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Finding wine and meaning in ancient vineyards
ALL over the world, treasures for wine lovers have been hiding in plain sight, unnoticed or unimagined.
They are old vineyards, planted decades or even centuries ago.
I've seen them myself in Spain and Portugal, France and Italy, Argentina and California, even in Mexico. The survivors are often out of the way, sometimes on steep, rocky slopes that make your legs quiver and your back ache just to look at them.
For so many years, these rare gems were known only to those who worked them. They were labours of tradition, and therefore of love, cherished links to parents and grandparents and ways of living in small communities that may now seem archaic.
The grapes were used in the spirit in which the vines had been planted, to meet local or personal needs. Perhaps they were sold to cooperatives, where they were destined for anonymous blends, or maybe they were used for the owner's own wine, made for personal consumption or sold regionally.
It would be sacrilege to say that these vineyards were ignored. But their potential was understood only in a narrow context in which the wine you drank, like the food you ate or the family with whom you lived, was both revered and taken for granted.
One of the most intriguing stories in wine over the last 40 years has been the fate of these vineyards. Many have already disappeared as developers snapped up the land, or big wine companies replaced the old vines with new plantings that were deemed more profitable.
But others have been saved by the efforts of imaginative younger winemakers who understood the value of these old vines, both as cultural icons and as raw materials.
They would use these grapes to make fine wines that could be sold half a world away in a globalised economy that could never have been foreseen by those who originally planted the vineyards.
We believe that wine is almost never just about what's in the glass. The drinking experience is crucial, of course. If a wine is boring, it's hard to summon interest in where it comes from and what it might represent. Sometimes, wine may represent nothing beyond its production and the economic rationale for its inception.
Wines that are part of cultural traditions are another matter entirely. Where they come from, and what and whom they represent, are central to understanding them fully. Yes, they can be enjoyed simply for the sensual pleasures they provide. But they can offer much more.
This week, we focus on cinsaults from the Itata Valley region of Chile: Rogue Vine Itata Valley Grand Itata Tinto 2016; A Los Viñateros Bravos Itata Valley Granítico Cinsault 2016; and Pedro Parra y Familia Secano Interior Itata Pencopolitano 2017.
These wines are by no means typical of the fruity Chilean reds the world has come to know, nor are they meant to be. Even as intrepid growers are exploring new territories, some at inconceivably high altitudes in the foothills of the Andes, most Chilean wines still come from the Central Valley, comprising a series of smaller valleys south of the capital city, Santiago.
These grapes historically went into bulk wines, or were used for pipeño - fresh, rustic wines that were consumed locally. Now, this heritage is travelling the world in wines like the three bottles I recommended.
The Granítico from A Los Viñateros Bravos comes from vineyards in the Guarilihue Alto area, where the grapes, as the label suggests, are grown on granite soils.
The wine was fresh and lively, with aromas of dark fruit and a spicy herbal quality bordering on anise. It was gently tannic, with a mild, refreshing bitterness. Altogether it felt almost weightless, yet with an undeniable concentration to it.
Unlike the Granítico, which was 100 per cent cinsault, the Rogue Vine included 5 per cent país with the cinsault, all from the Tinajacura area. It was fascinating to compare this wine with the Granítico.
I found it a little finer, with flavours that lasted a little longer on the palate. The dark fruit aromas were similar, but the herbal quality seemed closer to chocolate than anise, and it had a similar touch of bitterness. I thought it was lovely, fresh and graceful. The Parra wine was somewhat different. For one thing, it was a year younger, and for another it was just 67 per cent cinsault and the rest país. It was more floral and herbal than the other two, with a spicy cinnamon flavour, yet similarly fine and lightly tannic.
All told, these wines all were light and fresh in style. They showed a sort of - I don't want to call it transparency, maybe a translucence - in which glimpses of a place can be sensed, but the full cultural importance of these wines cannot.
That may partly be because these wines are relatively new, made by young producers who are still getting to know the vineyards and their capabilities. But it is also because when you make a wine with the intent of selling it around the world, some of the local flavour is inevitably going to be lost.
Is it a fair trade-off? Once, when visiting an agricultural cooperative in northern Italy, I was charmed by an Alpine cheese I had never had before. I wondered aloud if I could find it in New York. "Why do you assume you have the right to have that cheese in New York?" my host asked.
Ever since, I've heard her voice in my head. Distance changes foods that are alive, like cheese and wine. Not only might they be prepared differently to withstand voyages, but they are also consumed out of their native context.
To the "all that counts is what's in the glass" crowd, this may not mean much. But I think knowing what is lost deepens the understanding of what remains in these wines.
It also helps to better comprehend the skill and intent of the producers, whose respect for the heritage these wines represent colours their efforts, when they could just as easily simply exploit a resource. NYTIMES