Good wines are like postcards in a glass - an honest wine can tell you a lot about where it's from and every glass is a souvenir of a vineyard, a climate, a particular time. Yet, like a postcard, this glass, this sip is just a snapshot - there is no substitute for visiting the wine at home. The French refer to a vine's rootstock as it's pied or "foot," and it takes only the slightest bit of literary license to believe that, like a person, you don't understand a wine until you've walked in its vines' shoes, or at least where the vine puts its pied.
I thought about this on my trip to Chile in July. I was a judge at the Catad'Or Santiago de Chile wine competition, but I was also a wine tourist, visiting a number of wineries in the important valleys that lie within a few hours of Santiago.
One of my favorite excursions was to Santa Rita, which is both a large winery, and a large wine group. Like a number of other wine consortia, it has a range of labels that vary in both size and emphasis.
Not far from Santa Rita's beautiful home at Casa Real in Maipo (a rural area just 45 minutes outside Santiago) I made the pilgrimage to Viña Carmen, an excellent winery and home to the vineyard where just 20 years ago, carmenère was first identified as a separate grape variety. Prior to this, it was considered a hybrid of merlot that ripened on a different schedule. After paying my respects at the "vine shrine" in that tiny plot with its eight foot long royal cordon-trained carmenère I went to nearby sister winery Nativa to meet with winemaker Felipe Ramirez.
Nativa - a new view of orgagnic
Nativa was founded in 1995, just a year after carmenère was identified at Viña Carmen, and is run as an independent winery with the mandate to be completely organic wines. Felipe Ramirez oversees all the organic vineyards in the Santa Rita group, and serves as the chief winemaker at Nativa. I joined Ramirez to taste a few examples of Nativa, and learn about some of the newest wine regions of Chile. I expected to admire the wines - Santa Rita is a serious operation; I wasn't prepared to be completely blown away by the commitment exhibited by Santa Rita and Ramirez. But I was, beginning with the first glass Ramirez handed me.
Nativa Sauvignon Blanc 2014
This wine is from Pumante, a new region just 25km from the coast. Technically, it is still in Colchagua, but it’s very new on the Chilean wine scene. From a single 210 hectare vineyard, the wine has great balance and crisp acidity thanks to cool air off the nearby Pacific.
Pale white gold color, with nice herbaceous aromas - it skirts the line between the very acidic New Zealand style and a very ripe California style of sauvignon blanc. It has notably fine balance of fruit and herbaceousness and great freshness. Ramirez uses wild yeast, and lees stirring (agitation while the wine is in the late stages of fermentation) gives it a creamy texture. Ramirez says, “I try to make wines that go well with food,” which to him means crisp acidity but a full palate. To get that he picks one third of the grapes a bit early, and harvests the rest two weeks later. This is a very nice, elegant wine, and well worth it’s $12-$14 price tag.
Nativa Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Ramirez is excited by this wine because he is now including grapes from the region called Maule, perhaps the hottest area for younger winemakers these days. For the international market, Maule is a new area, but Ramirez says it is actually very old. “It’s a region I really love. It was the first place the Spaniards planted grapes in a Chile, and you can find bush vines that are very old.” He notes that the top Chilean cabs have traditionally come from Maipo, but “I wanted to make one from another place.” His reasoning is, “I’m not trying to make just organic wines, I want to make good wines that are also organic. We use sulphur but well under the organic limit.” For a young winemaker, Ramirez brings a broad perspective to his craft. “I studied in France (Bordeaux and Montpellier), but I'm not trying to make French wines. What I learned from the French is that a good wine is always good. I think a good wine must be good when young, good at 4 years and good after. If it is bad when it’s young, you can’t blame that on youth a say it will improve. If it’s bad, it will never be good.”
Elegant with silky, sweet tannins. The wine has very appealing black cherry, cassis and violet aromas. It’s not a powerhouse but is subtly insistent with a broad spread on the palate. It is medium weight which means it’s easy to drink - not at all heavy, but a pleasure to have by itself or with food.
Ramirez' concluding thought on his Gran Reserva is, “We want to make wines that are not a bomb - we want wines that are very long and elegant.” He hit the bullseye with this one.
Nativa Community Blend 2012
We wrapped up our time in Ramirez’ lab with a glass of this red blend from Maule valley that has a story as delightful as the wine. “There are small vineyards all over Maule, little forgotten places with some very exciting grapes like garnacha, tempranillo, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, carmenère, petite verdot and carignan. I love carignan especially,” he says with a grin. “I was always using these varieties to put in other wines and blending them you learn their personalities like members of your family.” For example, carmenère always needs more acidity so Ramirez would add some carignan because “I'd rather add another grape an add a chemical like tartaric acid which is the usual response at industrial wineries. I thought these individual wines I would use like seasoning were so good that it would be good to make a wine with all of them.” The growers were selling these offbeat varieties to co-ops for very little money because there was no large demand for them, so Ramirez made a deal - he would pay them more if they would grow them organically so he could get them certified. This is where Santa Rita’s leverage as a large winery is helpful because small wineries can’t afford the certification process, especially for relatively small lots. “The growers agreed, so we paid them more, we got them the certification, and we have a lovely wine that is truly a community in the bottle.” The cliché about it taking a village comes to mind here, but it is so appropriate as you taste a wine built with a sense, literal and figurative, of a community.
“I always look at wine like a body,” says Ramirez, “so we we have skeleton of petite verdot, and tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon add the muscle to our frame. And the soul? That’s the grenache and carignan.”
The carignan is from non-irrigated bush vines 70 years old. The petite sirah and carmenère are ten years old, and vibrant as can be. The result is a beautiful wine, elegant and complex without tasting like a contrived lab experiment. I don’t know which moved me more, the story of the wine’s creation or the sheer beauty of a glass of wine that gives pleasure from first sight through first sniff and on to the taste and long finish. All I can say is I wanted a second glass, and that’s the greatest compliment I can pay any winemaker.