The Wine World’s Atlantis: South America’s Old-Vines Fairytale
Taylor Sharp / November 22nd, 2021
Those unfamiliar with the world of wine couldn’t be blamed for thinking that phylloxera might be a spell, something straight out of a Harry Potter book. If only it was.
Accidentally brought across the Atlantic to Europe in the 1850s, this microscopic louse wreaked havoc on wine industries worldwide throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Before spreading worldwide, however, phylloxera promptly eviscerated the European wine world. Two thirds of European vines were destroyed. In merely a decade, France flipped from being the world’s largest exporter of wine, to becoming the world’s largest importer of wine- simply due to phylloxera’s impact. Not bad for a little bug from the Missisippi Valley.
Eventually, European winegrowers were forced to capitulate, and save their vines by using the only method they could guarantee worked: grafting their pure, unadulterated European vines onto (by their opinion) lesser North American rootstocks. Despite many, many attempts to find a better solution, this technique endures today. And the threat of phylloxera, sadly, remains ever present.
Yet amidst all this drama, South America and its wine industry have remained something of a peaceful oasis. The isolation of this rugged continent from the rest of the world has proved monumental. National governments in South America’s wine-producing countries quickly passed strict quarantine and import laws after hearing of the situation in Europe, effectively barring phylloxera from ever entering the region in any significant fashion. Scientific research also uncovered that the lack of residual moisture in sandy soils made these specific hunting grounds unpalatable for phylloxera. One guess as to what kind of soil Chile and Argentina have in abundance.
Essentially, save for a few small pockets of Argentina, phylloxera has never been able to gain a foothold in South America. So, whilst it may go against the grain to think so, there remains a pervasive truth about the worldwide wine industry today, one that many European winemakers loath to think about:
The large majority of pre-phylloxera vines which exist in the world today are located in the New World, most particularly in South America.
So much for Old World tradition.
Once In A Lifetime: How Did We Get Here?
During their conquest of the Americas, Spanish colonisers brought vines across the Atlantic Ocean to South America throughout the 16th century. For the most part, these vines served an active function, which unfortunately was not simply casual enjoyment: the grapes were often used to create sacramental wine. The remnants of this tradition can be found in one of the many alter egos of Pais – which also went by the name of Misionera, the Mission grape.
For some 400 years, the status quo remained. Even a name for this specific colonial development was born. The word ‘Criolla’ is still used today to refer to people, cultures, animals and plants born and raised in the Americas, which possess mixed Spanish and South American ancestry. And the Criolla grapes reigned supreme in the South American world of wine. Yet, dramatic changes in Chile and Argentina in the early 19th century- not least both countries declaring independence from Spain within a decade of each other- shook things up considerably.
Trade was naturally encouraged by the freshly-minted governments of these newfound international entities. And wine was a key part of Chile and Argentina’s business plans. Research and experimentation into winemaking and viticulture were pushed to the forefront in these countries, and Chile and Argentina opened their very own Quinta Normals in 1841 and 1853 respectively.
The Quintas, experimental vine nurseries, were meccas for European vine cuttings. Winemakers, viticulturists, and ampelographers who sought to settle in Chile and Argentina brought cuttings with them from across the seas. Most significantly, French botanist Claude Gay brought several cuttings of European Vitis Vinifera varieties to Chile’s Quinta within a few years of its early 1840s establishment. By 1850, the Santiago Quinta Normal reported a stock of some 70 different vine varieties, from all around the world.
So, by the skin of its teeth (or the skin of their grapes?), a handful of precious Vitis Vinifera vines escaped Europe, ahead of the incoming storm.
As the story goes, European winegrowers watched as their vineyards were decimated mere decades later. While unbeknownst to them, on the other side of the world, South America was saving copious amounts of vine varieties from extinction- simply by the virtue of existing in isolation.
The decades since have seen the resurgence of Europe’s wine industry, and the resounding success of the noble European grapes we know and love today in international markets. Yet, inevitably, there’s been multiple instances of previously-believed-to-be-extinct vines popping their heads up in some back pocket of South America. And perhaps the best-known of these ‘resurrected’ vines is Carménère.
The Ugly Duckling of Bordeaux: Carménère
A traditional Bordeaux variety, Carménère had been reasonably popular in Bordeaux prior to the arrival of phylloxera. It was certainly widely planted, particularly in the Graves, and what we now know as the Pessac Leognan appellation. The finicky nature of the grape, however, constantly tempered its popularity.
Vulnerable to bad fruit sets (or coulure, for those with a wine dictionary at hand) and mildew, growing Carménère successfully even nowadays is no mean feat. Combined with its unreliable yields and late-ripening nature, it’s almost certain that this little grape gave its fair share of 19th century winegrowers a bit of a headache back in the day. After phylloxera swept through Bordeaux, many winegrowers simply chose not to replant Carménère, favouring more reliable grapes instead. More Cabernet and Merlot were planted in Carménère’s stead, and Carménère’s presence dwindled to the point where it was believed to be extinct by the end of the 20th century.
