Origins in Focus: Altamana

Taylor Sharp / November 2nd, 2021

Chile’s prestigious Maule region, within the historic Central Valley, is the spiritual home of Chile’s intrepid winemaking industry. Wine runs deep here, and has done for centuries.

However, Maule’s reputation until recently has been one of quantity over quality, often belying the rich history under the surface. It’s this history that Chilean producers Altamana are seeking to bring to the forefront.

Founded in 2012 by Patrick d’Aulan and Didier Debono, the sole objective at Altamana is the revival and expression of rare and ancient Malbec vines. With over 20 years of winemaking experience in both Argentina and Chile upon Altamana’s founding, winemaker Debono seeks to show the potential of Malbec in Chile after extensive experience working with the varietal in Argentina.

Considering both Cabernet Sauvignon’s reputation as Chile’s star international grape, and the looming Malbec giant of Argentina right next door, it’s fair to assume that Malbec may pose a daunting challenge to some winemakers in Chile. However, Debono sees things differently. “We have a legitimacy with Malbec more than other varieties, so we thought it was the best way.” Their discovery of old vines, deeply connected to Maule’s winemaking history, helped Altamana to develop their brand and establish themselves in the region.

Maule: Chile’s historical winemaking region

And, what a region to work with! It’s Maule’s generous terroir which has, in many situations, made the revival of its old vines possible. In Altamana’s case, their Maule vineyards are located less than 50km from the Pacific Ocean, subject to something of a Mediterranean influence. The resulting thermal amplitude is nowhere near the severe diurnal ranges you may find higher up in the Andes in Chile’s east, middling at a 15°C average across the region. Yet there’s also more humidity present at Altamana’s site than in the more central regions of Colchagua and Maipo. The granite origins of the soils, combined with the old, dry-farmed Malbec vines, also contribute their share of personality to Altamana’s production.

Debono also attests to the generous terroir in this area. Having also grown grapes in Chile’s more southern regions of Itata and Biobio, he notes that the climate in these southern regions can limit the varietals a winemaker is able to produce. In Maule, however, you can produce all varieties of wine, and Malbec is a standout for its interesting character.

As the emblematic strain of Altamana’s vineyards, much of the focus consequently lies on Malbec. However, other varietals perhaps less commonly seen in Chile (namely, Pinot Noir and Semillon, grown in the southern region of Itata) also make an appearance on Altamana’s roster. Debono stresses that this delimitation is, once more, a matter of expression. “We love to produce things that aren’t produced a lot in Chile, to show different wines, which aren’t the same as everything else.” And whilst the focus does remain on Malbec, Debono views these alternate varietals as stars in their own right- “When we think that potential is good, we try to express it.”

Historical roots with a modern minimalist take

As with any wine, the overall character of the end product is largely reliant on the techniques used by the winemaker to create their vision. For Altamana, this means a heavier focus on vineyard operations- where, ironically, they try and keep intervention as low as possible. As with any wine, winemaking is easier with good grapes. Debono and his team aim to take advantage of the natural conditions of the grapes, without altering the course of nature. In keeping with this theme, Debono also has continued using traditional dry-farming methods for the old vines under his employ.

This idea of minimal intervention continues somewhat in Altamana’s winemaking process. The use of Galileo spherical concrete tanks as a tool for vinification and aging wines helps to maintain the freshness and purity of Altamana’s grapes. Debono also notes the good balance and softer tannins these tanks contribute to his wines.

When good neighbours, become good Malbec makers

Altamana’s appreciation of the history and tradition abundant in one of Chile’s most historic winemaking regions is apparent. Yet Debono’s use of less commonly found varietals is emblematic of his quest to discover more of Chile, and particularly to highlight the potential of Chilean Malbec. However, as hinted at before, there’s always an Argentina-sized elephant in the room during considerations of Chilean Malbec.

It would be understandable for winemakers to be intimidated by the Argentinian Malbec juggernaut- why wouldn’t you be? Like Australian Shiraz or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec is synonymous worldwide with Argentina. And, like Australian Sauvignon Blanc or New Zealand Shiraz, the thought of Chilean Malbec may create apprehension for those who are more accustomed to huge, oaky, Robert-Parker-eat-your-heart-out Argentinian Malbec.

Yet Argentina’s notoriety for Malbec doesn’t faze Debono in any sense- rather, the opposite. “We take advantage of Malbec because Malbec is now a brand. So, people ask for Malbec- not specifically for Argentinian Malbec”. And for those who may be surprised by the differences between Chilean and Argentinian Malbec? “I think people aren’t disappointed (by the differences), I think people are surprised by Chilean Malbec”.

Future directions for those steeped in history 

Altamana’s place among the renaissance of Maule’s old vines over the past decade is, by now, well-established. Maule remains the traditional home of Chile’s winemaking history. However, the widespread reversal of attention back towards old vines and winemaking methods within the region after years of ‘quantity over quality’ signals a bright future for some producers, such as Altamana. Those who make it a goal to utilise old vines and vinification methods to the best of their ability certainly seem primed to capitalise on Maule’s revival.

As for Didier Debono’s future goals? The answer is simple. For a man whose favourite part of his job is visiting vineyards and tasting their grapes, his goal for the future is equally as grounded in his work: For people to be happy whilst tasting and drinking Altamana’s wines. And as someone who finds it near impossible to be unhappy with a glass of wine in my hand- not least of all premium Chilean Malbec- I think he may well find success.

Winemaker’s pick: Didier Debono’s favourite wine of all time

“Maybe Chateau Ausone en primeur 25 years ago…”