Winemakers are always fascinating to hear from, but this week I listened, spellbound, as Chilean Marcelo Retamal talked us through his wines, labelling some of them "wrong" and "bad". This is the first time I have ever heard a winemaker be so brutal in their judgement of their own work.
What caused this? Marcelo is the winemaker at De Martino, based in the Maipo Valley. Back in 1992 they planted a vineyard of what they then thought was Merlot, but was discovered in 1994 to be Carmenère instead. Luckily, the soils, climate and terroir in De Martino's chosen vineyard, on the site of a former route of the Maipo river, suit the variety perfectly. Their first commercial wine from the vineyard was made in 1996 and we were lucky enough to taste each vintage that was made from these grapes all the way through to 2010.
Trying the wine now, at 15 years old, it has a lively nose of maturing characters – polish, wax, old furniture, balsamic and soy, morello cherry. And it still has a slight herbaceous, leafy note. The tannic structure is soft, warmed with spice but not alcoholic. It's a light-bodied wine but it has plenty of depth and great length – the finish goes on for minutes not seconds.
From 1997, however, we begin to see the hallmarks of international winemaking creeping in, which accelerates over the subsequent years. Most strikingly, the harvest dates are almost four weeks later. In the winery French oak barrels arrive, of which more and more are new. The old wood foudres are abandoned in favour of stainless steel and fermentation and maceration extend from 20 days to, in one year, 40 days.
2002 marks perhaps the apotheosis (or the nadir, depending on your point of view) of this approach. Grapes are harvested 6 weeks later than in 1996, fermented in stainless steel using selected yeasts and with 30% of the juice run off to concentrate the must, which needed the addition of tartaric acid to correct for low acidity. The resulting 14.6% alcohol wine was aged for 17 months in 100% new French oak barriques.
And what does it taste like? Sweet and ripe, very woody and chocolatey. That sweetness carries through as you taste, but the tannins are odd. Nothing about it feels quite natural or right, and what lingers longest are the tannin and alcohol, though it is a tick the box “good” wine. Marcelo dubbed this a “boring style”.
It takes courage to admit that you are not making the best wine that you can and to change your approach radically. It takes even more courage when those wines are critically and commercially successful.
Yet in 2010, we can see the fruits of Marcelo's change of heart and his retreat from what he calls the Dark Side.
Gone are the selected yeasts, additions of tartaric acid and running off of juice. The wine is still aged for 8 months in new French oak barriques, then 9 months in old barrels, but earlier harvesting means the final alcohol is under 14% and it has so much more life and expression than those bland, international wines of the 2000s, which tasted of glossy oak, sweet fruit and alcohol - but could have been almost any grape variety and come from anywhere in the world.
The 2010 smells like carmenere again – finally! It has some of the bright fruit of Beaujolais and has really juicy, slightly herbaceous but not green fruit. The wine feels roomy and relaxed, comfortable and very enjoyable to drink with good freshness. There is a slightly oaky note on the finish and alcohol still a little sticky-out, but altogether this is an encouraging wine and a great sign of where De Martino is heading in the future.
This is just the beginning - from 2011 Marcelo has ditched all the barriques and will use only 5,000 litre foudres from now on. He even has a natural wine project going, fermenting and ageing Cinsault from the Itata Valley in amphorae.
Chile has always been a great place to make wine, but with winemakers like Marcelo, courageously backed by the De Martino family, it can also be a thrilling one.