Now, cast your mind back to 1994. Somewhere in between the OJ Simpson White Bronco chase, and the release of Playstation’s first ever gaming console, French ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot is walking through the vineyards of Vina Carmen in Chile. Recognised worldwide as a leader in ampelography, Boursiquot had spent the past 10 years of his life working at Domaine Vassal, the world’s largest conservatory of grape varieties. Yet he found himself in Maipo on a work trip, and was idly inspecting the Merlot vines as he walked through Carmen’s vineyards.
As improbable as it sounds, the stamen of one of the flowers on these Merlot vines caught his eye. This tiny part of the vine was twisted, whereas the stamens on most grape varieties are straight. Those with an untrained eye would likely have never noticed anything out of the ordinary. However, Boursiquot was looking upon something he knew he’d only ever seen one other time in his life, in Domaine Vassal’s vast vine library. Carménère.
It truly seems to be the meaning of serendipity. A world-leading authority in ampelography visits a vineyard in an isolated corner of the wine world. He takes note of a minute detail of what’s supposed to be a Merlot vine, a detail which is only visible for three months a year. And based on his hunch, his gut feeling, he declares that this Merlot is not all it seems- in fact, it’s actually an obscure, long-thought extinct grape! If any reasonable winegrower had been in Boursiquot’s company at this moment, you probably couldn’t blame them for telling him he was crazy. But hindsight is 20/20. And the clues were always there.
Chilean winemakers had known, for some time, that the Merlot they made was somewhat unique. This was particularly so for their older Merlot vines. New Merlot vines brought to Chile after the Great Regrafting Incident of the 19th century were just…different. As a means of distinguishing between the old and the new, the older Merlot was christened ‘Merlot Chileno’. Merlot Chileno had the tendency to go bright red in the vineyard just before autumn, and had a distinctively different character to any other Merlot produced in the world. But these differences were dismissed. Merlot Chileno was simply adapting to the unique terroir, after all.
It now seems likely that Chile’s old Carménère vines were originally brought over from France with other Bordeaux vines in the 1840s, during the Santiago Quinta Normal’s period of exponential growth. Some mislabelling mishap must have occurred, and the Carménère was mistaken for Merlot- not to be properly identified for some 150 years. Chile’s wine industry was shaken to the core overnight.
Maury Povich who? How a single DNA test changed a national winemaking industry.
As anyone raised on 90s talk show TV can attest, a single DNA test can have some pretty large consequences- particularly when the results are made public knowledge to a crowd of highly invested followers. In the space of 24 hours, Chile became the world’s largest producer of Carménère, a title it holds to this day. Many Chilean producers refused to accept this, reluctant to abandon the distinct ‘Merlot Chileno’ identity they’d spent a century and a half shaping. Other producers leaned into the change, leading to an uptick in new plantings of Merlot in Chile in the early 2000s. However, 20 years later, growing Merlot in Chile remains a challenge due to warm temperatures and ongoing drought.
For the most part, Chile’s winemakers have stepped up to the plate, and rediscovered Carménère in ways that were thought impossible mere decades ago. By altering their viticulture and winemaking techniques to cater to Carménère, rather than Merlot, many Chilean producers have turned out some seriously solid examples of this herbaceous, spicy wine. Mirroring Malbec’s adoption of Argentina (or vice versa), Carménère is now seen as Chile’s emblematic grape, and stunningly, 97% of all Carménère in the world is found there.
The story isn’t quite over yet though. Vines planted at the turn of the century, just after Boursiquot’s discovery was confirmed, are only now beginning to come of age. Viticulturists are working hard to find the right balance for their specific vineyards, somewhere between canopy management, irrigation, yield, and harvest dates. And winemakers are continuing to perfect their recipes for distinctly Chilean Carménère, in the attempt to find that perfect marriage of skill and storytelling.
More broadly speaking, Chile remains a haven for vines previously thought lost to phylloxera. It’s the only country in the world that has no record of the pest reaching its shores. This tiny strip sandwiched between Antarctica, the Andes, the Atacama Desert, and the Pacific Ocean, lays claim to some of the oldest ungrafted vines in the world. It’s a comeback for the ages, from one of the most devastating events the wine world has ever experienced. And the Chilean attitude to winemaking- one of combining the knowledge and wisdom gleaned from old vines and small growers, with good practice, outside ideas and an openness to the new- is shining a clear beacon into Chile’s future as one of South America’s two wine giants.
Apologies to my European friends- but it seems that for some, phylloxera was a blessing in disguise.
BC Retail Options
BC restaurants and retailers can access our Liquify listing for Vina Tinajas del Maule’s 2019 Ruben y Flora Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere (BC SKU 931410) here.
Also available for order from the BCLDB.
Alberta Retail Options
Alberta licensees can view and purchase Vina Tinajas del Maule’s 2019 Ruben y Flora Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere on Liquor Connect (AB SKU 793609) here.
- Barnes, A. (2021) The South America Wine Guide. England: Kingsbury Press.