Filipe Ramirez has the four stars of the Southern Cross constellation on the labels of his Dominio del Cuarzo project from the Itata Valley in Chile. When we spoke to him last week he explained: “I’m always looking south, the four stars used to guide people in the mountains and on the sea, I like that connection of being guided by nature. It’s simple showing my commitment to the south”.
Filipe is thoughtful and well travelled. He was born in Patagonia and studied agronomy in Chile, but has worked and gaining experience in the Rhone, Burgundy and Oregon, before setting up Dominio del Cuarzo in Itata in the south of Chile. With this project he’s bringing a focus and a respect to the vines and terroirs of Itata, which historically hasn’t been seen there. The result is pretty but defined wines, with a beautiful silky tannin structure, that have raised the bar on what’s expected from Pais and Cinsault.
His project is focussed on this unique southern terroir, which relates to his memories of places and the flavours he grew up with. He feels comfortable in cool climates, and with the greens and blues of the trees and lakes of his native Patagonia, his father also studied agronomy working in forestry, and there were also lots of chefs in his family. For him wine brings these two worlds together.
“Making wine is my passion, it connects me with places and people. With my guts too, my feelings, and with science of course”.
While studying for his Masters in France, Felipe met with Louis Michel Liger-Belair, who invited him to work a harvest at a project in Oregon. Felipe immediately felt at home there, the landscape and climate had similarities to Patagonia. Terroir specialist Pedro Parra is also involved in the Rose and Arrow project, where he has employed a combination of electro-magnetic technology and soil pits to identify micro plots which they believe are the Grand Cru terroirs for Pinot Noir within the Willamette Valley.
While he was working with this inspiring group of people, an idea was developing for his Itata project. Felipe describes Itata as “The most European area you’ll find in Chile”. Families tend to own small vineyards, just a few hectares of head-pruned bush vines. “It’s like some European wine regions 70 years ago, there isn’t a spotlight on the area. Large companies pay low prices (around 8 pence per kilo) for grapes so farmers don’t have money to invest”. Felipe sees the potential and is taking a different approach, he works with the growers, he pays a fair price for grapes and for any work that he asks them to do in the vineyards, and it’s opened their eyes.
Farming in Itata is mostly organic, Felipe explained, not for ecological reasons but because the families don’t have money to buy chemicals, sulphur is the only thing that’s widely used. His first step was to take all herbicides out of the system, which means working the soil to control weeds. The local growers know how to do this with horses, and they want to do it but just haven’t been earning enough money to make it worthwhile.
“It’s not just me there are increasing numbers of young winemakers coming to the valley, establishing projects there”.
“I like to compare vines with people, we have the same lifespan, of around 100 years. We get the best from the vines when they’re over 50 years. I like that”! The vines in Itata are mostly well balanced, he gets the farmers to work the soil keeping the weeds down, to avoid competition and stress to the dry farmed vines. Also with recent fires he doesn’t want dried grass which could spread wildfires though the vineyards. In 2023 the vineyards which burned were mostly people who had cover crops.
We asked what insight he has brought to Itata from his experience in France and the US.
“I don’t like recipes. Pedro Parra helped me learn how to connect to places, and this gives you a lot of information. I treat every year differently”.
The old dry-farmed vines have plenty of character, so he takes a Burgundian approach, with a maceration of around 20 days and taking care not to over-extract. He believes the place is more important than vinification techniques. Felipe has made wine for 25 years now, and has learned to work with his gut feeling.
“You learn every year, that’s the magic, there’s something you can change. For this you need to be connected and understand where you are, and taste a lot. You can make small changes every year. It’s all about detail, great wines are made by detail. One detail doesn’t change much, but ten little details makes a step change, that’s the idea”.
Terroir focussed wines
Felipe wants to raise the profile of Itata and his goal is to match grape varieties with the best soil type. He has made wines from two main terroirs in Itata. His current wines – a País and a Cinsault – are labelled Vino de Pueblo, and he describes them as equivalent to a Village wine in Burgundy.
The País comes from a single vineyard in Ñipas. Downstream on the banks of the Itata river the soil was washed from the Andes, and has broken down on the journey to form black silty, sandy basalt. You can find very old, own-rooted País on these soils, the plot Felipe works with is 180 years old. País and Cinsault both produce big bunches of large grapes, so, according to Felipe, need soils without clay, otherwise they’ll be too vigorous. This makes Itata good terroir for these potentially high yielding varieties.
Felipe was inspired by Pierre Overnoy’s reds, and is looking for elegant soft tannins, but with some grip. País shows well on basalt and granite, basalt gives a soft fine grained texture in the mouth. The wine has sour cherry and a smoky note on the nose, there’s a meatiness on the palette, with very pretty, silky but defined tannins.
His Cinsault comes from two vineyards in Guarilihue with 60-70 year old vines. Cinsault was introduced to Itata in the 1950s, the government wanted to help the growers to improve their yields, but it was mostly planted on poor sandy granitic soils. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, because Cinsault is prolific on richer soils and best suited for making rose or light wines, locally they refer to it as cargadora – load bearer – for these high yields. But when planted on low fertility granite, quartz, mica, and iron soils it produces better quality grapes. Felipe describes Cinsault from this area as: “austere when you first open the bottle, but the fruit comes afterwards, this is due to the iron oxide in the soil”. The Cinsault has an earthy, warm chocolate note at first and more structure as you would expect, with time the fruit comes out, the tannins become more velvety and there’s a mouth-watering juicy acidity.
In the future he plans launch some cru level wines. He’s sectorising the vineyards, using electroconductivity to map the soils, as he learned in Oregon. Pinpointing soils with more quartz (for Cinsault), silt (for Pais), identifying areas for micro-vinifications.
Felipe is pleased with the 2021 vintage describing it as a beautiful year. They had 10-15mm of rain about a month before harvest and temperatures of 20-25 degrees, which allowed the vines to ripen slowly and gave them a long picking window and time to make good picking decisions.
Felipe currently splits his time between Oregon and Itata. He spends about six weeks in Itata for harvest, as well as visiting a couple more times during the year. His father, who has retired from agronomy, keeps a day-to-day eye on the vineyards, and Felipe speaks to him most days. He has strong connections with other winemakers he has met on his travels. He’s particularly close to a group which includes Pedro Parra, Dani and Fer from Comando G, and Jean-Marc Roulot. They meet every year to talk about the challenges they all face and how viticulture can adapt to meet these challenges.
We couldn’t be more excited to be representing these delicious, elegant wines, which are so firmly rooted in their history and terroir, but with a modern outlook. Felipe has his feet firmly on the earth and the practicalities, but his eyes are looking to the stars.