Five years ago, winemaker Sven Bruchfeld asked the trade group Wines of Chile if he could become a member, and they said “no.” The group said his 2,000-case winery was too small - he couldn't pay the full fee. Feeling unappreciated by the establishment, he had two options - pick up his vines and go home, or grow in size and try again. In the end he chose neither option because he found a third path. Bruchfeld contacted other small producers facing the same difficulties and suggested they do what small businesses have always done to survive - band together and build some leverage.
"And so,” he says, unable to join the big players, "we founded MOVI, Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes.” This movement of independent vintners (I appreciate that it’s the vintners, not wineries, who are independent!) has found that as a group they have not only leverage in the marketplace to sell their wines, they also have buying power at home to supply their wineries. And, says Bruchfeld, recognition is coming: "The (individual) wineries may not be known in Brazil for example, but the MOVI icon on the label is well recognized and means something to consumers."
Bruchfeld says the surprising fact is this: "Chile has the largest average winery size of any country in the world.” Really? Well, yes. “We have 130,000 hectares of land planted with grapes, and only about 150 wineries in real production. That means the average winery size is approaching 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres), a huge amount. The numbers are even more surprising when you figure that half of the 150 wineries are pretty small, and half are extremely large - the dichotomy is striking.” Bruchfeld’s point is simple: those small wineries found it difficult to speak out and be heard because they get lost among the huge producers.
Bruchfeld is no newcomer to wooing consumers and marketing wine. He was the winemaker at Viña Santa Carolina, one of the country’s largest producers, for several years before setting out on his own and founding his winery Polkura in 2001. He continued at Santa Carolina during Polkura’s early years before making his “hobby” into a full-time passion. Having seen how the big properties market their wine, and knowing the struggles of a startup, he has a balanced perspective of Chile’s wine industry, and of MOVI’s uniqueness. "We don't present our wines at many levels,” says Bruchfeld. “None of us is large enough to offer the range of the big producers, so we don’t have an entry level, a premium, a reserve or icon and so on. What we do have is nice wines at a fair price.”
Nice is something of an understatement. Meeting with five producer members of MOVI, I noticed that they are perfectly comfortable presenting each other’s wines. At lunch, the quintet of vignerons offered a single wine from each of MOVI’s 18 members (the group has grown since it was founded by 12 vintners in 2009) and I have to say, I've rarely tasted a more consistently compelling portfolio. These wines are exciting.
MOVI has a mission statement of sorts, a driving energy that Bruchfeld sums up by saying, “we advocate Chilean wine, made small and on a human scale. We innovate on a local scale, recuperating traditionally farmed old vines and work with lesser-known varieties like carignan, torontel and tempranillo. We open people’s minds about Chile and highlight the mosaic that is Chilean wine; we provide breadth of choice to complement the Chilean wine establishment, and we strive to emancipate independent vintners to allow them to be artisans.”
High ideals, but how well do ideals this translate to the glass? Brilliantly, I think. The overall level of quality of Chilean wine today is impressive, but personality is sometimes lacking in the wines of the biggest producers - they can make wines that are technically beautiful and precise, but don’t always inflame the passionate taster, at least not this one. MOVI has carved out a niche where individuality and small production (what one producer called “making wine on a human scale”) are assets, not liabilities.
What is so striking about the MOVI group is that what links them is a common passion, and an appreciation of a very diverse perspective - each of the wines I tasted has that elusive quality that we wine writers, ever at a loss for how to voice that which defies description, simply call personality. Personality is a sense that a wine offers something unique, that it speaks of the place that shapes it and of the hands that craft it. A wine with personality speaks with a distinctive voice; It is a wine that makes an impression.
In a perhaps unintentional nod to that elusive concept of personality and character, Bruchfeld and his colleagues present their wines in three broad groups or categories.
To explore that character, I joined three of MOVI's distinctive personalities for lunch in Santiago: Sven Bruchfeld, Jean Charles Villard of Villard Estate, and Angela Mochi of Attilio and Mochi - Tunquen. Together, we worked our way through a sampling of wines from MOVI, one from each of the 18 member wineries. My detailed comments are posted in a separate tasting note, while here I concentrate on general impressions.
Location, Location, Location
Many of the comments of MOVI members have to do with Chile's geography, so I include a map of Chile's main wine regions. Chile is 4000 kilometers long, but nearly all the wine production is within the middle third of that length, from Elqui Valley in north (producing grapes primarily for pisco) to Bio Bio and Malleco to the south. These valleys run west to east, funneling cool air from the South Pacific Ocean inland to the Andes - a distance that is generally less than 175 kilometers. The heart of the wine area, from Aconcagua to Maule is only about 300 kilometers but still immensely varied.
