An Introduction To Itata And Bío Bío, Chile
- By James Sligh
- 01 May 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
500 km south of Santiago, the red granite hillsides around the Itata and Bío Bío river valleys shelter some of the oldest vines in the Americas. Once the heart of Chile’s wine production, they've been out of the spotlight since the 19th century, but the last decade has brought a new appreciation for what makes these regions special. Here’s what you need to know to taste in context:
Itata was among the first wave of places planted by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s. It is thought that the first vines were cuttings carried from Peru by a Jesuit who disembarked near the port of Concepción in 1548. Further inland, the indigenous peoples of the region, who collectively identify as Mapuche, mounted a successful struggle against Spanish domination that preserved their autonomy for 300 years. Itata and Bío Bío were remote, on the frontier, farmed by small subsistence growers with little access to capital; by the time Chile gained its independence (and began a decades-long military campaign against the Mapuche to resettle them on reservations) the centre of gravity for the Chilean wine industry was shifting north to large, irrigated, trellised Central Valley vineyards founded by wealthy aristocratic families who imported Bordeaux varieties, where it remains. In 1870, Itata and Bío Bío produced eight-tenths of Chile’s wine. Today, their roughly 10,000 remaining hectares represent a tiny but unique fraction of Chile’s 214,000-plus ha under vine.
The Spanish brought cuttings to the Americas from the Canary Islands: the ancient Mediterranean aromatic white grape Moscatel (Muscat of Alexandria), and a vigorous, drought-resistant variety they called simply Uva Negra (“black grape”).
The vine today known as Listan Prieto in the Canary Islands, in Mexico and California as Mission or Misión, in Argentina as Criolla Chica, and is in Chile called, simply, Pais, the grape of the country, and its name is well-founded.
Pais, Moscatel, and the spontaneous vineyard crosses they produced were the heart of Chile’s wine production for almost four hundred years. The majority of Chile’s Pais vines are over 50 years old, and it’s not uncommon to taste bottlings from vines planted in the 19th century. Most of them call Itata and Bío Bío home.
Some later additions are also important, including Sémillon, Corinto (AKA Chasselas), and ninety percent of Chile’s around 600 ha of Cinsault, which local enologists now think was brought down from the Sierra Foothills by Chilean miners during the Gold Rush. There are small plantings of Malbec (dating back to the 1920s), Syrah, Carignan (more common up further north in Maule), and Pinot Noir (largely in Bío Bío), as well as more esoteric experiments.
Mild, lush, with abundant rainfall, vines are own-rooted, bush-trained, and almost entirely dry-farmed. Soils are defined by the geology of the coastal range, largely granitic with quartz and volcanic basalts. Land ownership is highly fragmented, with over 3,000 growers farming the 10,000 ha under vine, and poverty is widespread; they are paid the lowest prices per kilo for grapes in the country. The major competitor for vine plantings is Chile’s plantation forest industry (pine and eucalyptus), which has fuelled devastating wildfires in recent years.
Today’s Wine Scene
You’ll find centuries-old indigenous winemaking traditions here: hand-destemming with wood lattice (zaranda), foot-crushing in open concrete troughs (lagares), ageing in large raulí hardwood tanks (pipas).
The region’s traditional wines, often made from Pais, but sometimes field-blended or white, are called pipeño. Previously poured from tank into jugs or containers brought from home, since 2010 these are increasingly found in export markets in litre bottles produced by natural winemakers.
The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in both these traditional folkways and the region as a whole, fuelled by small, independent producers: winemakers with local roots and international experience who returned home (Pedro Parra, Roberto Henríquez, and Leonardo Erazo of Rogue Vine and Viñateros Bravos), local growers bottling their wines for the first time (Manuel Moraga of Cacique Maravilla, for example), and outsiders inspired by the terroir and ancient vines (most famously, the Burgundian Louis-Antoine Luyt).
Chile’s larger companies have taken notice: De Martino has bottled an old-vine Cinsault aged in clay jars (tinajas) since 2010 and acquired a 20 ha estate in Guarilihue, and Miguel Torres has purchased hundreds of hectares for planting in 2015.
Largely omitted or overlooked in many references and study guides, the recent growth in exports, renewed appreciation in Chile itself for "campesino" wines, a distinct sense of place, and connection to the history of winegrowing in the Americas make Itata and Bío Bío essential regions for a wine professional trying to understand the full scope of Chile’s contemporary wine scene.