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Lafite-Rothschild Leans Into Biodiversity with Chile’s Viña Los Vascos

Lafite-Rothschild Leans Into Biodiversity with Chile’s Viña Los Vascos

Los Vascos

The distance from Pauillac, France, to Peralillo, Chile, is 7,051 miles (11,348 km). From Bordeaux to the Colchagua Valley, the long arm of iconic Left-Bank producer, Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite (DBR), extends further than many people know. As primary owners of Viña Los Vascos for nearly 25 years, it’s safe to say the French family has firmly — and strategically — planted its feet in several corners of the globe.

Outside of DBR’s footprint in Bordeaux (which includes Château Duhart-Milon, Château Rieussec, Château L’Evangile, Château Paradis Casseuil, as well as a range of Bordeaux wines – Les Legendes R), the close family of wine estates also includes Bodegas CARO in Mendoza, Argentina, and Domaine de Long Dai in the Shandon region of China.

Though some might scoff at the thought of outsiders racking up acres in areas they have little to no expertise, it’s clear that in Chile, the Rothschilds are doing it in a way that not only respects the local heritage but also fosters biodiversity and innovation.

Los Vascos History

Three hours south of Santiago, and 25 miles (40km) inland from the Pacific Ocean, sits 1,700 acres of planted vines across the expansive 8,800-acre Los Vascos property.

The Los Vascos name is a translation from ‘the basques’, nodding to the two basque families who first planted vines in the area back in 1750: Echenique and Eyzaguirre. It wasn’t until 1975 that the property became a semblance of what it is today with the creation of Viña Los Vascos by the owner, who would eventually join forces with DBR (Lafite) in 1988, and later hang their hat in 1996. That was the year DBR became the main shareholder, transforming Los Vascos into a limited society with Santa Rita.

The partnership’s success (57% DBR and 43% Santa Rita) is seen in a current annual production of 500,000 cases, 99% of which is exported.

Biodiversity, Sustainability, and Organics

Producing wine from a biodiverse property has always been a part of Los Vascos’ identity. The estate is an ecosystem that includes 3,590 acres of meadows home to 450 cows, 400 sheep, 20 horses, and 16,000 pollinating bees.

The directive to continue fostering the abundance of flora and fauna, in addition to pursuing formal green certifications, came from DBR’s 2018 transition of leadership.

“Since Saskia (Rothschild) stepped in as general manager of Rothschild properties, the group took a new vision and a nice curve to sustainability and organic production,” says Philippe Rolet, managing director of Los Voscas and Bodegas CARO.

“Saskia is very much involved. She has a strong input,” Rolet continues, adding that Los Vascos looks directly to Lafite for guidance. “They’re a step ahead because their vineyards are not only organic but moving towards biodynamic. They also have a research laboratory focusing on varieties suitable for climate change.”

Currently, half of Los Vascos’ vineyards are certified organic. “The other half follows the principles of organic farming, with hopes of full certification by 2030,” says Raquel Calatayud, the winery’s director of R&D sustainable development.

Innovation For the Future

It was Cabernet Sauvignon at Los Vascos that drew initial interest from Baron Eric Rothschild in the mid-80s. The grape still accounts of the majority of production, but with a great number of others also growing successfully.

With the introduction of drip irrigation in 2008, the viticulture team sought new parcels off the valley floor and up the slopes of the property’s amphitheater-like geography.

“It opened up a lot of terroirs. We found different kinds of soils and exposures. That new terroir opened our mind to new varietals,” says Rolet.

Among the most recent new exciting white varieties is Albariño, grafted from Cabernet Sauvignon vines only two years ago. Syrah has also seen incredible success on the property, accounting for up to 8% of Le Dix in recent years, the winery’s ‘grand cuvée’ wine. Following the success of Syrah, the team also planted Mourvèdre and Grenache. The trio of grapes now comprise a Mediterranean-style GSM rosé which Rolet exclaims as “the best rosé we have ever produced.”

