Maule – slow recuperation
24 Oct 2011 – Www.JancisRobinson.com
Derek Mossman Knapp of The Garage Wine Co in Chile was the winner of the 2010 Geoffrey Roberts Award. He told us he wanted to spend his £3,000/$4,500  travel grant researching the best of the old vines in Chile’s long-overlooked Maule region (particularly hard hit by the 2010 earthquake) and in particular trying to recuperate old Carignan and encouraging its growers to re-evaluate it and their own potentially important place in the Chilean wine scene. His first wine, Garage Old Vine Dry Farmed Carignan 2010 Maule, is reviewed in Americans abroad. The following is his report. 
Thank you to those who had confidence in me to develop this project. It has been a rich experience, and one that I now see is indeed only beginning. It was difficult at times with a good number of raucous characters, rough roads, vicious dogs, false starts and hopes. It was the road-trip of road-trips – even if it was divided up into many visits.
After travelling far and wide for almost two years, the first wine inspired by the beginnings of this experience is in the bottle (and on the ocean on its way to market). Thus it is time to begin to talk about my travels.
I have recently raised new funds to continue and grow the work with small farmers. I include pictures of early works of the new phase of the project, all by Matt Wilson, below.
On the road
On the road in Maule I found much Carignan that had not previously been separated from Pais (Mission) vines. I found it in the central section of the Secano Maulino and further west closer to the sea next to the coastal range, where the climate is fresher. I found it in a wide variety of soils. I found it both well cared for (and appreciated, albeit for its complementary colour and acidity in Pais-based jug-wine blends), and I found it completely uncared for, wild and untamed. I found it tucked away here and there. I found some of it in such small plots and at such low density that it wasn’t feasible to make a whole wine out of it on its own. The vineyard densities and vigour varied greatly.
Renan Cancino (viticulturist who advises several Chilean wineries including De Martino and whose family are growers in Sauzal) contributed a great deal to this project as we drove zig-zagging across Maule periodically throughout the year, tasting fruit and striking up conversations with small-scale, traditional growers. Much of this section of Maule is comprised of households of empty nesters. The children went away to school or found work in the city and the older generation were left to work the land alone. And then the earthquake shook the family homesteads and left many living in provisional shelter. To this day, many families live in precarious ‘temporary’ housing that leaves one wondering what ever happened to the state’s promises of rebuilding. It would seem miners are better able to generate headlines, and many of these farmers have been let down and left to their own devices. If only our illustrious elected officials had a little more interest in wine?
 

Tinaja

On the road on many occasions I encountered abandoned houses, cracked and made uninhabitable by the quake, that contained clay amphorae from the household’s winemaking tradition before the quake. It was uncanny how many times peering through a crack or a broken window one could see the remnants (some whole) of the clay tinajas or amphorae used in the tradition of craft winemaking that is fast being lost as these homes are abandoned.
I highly respect the work of today’s natural winemakers, many of whom import cutting-edge cement (golden?) eggs for their modern bodegas, but somehow seeing people working these old tinajas (pictures below) has me thinking that this is the real McCoy.
Working in earnest
After much time on the road in the process of discovery, the challenges ahead became clear and we began working in earnest with those who would have us work next to them on the farm. This was the path we followed:

  • Made mugrons to fill in between plants and thus raise density (where yields were too high and/or where plants were simply missing).
  • Pruned and cared for the vineyards to make them fit for quality not quantity. It was like shifting from a balance based on the non-intervention of neglect toward a more deliberate, ‘cared for’ but natural state.
  • Straightened plants and rows with tutores to make ploughing (by horse) easier.
  • Finally, we chose specific sites where Carignan, and/or Grenache, demonstrated interesting results in 2010, and we extended the plots dedicated to these varieties by top-grafting old Pais vines in these vineyards. We have done this in such a way that one small farm can make a complete wine with a complementary field blend.

small_farmers

Proof of the pudding
Garage Wine Co made the wines in 2010 and 2011 using the fruit of several of the growers in small lots, fermented separately (from 400 kg up to 1,500 kg). We separated the lots as logically as we could so as to learn by comparative blind tasting the distinctions. (I went geeky and put QR codes on the barrels in 2011 so we could taste the barrels blind and then have the wine’s history ‘from the field until today’ in our hands in a flash to generate comparison and discussion.)
When I say ‘we’, I mean the three of us at Garage Wine Co who all embraced this Geoffrey Roberts’ project wholeheartedly. Myself, my wife Pilar Miranda (winwemaker and flavour designer) and Alvaro Peña (PhD and professor at the University of Chile, an expert in the physiology of the vine and known for his work with the small producers of Pajarete in the north of Chile).
I think something of this Maule wine from small farmers is in the bottle of Lot # 27 Carignan, 2010, and there is much more in the barrels of 2011.
In the fields lately
I decided after much travel and reconnoitering that funding for work with small rural producers, like funding for rebuilding, would never come. The majority of these farmers still live in makeshift ‘US-Aid’-stamped shelters next to the empty shells of their homes of crumbling adobe. To be fair, there are sources of capital for projects from the Chilean government, but these are for innovation and entrepreneurship and somehow I could not see how to apply for them. There is no scalability, there is no new technology, and entrepreneur-speak is unintelligible to a small farmer from Maule.
New works, old vines
In August a Chilean donor (who seeks neither mention nor attention) stepped up to extend the project funding. The new funding (US$20,000) has been provided for five years without interest, during which time the programme will produce wine to be sold to recuperate the funds. Furthermore, the funds will be paid in advance so that work can continue with other small farmers in future.
The programme, beginning this year, includes Fairtrade payments: 465 pesos (one dollar) per kilo for the fruit – compared with the 20 cents paid for Pais and/or Carignan without varietal recognition and, what is more, it includes compensation for the lost Pais crops where farmers have agreed to graft in order to increase their production.
In September we grafted a total of about three hectares, almost 7,000 plants, or 13,762 upas (each individual graft) of old-vine Pais (near Sauzal and Caliboro). I include below pictures of various people including Don Nivaldo and his family, Señora Patricia, Don Bolivar (Renan’s father), Don Gerardo and the team of grafting specialists at work in the fields. I would like to acknowledge and thank photographer Matt Wilson for his help in documenting the project with his lens.
It is our goal to strive to make a place for these wines in the market and demonstrate that the ‘small model’ can work and succeed in Chile. Don Nivaldo and Don Bolivar make their own wine using traditional materials (tinajas) and methods. They will be making their wines in parallel with the same fruit.
This grafting is a slow process which will take several years. Thus the lion’s share of Small Farmer or ‘Ploughman’s Carignan’ will come from growers with original Carignan from the 1930s (mixed with some Grenache we have found near Cauquenes).

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I am proud to relate that one of the Carignan’s grafted this year, with plant material from a far corner of Maule, will be propagated within the nursery of Reserva del Caliboro under the name ‘Roberts’ (in memory of the late Geoffrey Roberts to whom the award is dedicated). It is one that we have been working with for several years from a tiny farm in deepest Maule, and it has has produced the most interesting barrels to date – in two years’ time we shall be able to begin grafting it elsewhere.
The wines that result from this project will be distributed by Bibendum in the UK, Southern in the US, Premium Wines in Brazil and Hustedvin/Propswine in Denmark. Although relatively little was made of the post-quake 2010, almost 25 barrels were made in 2011.