“It’s not really very safe.”
Hearing those words, from winemaker Marcelo Retamal in a barrel area that is little more than a small warehouse on the Isla De Maipo estate of De Martino, surrounded by support beams that have been twisted and broken like so many toothpicks, and overshadowed by a ceiling that looks as though parts of it could drop on top of our heads at any moment without warning… well, let’s just say I was hoping that whatever gods dole out the karma points were forgiving me for my initial reaction of “Well… f*cking DUH!”
In California, I’d have had to sign a 37-page waiver just to look at this building, and here we were traipsing about inside of it without even wearing hardhats. But this dark-haired, olive-skinned, brown-eyed winemaking guy had me totally at ease despite the less-than-secure surroundings. Marcelo carries an almost ego-less assurance in his laid-back manner, no doubt a side effect of his fifteen-year tenure at De Martino (one of the longest stretches in the modern history of a country where most winemaking staff turnover is closer to 15 months than it is to 15 years).
De Martino’s current barrel aging area is, of course, a victim of the February 27, 2010 8.8-magnitude earthquake that in other regions of this long, thin country, had squashed enormous stainless steel tanks of wine as if they were empty beer cans at a college fraternity party. Our visit trails the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan by only a few days, and the resilient Chileans feel a kinship to the Japanese quake victims that is mostly unspoken but still palpable whenever the topic of The Quake comes up (though it doesn’t take a shared disaster for one to feel the emotional impacts of the devastation near Tokyo: one report, which told of parents finding the bodies of a class of Ishinomaki kindergarteners huddled together after their school bus was engulfed in flames triggered by the recent earthquake’s resultant tsunami, had me privately shaken and withdrawn). Chileans are a forward-looking bunch, and are quick to talk about The Quake, a situation in almost polar opposition to the way that they seem to avoid direct talk about their political past, referencing it only in the abstract (Augusto Pinochet is never mentioned by name, sort of like how Hitler never ever comes up in conversations in Germany).
We’re not here to look at barrels or taste aging samples, though. We are here to look at Marcelo’s clay amphorae. The ones in which he (almost crazily) plans to ferment and age País (the grape of low-end boxed wines) from the cooler Itata region in the south, using carbonic maceration and adding as little sulfur as possible, burying them in the ground à la how they used to do things in the Jura in Spain…
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Contracting a vicious intestinal bug (the kind that requires antibiotics… the kind that makes taking Imodium akin to bringing a knife to a gun fight) isn’t usually taken as a positive omen when it comes to starting a new career. So it’s with mixed emotions of relief and ominous portent that tell you I faced exactly that in the early part of my recent (sponsored) sojourn to South America. I took it as a good sign, actually, since it “cleansed” my system just prior to hoping over the Andes from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina – where the beef is barbequed perfectly and there is plenty of it being offered to you. So the cleansing was more than just symbolic.
Despite the less-than-auspicious start, my trip yielded a ton of potential material for these virtual pages, some of which you will start seeing as soon as… tomorrow (where I will feature what I considered the best wine of the trip – why not get right to the good stuff, eh?… did I just type “eh?”… what did I turn Canadian al of a sudden…?)! I thought I’d offer one more “teaser” piece, which is a set of some of the more stunning scenes I was able to capture from those southern hemisphere wine lands, where the vineyard terrain is varied but more-often-than-not finds you smack dab up against an enormous mountain – there’s nothing else quite like it in all the world. Words do little justice to the images, so – despite the fact that I am a far cry from being professional photographer – I’ll let the pictures do the talking after the jump.
In terms of offering this up in the Going Pro series: part of my “job” during the South American stint was to taste wines and offer what the organizers called “expert” feedback to the winemakers on the quality of the wines and their possible reception in the U.S. market (in my case, mostly concentrating on the East Coast market). It was… well… it was simultaneously odd and surprisingly easy.
What I mean is, it was easy to talk about the wines – I love doing that (duh) and it comes naturally to me, especially now that I’ve got thousands of wines under my palate’s belt. BUT…Having winemakers and PR folk hanging on some of my words was a very, very strange experience for me. I hope it helped them – I can’t tell you if they thought it was entirely valuable input, but I can tell you that those meetings didn’t impact how I plan to cover the wines here on 1WD; as always, some of those producers will come out looking great and others… not-so-great (hey, when you invite me you gotta know what your in for).
More to come, of course – for now, enjoy the images and I invite you to share your impressions of Chilean and Argentine wine (and your peanut-gallery comments on my unprofessionl photos) before the deeper coverage starts!…
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