Ricardo Baettig: Chile’s expanding horizons

Chile has endured some of the harshest wine-producing climates in recent years, yet the country continues to show resilience amid adversity. 

Drinks International caught up with Ricardo Baettig, chief winemaker at Viña Morandé, part of Morandé Wine Group, to get the latest from the region.

Ricardo, do you have any insights or predictions for the 2024 harvest?

Like last year, 2024 has brought its fair share of challenges. Overall, the 2023-2024 period has been marked by quite dissimilar conditions across the northern, central and southern regions of the country, where factors such as water scarcity and high temperatures have played a decisive role.

In the Limarí Valley, for instance, the lack of rainfall has made a significant impact. With an 80% deficit in precipitation and affected reservoirs, we have had to deal with high temperatures exceeding 34°C in spring. This combination has exacerbated the drought, affecting water availability in soils, rivers and canals. Despite this landscape, our vineyards have managed to maintain their health, although bud break has been slightly delayed. However, grape ripeness has been achieved earlier, following the trend of previous years.

In contrast, the Casablanca Valley has experienced a different scenario. Despite spring frosts that slightly affected production, water volumes are better than in previous years. Grapes are reaching ripeness earlier, even surpassing some areas in the Central Valley, indicating an early harvest.

The Maipo Valley has enjoyed good water conditions with fewer production issues compared to other regions. Although there’s been minor damage from frosts in mountainous areas, a good overall production is expected, albeit slightly lower than in previous years due to the high heat experienced over the past three months.

The situation in the Cachapoal Valley is fairly stable. With greater water availability and minor delays in bud break, we expect to maintain or even increase production. It is undoubtedly one of the valleys where production is expected to be regular and very similar to previous years.

In the Maule Valley there is very good water and phytosanitary conditions. Increases in production are expected in most vineyards, especially in sectors severely affected by drought last season. This year, productions are significantly higher, providing relief for a region that has faced constant challenges in recent years.

In the Itata Valley, the situation is similar, with greater water availability and bud break that remains in line with the average or slightly delayed. An increase in production is expected.

Finally, in the Malleco Valley water conditions are favourable, but late frosts have affected production. Maintaining, or even slightly decreasing, production compared to previous years is expected.

In conclusion, the 2024 harvest in Chile’s valleys presents a mixed panorama of challenges and opportunities. Although climatic conditions have affected production across the country, our teams are once again demonstrating their adaptability and resilience.

Do you have some thoughts on the direction of the Chilean wine category?

I’m seeing a shift towards minimal intervention and fresher wines – particularly in the Maipo Valley. Winemakers are letting the terroir speak. Instead of sticking to fixed techniques, they’re adopting a more open-minded approach – focused on understanding how the grape varieties express themselves.

There’s also some experimentation going on with new varieties in the lesser-known regions of Chile. The pioneering approach of grafting old vines is allowing winemakers to increasingly experiment with new varieties – helping to add value in areas with otherwise limited commercial opportunities.

This is also creating a form of regenerative winemaking by promoting sustainability and resilience in the vineyard to offset some of the viticulture challenges presented by climate change. Our work in this area is currently focused on Itata and Maule – I’ve got my sights set on the potential for Chenin Blanc, Mourvèdre and Semillon in Itata, and Tempranillo and Vermentino in Maule. It’s giving us huge flexibility, and the potential for further innovation in vineyards.

While in small volumes, we’re seeing great results so far with grapes such as Vermentino really thriving in unexpected areas.

Another interesting direction is the growing belief in the ability of Casablanca’s cool climate and distinctive terroir to produce world-class reds, such as Malbec. It is even sparking discussions of a joint movement/initiative to champion Casablanca Malbec for its unrivalled quality, distinctive character and fantastic value. I believe the emerging Malbec wines from the region will have a pivotal role to play in further elevating and driving the quality credentials of Chilean wine.

We’re now seeing some outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon wines from old vines in Maule, but also from Itata – despite it being further south than would typically be considered for Cabernet Sauvignon. These old vines are producing these wines with characteristics that set them apart from those made from younger vines. They’re refined, well-structured and balanced, offering concentrated flavours, complexity and nuanced aromas.

We’re currently working on a Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Ránquil, in Itata Province, produced from dry-farmed 125-year-old vines. While all regional and varietal exploration plays an important and exciting role in the future of Chilean wine, this southern old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon opportunity carries a strong promise of scalable success and commercial sustainability.

As well as the opportunity for great Cabernet Sauvignon wines produced from old vines, there is a handful of winemakers producing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the south’s Malleco Valley, one of Chile’s most extreme valleys. It’s a new wine frontier – one that delivers a different style of high-end Chardonnay and Pinot Noir compared to other notable regions.

Our award-winning Morandé Black Series Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are from the Traiguén area in the heart of the Araucanía Region in Malleco, between the Andes and the Nahuelbuta Mountains – an unthinkable area only several years ago. We’re investing in the potential of Malleco Valley’s climate and terrior by planting vineyards and, while it will undoubtedly take time, it’s playing a key role in the ongoing work to explore new regions and varietal possibilities.