In the flourishing world of lo-fi and “natural” wine, there are origins that wine professionals and consumers alike can’t seem to get enough of: France is of course a huge key player, with Italian, Georgian, American, and even some Australian wines getting a lot of press and interest around the world. When it comes to Chile (and South America in a broader sense), however, it’s rare that you hear much about minimal intervention wines. Rather, it’s a region that is famous for heavy, conventionally made red wines and is a continent that’s much better known for its specialty coffee.
Enter Cultivar Fine Wines. Founded by Lucy Kendall and Alice L’Estrange in 2014, Cultivar is an importing company based in Australia that specializes in old-vine, minimal-intervention Chilean wines. After becoming fast friends at university (over a bottle of Savonnay from Anton Von Klopper at Lucy Margaux, no less), Kendall and L’Estrange set out to start an importing business from “somewhere unknown, underestimated… somewhere with surprising wines that we could carve a little niche with.”
Both Kendall and L’Estrange have accomplished backgrounds: Kendall recently finished her master’s degree in viticulture and oenology, as well as doing vintages in Australia, France, and Chile, while L’Estrange has worked as a green coffee professional at Small Batch Coffee for the past eight years, after deciding to quit her master’s of agricultural science so that she could learn to speak Spanish and communicate with coffee and grape growers in the Americas for a living (as well as vintages in Australia and Chile).
With an interest in South America, specifically due to its reputation for phylloxera-free viticulture (the pesky aphid that’s otherwise infested and decimated vines around the world, leading to the use of resistant rootstock plantings), the pair behind Cultivar made their way over to Argentina in 2014 to try and find some gems. After getting smashed in the face with big-bodied, oaky Malbecs that followed a typical Bordeaux recipe, they decided to journey over to the other side of the Andes, where they had heard about some far-flung Chilean valleys that housed centuries-old bush vines farmed in more traditional ways.
Once there, they found some passionate producers farming traditional varieties such as País (also known as Mission in Mexico and Argentina) and Moscatel de Alejandria, making deliciously drinkable wines from 250-year-old bush vines. Since those beginnings, Cultivar has built a portfolio of seven winemakers, including Leonardo Erazo, Mauricio Gonzalez, Viña Maitia, Huaso de Suazel, González Bastíaz, Cacique Maravilla, and Roberto Henríquez (the last two presenting at RAW Wine Fair in previous years).
The wines from these producers cover a diverse spectrum of wine styles, from the light and delightfully tannic País rosé by Mauricio Gonzalez (Bío Bío Valley), to a tropical Moscatel and Corinto skin-contact wine by Cacique Maravilla (Bío Bío also), all the way to more seriously structured reds such as Leonardo Erazo’s Cinsault from the Itata Valley. It’s a side of Chilean wine that sadly hasn’t come to the fore of the wine world yet, but it’s an absolutely beautiful expression of the land and the people that those wines come from, and a pleasure to get a small insight into through tasting.
When we spoke to L’Estrange, she outlined that upon getting to know these producers, she and Kendall were inspired “by the importance of these vineyards not only in what they represented historically and environmentally, but by what they mean to rural communities; small farmers who farm grapes for a living in what is still very much a developing part of the world.”
In these areas, the bush vines are uniquely wide-spaced—they were originally planted by church missions, so were never dictated by the commercial realities that often lead tightly packed vineyards aiming to capitalize on yield per portion of land. This means that disease pressure is mitigated significantly (there are no tight packs of vines to incubate mildew, etc.), and the genetically diverse vines naturally have loose, elongated grape bunches, allowing even more airflow throughout. These factors—along with soil that hasn’t been over-cultivated, over-cropped, or irrigated—mean that local farmers are able to care for these vines using much more manual and natural means.
While the potential is there in Chile for great viticulture and lo-fi winemaking, societal and economic pressures continue to pose a threat: Chilean wines aren’t as valued by the wider market (the way that those from France and Italy often are), which means that prices are consistently below the cost of production, and as such ancient vineyards are being sold to the forestry industry because the children of the owners have no interest in a dying trade, with the vines subsequently ripped up so that trees can be planted for paper mills.
Taking all of this into consideration, the work of Cultivar Fine Wines aims to bring more of these small producers’ wines to a larger market, garnering better prices and potentially building a much brighter future for the lo-fi winemakers of Chile. This writer in particular would love to see more of the wines coming out of Chile ending up in more great natural wine bars and restaurants—even if only for the selfish reason of wanting to have more of them to drink.