Group I: The New Chile
This is the category MOVI says chronicles the sweeping developments in Chilean wine in the 1990s. The big news internationally was the identification of carmenère as a distinct grape variety in 1994. Previously it had been widely considered a strangely ripening clone of merlot. But there was more going on - the international economy was improving and Chile, which had always been a wine exporting nation, found even broader markets. Syrah found a welcome home in Chile during the 1990s as well - this happened rather under the radar for many people, but had a huge impact on wine in Chile over the ensuing years. Most importantly technology was changing and there was a greater emphasis on making cool climate wines, which opened several new wine regions in Chile and brought dramatic emphasis on identifying microclimates and precise vineyard site selection.
New parts of Casablanca Valley along the cool Pacific coast became viable, along with cooler areas in Maipo adjacent to Casablanca through Cachapoal, the coastal regions of Colchagua and the higher altitudes of Marchigue. These are all common names in Chilean wine today, but they were mostly new 20 years ago. These regions are brought into sharp focus by several of MOVI’s members, like French-born Jean Charles Villard of Villard Estate and Angela Mochi and her husband Marcos Attilio, who left careers as food engineers in Brazil to make wine in Casablanca.
Group II: The Classics, Reloaded
The second group of wines in the MOVI tasting hews to a traditionalist course. As Sven Bruchfeld quantified it, “some would have Chile stick to what they feel she does best and most frequently: red wines grown in places proven to lead to high quality. This flight is a trip through the historically bespoke terrors of Maipo, Aconcagua, Peumo and Cachapoal - these are reds, most cabernet sauvignon blends, from the heart of our traditional wine country but given a typically MOVI twist by ‘reloading’ them on a human scale." These wines are the classics re-interpreted by small producers without corporate restraint, and having a real personal vision that lets them experiment and try techniques the large producers could not or would not do. For example, for some small batches, Bruchfeld uses a trendy egg-shaped fermenter at Polkura that is a combination of radically modern technology and ancient (think Roman and Greek) inspiration dating back to the days when wine was fermented in amphorae.
No one I met from MOVI has anything damning to say about the big producers - they have a live and let live philosophy - but they do feel that with their agility, they have an advantage in responding to small lots of grapes begging for special treatment. In other words, they can do what they want and answer only to their spouse and their friends.
Group III: Old is the New “New”
And I do mean “old.” This third grouping is the most exciting for me because it expands on Chile’s wine heritage - not the fast growing heritage of the late 1800s, nor the surge of the 1990s, but the colonial heritage when grapes were first planted in Chile in the 1600s. The first vines were planted to supply wine for Catholic mass, a supply that was guaranteed by including a requirement to produce grapes into many of the land deeds granted to Chile’s agricultural pioneers. Phyloxera never made it to Chile so there are descendants of those ancient vines to be found in some parts of the country. Generally head pruned (grown as squat bushes rather than on trellises), these vines and descendants are powering the development of Maule, the hot “new” region 300 kilometers south of Santiago. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the West, the Andes to the east and the far southern region of Bio Bio to the south, this area was disparaged as good for nothing but jug wine until recently. That attitude has changed significantly in the last decade as quality growers have moved in, bringing with them technology and passion. Incidentally, this is the region where the disastrous earthquake of 2010 occurred just off the Pacific coast. Today, small wineries and artisanal winemakers are finding Maule a wonderful location for cabernet sauvignon, cab franc and carignan. In fact, it was a MOVI producer-vintner, Meli, who first persuaded local growers to separate their carignan from the traditional (and seriously over-cropped) pais or Mission grape. Today, both varieties are making very interesting wines.
What is so stunning about MOVI’s success is that, in economic terms, the group’s wines account for only .05% of Chile’s export wine sales, and yet their impact is much greater than that figure would suggest. Wherever MOVI wines are sold, they become fully accredited ambassadors of Chile’s achievements as one of the world’s great producers. It’s important to understand that MOVI isn’t locked in a David and Goliath battle with the Chilean wine establishment. After all, I was introduced to MOVI by the organizers of Catad’Or, a competition sponsored in large part by the wine establishment. They wanted to give as complete a picture of the Chilean wine industry as possible, and it is true that the picture would be terribly incomplete without MOVI.
It seems to me that MOVI is in fact viewed with covert pride by the establishment - it presents no threat to the commercial supremacy of the big players, and the group certainly sets a quality benchmark to which the others seem happy to aspire. And best of all, the group is making distinctive, exciting wines that are now becoming available in the U.S. I think it’s only a matter of time until that MOVI icon is understood as a guarantor of quality in the U.S. as well.
If you’d like more information about MOVI, the group has an excellent website and blog where you can also get details on each of the member wineries.
For notes on the wines MOVI shared with me in Santiago, please click here