Other grapes growing on the property include Cinsault, Tempranillo, and Malbec. “Nothing is in stone. We are free to plant and try anything we want; it’s great freedom,” says Rolet.

Innovation From the Past

One of Chile’s secret weapons to healthy vineyards, with fewer complications than other regions, is its lack of phylloxera. The louse, which attacks Vitis vinifera vines and brought French wine to its knees in the 19th century, is non-existent in Chile. The country’s geography isolates it from the rest of the world, with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Andes Mountains to the east, and the Atacama Desert to the north.

The lack of phylloxera, however, does not mean all is always well. Spider-like mites are eradicated using the native quillaja tree. The inner bark of this drought-resistant tree reduces to a powder and forms a lather with the addition of water — the soapy spray targets bugs with no vine damage. This technique reduces the need for harmful pesticides and helps with the winery’s organic conversion goals.

Quillaja tree / Photo by Nicole MacKay

Being phylloxera free is also what allows Chilean producers to replant vines using mugron. The ancient technique involves bending a branch from a neighboring healthy vine into the earth to start a new plant. When it takes hold and establishes its own roots, the branch can then be cut from its parent vine.

“We work with natural selections and not with clones. Using mugron is a way to preserve the genetic diversity of the vineyard,” explains Calatayud.

Viña Los Vascos
Mugron planting (Syrah) in El Fraile vineyard / Photo by Nicole MacKay

Additional Green Efforts

In 2020, the winery saw the installation of its waste water management system, BioFiltro. The earthworm-powered filtration system removes 99% of contaminants in a matter of hours. “We face water restriction, and less snow in the Andes, so we’re trying to be as sustainable as possible. We treat all our wasted water and use it for irrigation in the vineyard,” says Rolet.

Viña Los Vascos
BioFiltro water treatment / Photo by Nicole MacKay

The filtration system uses 90% less energy compared to regular water treatment plants. Renewable energy being yet another area of focus for Los Vascos, with more than 400 solar panels powering the winery’s irrigation system. According to Rolet, “by the end of 2022, we hope to produce 95% of our electricity, half of which will come directly from the estate.”

Los Vascos is also undergoing environmental evaluation for a new composting plant. “We already compost all the skins from the grapes, but with the new plant, we will be able to fertilize all vineyards with our own compost,” says Calatayud.

Balancing Tradition with Le Dix

A common theme at Los Vascos is its delicate balance between the tradition associated with being a first-growth Bordeaux producer and the innovation of making wine in the New World. There’s no better way of illustrating this dichotomy than with Le Dix.

Le Dix was first introduced in 1996, honoring ten years since DBR Lafite arrived in Chile (dix is French for ten) — it was released to market in 1998.

Viña Los Vascos

Los Vacos’ oldest vines, Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1959 from the El Fraile vineyard, are reserved for Le Dix. In typical years, it’s a blend of 85% Cabernet, 10% Carménère, and 5% Syrah.

With the current 2018 release, there is no Carménère, leaving 92% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Syrah. And with the 2021, still aging in Lafite cooperage barrels, the wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The French barrels raise Le Dix to an unmatchable level. “Lafite is the only first-growth in France that owns its own cooperage. We buy our oak directly from the French forest and produce our own barrels,” says Rolet. “This is a very strong asset for Le Dix — it impresses a style and elegance with the toasting. It links all of our properties.”

For its 2018 vintage, the wine underwent a makeover, removing the Rothschild name from the label and commissioning local artist, Nicolás Amaro, to reinterpret the wine’s meaning. The result — imagery celebrating the vine’s verticality. From the roots, entangled in the terroir, to the branches, sky, stars and moon. In essence, a theme of ‘microcosm to cosmos’, a representation of Chilean terroir.

Editor’s note: This article is the result of a press trip taken to the Viña Los Vascos property.

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