Reinventing a Chilean Winery

De Martino's vineyards in Chile

© De Martino

By Ray Isle Posted December 02, 2015

How Marcelo Retamal is remaking De Martino wines. 

As Marcelo Retamal, the winemaker at Chile’s De Martino winery says, “Before 2010, we worked like all the other wineries.”

That’s not an uncommon statement (changing the date by a few years perhaps) to hear in France’s Loire Valley, or Australia’s Yarra Valley, but in Chile it is. Some extremely good wines come out of Chile, but by and large wineries there—particularly those on the scale of De Martino—hew to the standard ways people make wine these days: conventional agriculture utilizing fertilizers and pesticides; winemaking using manufactured rather than native yeasts; and so on.

Retamal says, “In 2010, we decided we didn’t like the wines we were making. Honestly, I had none of our own wine in my personal cellar. It was very soft, very sweet, inky dark,” or, essentially, in the popular mode for commercial red wine.

“Now we use no new barrels, no manufactured yeast, we’ve reduced our use of sulfur, and we changed a lot of the work in the vineyard. People wait and wait and wait until the seeds are brown in the grapes, but then you have high sugar and no acid. That’s when you start to need enzymes and yeasts in the winery; a lot of makeup.”

These days the De Martino wines are intentionally brighter and fresher, less overtly oaky, and, from their own estate, made only with organically grown fruit. For the affordable Legado range of wines, Retamal uses only concrete tanks and barrels that are 12 or more years old. “A lot of people around the world equate oak flavors with quality.” He doesn’t. And based on a recent tasting with him, that—and the other changes he’s made—have completely transformed De Martino’s wines. And for the better.

2014 De Martino Legado Limari Valley Chardonnay ($17) Lime blossoms and a touch of citrus honey give this vibrant Chardonnay from the cool Limari region tremendous appeal.

2012 De Martino Legado Carmenère ($17) Has the smoky herb character that makes Carmenère so appealing (as opposed to the weediness that can sometimes make it so annoying), along with lots of savory tobacco notes. “If you don’t get that tobacco and spice in Carmenère,” Legado says, “it’s overripe. You don’t want to wait for black fruit.”

2012 De Martino Legado Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) “2012 was a very hot vintage,” Legado says, “like 2003 in Europe. But this is still typical Maipo Cabernet—a little ripe because of the year, but not too much.” The wine is peppery, with tangy currant fruit and toasted notes.

2011 De Martino Alto de Piedras Carmenère ($43) Very modest in alcohol (12.8%), this old-vine red has a bit of funk, a little roasted Indian spice, and intense red fruit character. “A very extreme Carmenère,” Retamal says, and he’s right. In a good way.

2011 De Martino Limevida Old Vine Field Blend ($43) “It’s Malbec and a lot of other things,” Retamal says about this vineyard from 1945. For De Martino’s single-vineyard series of wines, Retamal scours the country for great old vineyards; he drives over 40,000 miles a year in the process. I loved this wine's aroma: fascinating and complex, it suggests strawberries, cherries, earth and leather. It’s plush and dense but not heavy, with juicy fruit notes.

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