambers Street email list. I feel like that today. I truly cannot believe how good the Roberto’s 2019 wines are. I’ve had the good fortune to taste these bottles all together and then separately over the past week. To say that they’ve overperformed their price is to diminish them: these are limited production, serious, thoughtful natural wines of terroir that cap out at $30 a bottle. They are all from single vineyards of very thoughtfully farmed old vines. And each is a different expression of Chile’s south. If you feel a strong affinity towards “old world” wines, these are in every respect “older” than many “old world” wines: they come out of a long-established viticultural tradition, they express their individual soils and climates, and they employ grape varieties that are, at this point, adapted to and expressive of their environment. Perhaps it is not a tradition to which we have had the same exposure, but I would contend that these wines are, by virtue of their quality, their artisanal production, and their connection to history, classics.
Thank you Lena Olson of T. Edward Wines and Spirits and Roberto Henriquez for the information that made this email possible!
Santa Cruz de Coya comes from a truly special and very old vineyard of Pais in Bío Bío, very isolated and tucked into the mountains. These old vines are short and bush trained, planted on quartz and granite soils, and immersed in the ecosystem of the valley. The particularities of the location (the microclimate, its isolation, the completeness of the ecosystem) preclude the need for sulfur or copper treatments in the vineyard, allowing for a more-than-organic method of farming. Interestingly, the strong local yeasts (perhaps emboldened by the natural farming) also lead to a faster fermentation. Of the 2019 red wines from Roberto Henriquez, this is probably the most serious and the most elegant, with abundant structure and fine tannins. The nose shows red fruits, garrigue, stone, and a certain savory character; the palate is long, balanced, and medium-bodied, with raspberry and blackberry, delicate herbal spice, and a very mineral finish. Don't be afraid to decant this, or to hold onto a few bottles for opening in five years. One of the finest demonstrations of what Pais is capable of, I think.
From an historic vineyard of extremely old (200+ year old) vines of Pais near Santa Juana, in the Bío Bío valley. This is likely one of the oldest vineyard sites in Chile, planted on sedimentary red clays and old volcanic soils. It is also the lightest of Roberto Henriquez’s red wines in 2019, clocking in at roughly 11.5% alcohol due to the slow-ripening character of the area. Tierra de las Pumas shows fresh purple florals and blueberries on the nose, with a deep echo of herbs and earth behind. The palate is bright and refreshing, with a broad mineral seam behind small red berries and orange zest and very delicate tannins.
The fruit for Rivera del Notro Blanco comes from Roberto Henriquez’s neighbor, Cesar Henriquez, and a few other neighbors. Roberto manages the farming at all of the plots, and the youngest vines are around a hundred years old. This is a blend of Moscatel, Semillon, and Corinto, made like the other white wines from Roberto: the grapes were destemmed then allowed to naturally ferment with their skins in tanks, with the skin-contact lasting the duration of the fermentation. Compared to the two Semillon wines from Roberto, Rivera del Notro certainly shows a bit more like Muscat aromatically, with notes of ripe orange, grape, and white pepper, but the palate is quite refined, with the skin-contact lending an appealing structure, and plenty of minerality balances notes of orange, peach, and pear.
Roberto Henriquez’s Pais Franco comes from a vineyard of 4,700 vines of Pais planted on extremely nutrient-poor black sand soils. This site, on what was once in the distant past a bank of the river Bío Bío, is extremely difficult for the vines, and they produce a small number of small bunches (less than a kilogram of fruit per plant). As a result, Roberto once regarded the site as unimportant. The character of the wine, however, has convinced him otherwise: it shows a special and appealing delicacy and purity of red fruit. Indeed, on the nose this shows raspberry and pomegranate notes, leading to a bright, springy palate of raspberry and red cherry.
Rivera del Notro Tinto comes from a single hectare of old vines (90+ years old) Pais planted on a mixture of sandy, sedimentary, and clay soils. In the distant past this hill was at a bend in the Bío Bío river, but the river has long since moved to a different course. This is perhaps the boldest of Roberto Henriquez’s red wines in 2019, showing dark fruits, leather, and savory earthy notes on the nose. The palate is a bit brighter, with red fruits, game, and nicely structuring tannins. This showed beautifully with crusted lamb chops, but is equally friendly on its own.
From a block of co-planted old vines (there are also varieties of Torrontes and Moscatel Rosado, and I’m very much looking forward to bottlings of those) on Itata’s granitic soils, the Corinto Super Estrella is 100% Corinto or Chasselas. Corinto is the first variety to be harvested here, and Roberto Henriquez leaves it longer on its skins than his other wines. If there is a wine that convinced me that Roberto is doing something uniquely exciting in Itata and Bío Bío, this is the wine. Delicate herbal aromatics mingle with white peach, Bosc pear, salt and stone on the nose, while the finely tuned palate shows bright acidity and similar fruit notes with white strawberries and fennel. But what really sticks with me is the minerality here – just explosive granitic power: somehow simultaneously cool and spicy, it endures on the palate long after wine is gone. This was outstanding with Chinese food last week, from bok choy to fried anchovies, but I imagine it would be truly versatile at the table. Unlike any expression of Chasselas that I have encountered, but certainly none the worse for that! 11.5% alcohol, bottled only in magnum. Ben Fletcher
From a plot of 150-year-old Semillon vines about 8 kilometers from the Pacific ocean, planted on the granitic soils of the Itata valley. This is Roberto Henriquez’s warmest plot of vines but is blessed by sea breezes. Like the other white wines from Roberto, the plot was hand harvested, the grapes were destemmed then allowed to naturally ferment with their skins in tanks, with the skin-contact lasting the duration of the fermentation. This is a gentle approach, and that is borne out in the wine’s gentle tannins and delicate skins-y flavors. The nose of the Fundo la Union is slightly riper and bolder than the Molino del Ciego, with yellow apple, peach, and pear notes. The palate, however, shows a similar mineral drive, with lots of cool granite stoniness and spice notes balanced with notes of fennel-like garrigue and yellow apple and citrus.
Molino del Ciego hails from a one-hectare block of 90-year-old Semillon vines planted on Itata’s granitic soils, surrounded by the local herbs and plants of the Itata valley. Like the other white wines from Roberto, the plot was hand harvested, the grapes were destemmed then allowed to naturally ferment with their skins in tanks, with the skin-contact lasting the duration of the fermentation. This is a gentle approach, and that is borne out in the wine’s gentle tannins and delicate skins-y flavors. But what I notice first with Molino del Ciego is the spicy, herbal notes that frame aromas of pear and apple. Somewhere between fennel, star anise, and poblano pepper, the nose is remarkable and fascinating. The fruit character and herbal spice continues on the palate, intermingling with vibrant, cooling and broad granitic minerality for a very long, appealing finish. A fascinating bottle, and a radically different expression of Semillon.