Vigno – exciting developments in Chilean viticulture

Last march, I was fortunate enough to join a wine tour through the main wine regions of Chile. Of the many exquisite tastings we enjoyed there, one stands out in particular: the one organised by “Vigno“, short for “Vignadores de Carignan”, to which the last issue of Decanter has recently devoted a full article (“In Vigno veritas”). What is Vigno about? To answer that question, a brief incursion into the history of wine making in Chile is needed.

Today, much of Chilean viticulture is concentrated around the latitude of Santiago, the country’s capital (pioneering efforts to the north and south notwithstanding, e.g. Malleco or Elqui) . Historically, however, the area around Maule, a few hours’ driving south of Santiago, was much more important. Originally almost exclusively planted with país, the grape also known as criollo in Argentina, the area saw a lot of carignan vines planted later, after the devastating 1939 earthquake. Not necessarily because carignan was considered to be such a great grape, but because in fertile soils it can give tremendous yields, which means more wine to sell (this may ring a bell to those familiar with the Languedoc region in France, where carignan was also widely planted and later more and more grubbed up thanks to EU subsidies to diminish the European wine lake). Over time, the Chilean carignan vines were forgotten and the focus shifted to more popular varieties. They were however not wiped out. And then came the time when people noted that those old gnarly carignan vines with their beautiful dark berries could produce wonderful wines after all.

Nowadays, there is a marked revival movement in favor of these carignan vines, of which Vigno is the clearest exponent. This club of winemakers, currently presided by Gillmore winemaker Andres Sanchez, has formulated a number of rules that wines carrying the Vigno label must comply with, thus effectively creating an “appellation” by European Standards (Chile does have its system of denominations of origin, but these are more like broad geographical indications). The rules include a.o. mininum vine age, minimum percentage of carignan in the blend, minimum length of cellar ageing before release, etc. The most remarkable requirement from a Chilean perspective is the fact that the vines cannot be irrigated (they are “dry farmed” in other words). The area has an annual rainfall of 700mm, comparable to Alsace in France, but most of the rain falls in winter. Fortunately, the soil retains water well, allowing the old vines to plunge their deep roots in to water stocks, making irrigation less necessary than in other Chilean regions, where irrigation is still the norm (note that water use is definitely going to become a challenge in the country given climate change).

Vigno comprises not only small local producers, but has managed to attract the attention of some of the big players in the national wine industry. Concha y Toro, for example, now also produces some wine under a “Vigno” label.

Having tasted a large sample of these carignan blends in Maule, I had the occasion to try some of the wines again at a recent event organised by ProChile, in the restaurant “Balls and Glory“, which has found a popup location in bar Flamingo, in the center of Brussels.

ProChile WINE workshop 08/09/2015 Balls 'n Glory Lakenstraat DIA_DE_VIGNO_011

Vigno president Andres Sanchez, who had already impressed me in Chile with his clear vision of what he wants for his wines and what the way forward for Chilean viticulture is, again gave an inspiring presentation on the philosophy of this young movement, after which we were offered 11 wines to taste, and afterwards pair with the delicious meat balls of “Balls and Glory”

ProChile WINE workshop 08/09/2015 Balls 'n Glory Lakenstraat

Short tasting notes can be found below.

Miguel Torres, Vigno 2012

deep ruby with a purple rim, sweet red fruit and spice (cinnamon, eucalyptus) on the nose, velvety tannins and a spicy finish

Garcia Schwaderer, Vigno 2012

jammy red fruit on the nose, a lot of freshness on the palate, some heat (high alcohol), supple tannins

Valdivieso, Vigno 2010

the mourvèdre (34% of the blend) gives the wine clearly more tannic bite and a darker fruit profile. Delicious.

Morandé, Vigno 2012

highly pronounced acidity. Somewhat thinner mouthfeel, could do with a bit of extra punch

Concha y Toro, Vigno 2013

rather discrete on the nose, but powerful palate with firm tannins. A bit too young, would need decanting.

Undurraga, Vigno 2012

spices dominate on nose and palate. Lovely texture, again remarkable freshness

Odfjell, Vigno 2012

this wine has not seen any oak, yet is incredibly ample and rich. Lovely palate with strawberry, raspberry and chocolate notes, silky tannins. Excellent.

Meli, Vigno 2012

spicy profile (dried herbs) with a herbaceous note. Slightly stale on the nose.

Gillmore, Vigno 2011

lovely fresh and minty/eucalytpus nose, juicy palate with a lot of spice, very good freshness and length

De Martino, Vigno 2012

soft and creamy texture, but with good freshness and well balanced

Garage Wine, Vigno 2013

remarkable and intense nose with blackberry, a hint of grapefruit zest, nutmegg and pepper. Powerful but balanced on the palate. Very nice.

The key to these wines is without doubt there naturally high levels of acidity. For those who are in to the technical details: the Ph value of most of them hoovers around 3.30, which is extremely low for warm climate red wines such as these. One would have difficulties finding this kind of profile for carignan blends in southern France, for example. It keeps these wines fresh and drinkable despite their power and concentration, and it makes them excellent dinner partners. The wines are as far away from the commonplace of plump, low acid new world wines as one can get.

In short, Vigno shows great promise. It illustrates that Chile is capable of producing serious age-worthy table wines in the premium price range, and that we need not go along with simplistic thinking according to which Chile is all about Carmenère (or, as the Wine Advocate recently asked itself: “is Carignan the new Carmenère?”) I’ll end this post by quoting the Vigno philosophy of carignan: “Chilean Carignan is a gent with an iron armor. With a deep character. In the palate, he walk with strong steps, with tannin of noticeable heights. He is a man of the land, a countryman. Not a noble, not a courtier!“. While broadly agreeing with this, I did find quite some nobility in these wines. Many thanks to ProChile!

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