The prevailing impression of Chile’s wine industry as one based on international varieties and conventional winemaking practices leaves little to the imagination. Yet all along, its ancestral wine culture has been hiding in plain sight.
Following a chain of valleys that runs from north to south, the Itata Valley denominación de origen (DO) is located south of the Maule Valley DO. It spans 60 miles of rolling hills and native forests, extending east from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Andes Mountains, where the Cerro Blanco, peaking at 10,500 feet, dominates the landscape.
Wine culture here in the northernmost of Chile’s three southern wine regions exemplifies what is known as “evolution in isolation.” Experiencing no phylloxera and only a modest incursion of international grape varieties, this isolated region has held on to its heritage grapes and ancestral winemaking practices seldom found beyond its borders.
The Itata Valley DO is centered on Ñuble, which became Chile’s 16th political region in 2018. Like the Ñuble River, which flows west from the Andes to join the Itata River as it winds its way north to the Pacific Ocean, the region takes its name from an indigenous Mapudungún word meaning “narrow river” or “stony river.”
While 97% of Ñuble’s vineyards lie within the province of Itata, the 13 communes comprising the Itata Valley DO extend beyond its borders and dip into the neighboring provinces of Diguillín and Punilla as well as the sunny coastal region of Bío Bío to the south. Here, the Mediterranean climate is like that of Maule and is cooled by the Humboldt Current that runs the length of Chile’s coastline, although any similarities to the northern valleys end there.
In contrast to the larger estates to the north, wineries in the Itata Valley are typically small and family-owned, with a production capacity averaging 60,000 liters per year. The average vineyard size here is just over 5 acres; plots are traditionally measured by the number of vines. Usually planted to old vines, organically farmed, plowed by horses, and handpicked, this rare patchwork of small estates has been instrumental in preserving the region’s culture and its distinctive wines.
The Itata Valley encompasses an extensive mix of head-trained, dry-farmed vineyards that are home to some of the oldest vines in Chile. The majority are ancient País (Listán Prieto), Muscat of Alexandria, and Torontel—varieties that arrived during the country’s colonial era. In the 1940s they were joined by Cinsault, Carignan, and Chasselas, which were introduced to improve the market price of the region’s wines, as well as by lesser plantings of the international varieties ubiquitous in many other areas of Chile.
Muscat of Alexandria and Cinsault form the backbone of Ñuble vineyards, especially in the Itata Valley, where they represent two-thirds of the grapes grown. Plantings of País, which came to Chile from Peru during the colonial era, are second only to those of Maule; Torontel, a natural cross of Muscat of Alexandria and País that originated in Mendoza, is considered indigenous. The heritage of these and other varieties is cataloged in Chile’s old-vine register; of the 22 producers from Itata listed there, ten care for vines 100 years or older, including Le Leona, which harbors a País vine dating back to 1798.
What’s Old Is New Again
One of the first major wine regions of Chile, the Itata Valley was initially planted by the Spanish in the mid-16th century. Wine culture flourished under the Jesuits during the colonial period, and viticulture became an integral part of the local economy.
Winemakers used the high-quality clay found in the region to make tinajas, or clay amphorae, and made barrels and vats from a native beech tree called raulí in which to ferment and age their wine. While these centuries-old practices were never fully abandoned, they are enjoying a renaissance today.
Producers to Know
Under his own name as well as the Rawüll and Kilaco brands, Gustavo Martínez is championing the use of ancestral varieties and production methods at his small winery in the Itata Province, where he ages País, Carignan, Cinsault, and Muscat of Alexandria in 20-year-old barrels.
Since 1992, the Pandolfi Price family has been making wines in Chillan Viejo, the easternmost commune in the Diguillín planted to vine. There, they produce Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Riesling under their Larkün and Los Patricios brands.
Juan José Ledesma, who works with Malbec from Bío Bío and Cabernet Sauvignon from Itata, explores the connection between music and wine at Terroir Sonoro, developing musical composition for each expression as part of his creative winemaking process.
Enologist Leonardo Erazo employs a combination of experimental and ancestral techniques at A Los Viñateros Bravos in the Itata Province to produce both modern and traditional wine styles. He works with aromatic white varieties planted on slate in the commune of Cobquecura as well as with fruit from Guarilihue, a cold coastal site in the Coelemu commune, where he recently completed a soil map.
Since 1983, Joel Neira and his family have tended Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, and Muscat of Alexandria vines at Viña Piedras del Encanto in the commune of Ránquil. They produce both still and sparkling wines under the Kürüf, Quartz Rouges, and Piedras del Encanto labels.
In a region that is home to a chain of 12 volcanoes, many of which are active, it’s a given that the parent soil is primarily granite. Its decomposed forms, including maicillo, or gravel rich in quartz, and rusty-colored, iron-rich clay, are found in the Cordillera de la Costa, the coastal mountain range. Further inland, there are pockets of sedimentary deposits along the rivers and caches of slate on the eastern slopes of the Andes.
The key to the Itata Valley’s natural sustainability lies in the location of the vineyards, which determines how much rainfall they receive, and the water-retention capacity of these soils. With approximately 33–43 inches of rain each year, the Itata Valley is one of the few regions in Chile that can be completely dry farmed. (Despite the presence of snowmelt from the Andes and many rivers, Chile does experience droughts, and water resources are increasingly scarce.)
With approximately 300 wineries, of which 26 export to 23 different markets and 38 are potential exporters, the future looks auspicious for the Itata Valley.