Carolina Alvarado and Arturo Herrera are Herrera Alvarado: a bodega with a mission to preserve the traditional viticultural practices of the Marga Marga valley. Initially drawn to the valley by their connections to people in the small towns and villages around Quilpué, Arturo and Carolina became fascinated by the slowly disappearing wine culture and vineyards of the area. In 2003, working with local cooperative, they began making wine based on the methods of the local small producers. From the beginning, they’ve followed their own instincts and neither have any formal training in winemaking. Now, nestled in the valley’s indigenous forests and immersed in its long history of wine production, Arturo and Carolina are pursuing, preserving, and reviving nearly forgotten vineyards and winemaking practices that trace their roots back to the 16thcentury.
In contemporary Chilean wine culture, the Valle Marga Marga is mostly forgotten, replaced by regions that are easier to reach, easier to farm with machines, and closer to centers of transport. The sheltered valley lies about an hour and a half northwest of Santiago by car, southeast of the resort town of Viña del Mar and north of the Casablanca Valley, a major wine producing region. A narrow ridge covered in indigenous forest partially shelters the valley from the nearby Pacific Ocean. The climate is Mediterranean but foggy mornings and cool nights show a maritime influence. The soils are mostly clay, with abundant quartz and other minerals. Today, most of the area’s wine is vinified and consumed by locals or sold for distillation into pisco. Many maps of Chile’s wine regions don’t even include the Marga Marga, so insignificant is it to today’s commercial wine world. But the region has a long and unique history of grape cultivation and wine production.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Marga Marga was a center of farming and settlement for the Picunche people, a subset of the Mapuche who were at times under the influence of the Inka to their north. Numerous archaeological finds (primarily ceramics) have led to the preservation of parts of the valley as historic and natural parkland. The Spanish imposed Christianity and viticulture after conquering the valley in the 16thcentury. Over the following centuries, locals and Spaniards planted vineyards and developed their own winemaking methods. Drawing on what was available locally, they fermented grapes in cowhide, tinajas made from the local clay, and large barrels made from Raulí, the local redfleshed birch tree. And they drew on indigenous methods of irrigation to provide water for their vineyards in dry years.
The old vines and the local methods fascinated Carolina and Arturo, and since 2003 they have made it their mission to preserve them in collaboration with the local farmers and the cooperative. Starting with 2 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, they’ve now built a bodega out of the region’s clay soils, developed relationships with grape farmers across the region, and pursued their own vision of the region’s wines, informed by the traditional methods they learned from local people. In an area where viticulture was largely uncommercialized, this meant winemaking without sulfur and farming without industrial fertilizers or herbicides. Basing their approach on local traditions and lacking any formal training in winemaking, they started bottling what we would today describe as natural wines long before that category had any relevance in Chile.
While their longstanding devotion to low intervention agriculture (recently including Biodynamic treatments) and winemaking makes them a rarity in Chilean wine, their focus (and their repeated emphasis in conversation) is on the lives and traditions of Marga Marga’s people. Their work with local farmers and the cooperative has been instrumental in preserving traditional wine practices, but also in providing income for isolated and impoverished rural communities. Carolina and Arturo see their work as social and political far more than as a commercial endeavor; Carolina is pursuing a degree in social work to enable her to get more involved in the struggle for dignity and political change for Marga Marga’s (and Chile’s) struggling rural communities.
Arturo and Carolina work with grapes from sites across the Marga Marga valley. They farm some of the parcels and others are worked in common by local communities or by individual farmers. Local grape varieties include the original 16th century Spanish plantings of País and Moscatel, other old varieties that may be hybrids of those grapes, like San Francisco and Cristal, and a wide variety of more recent arrivals: Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir among them. The valley features different microclimates that are influenced by widely varied elevation. The Sauvignon Blanc planted around the bodega, near Quilpué, is at 280m-300m above sea level, while the vineyards to the east in the mountains above Colliguay stretch to 800m-1000m.
The Herrera Alvarado bodega is dug out of and formed from the red clay soils of the valley and there is no electrical connection (a single extension cord runs down from their home to a stereo for playing music while they work). Carolina and Arturo work without pumps or temperature controls, and everything is done by hand. Vessels for fermentation and aging include concrete tanks, a large Raulí foudre, used oak barrels, and the large cowhides used for their Cuero de Vaca wine. There are no chemical additives in the winery, and they’ve never added SO2 to their wines.
La Zaranda is made from their own-rooted Sauvignon Blanc grown on clay in the Marga Marga Valley. Grapes are hand-harvested in mid-March, destemmed by hand with a Zaranda (the local name for a destemmer), and given 2 days of skin maceration before wild yeast fermentation in concrete tanks without temperature control. They raise the wine in tank for 17 months on fine lees, and bottled without added S02.
Natural Blanco is made from their own-rooted Sauvignon Blanc grown on clay in the Marga Marga Valley. Grapes are hand-harvested in mid-March, destemmed by hand with a Zaranda (the local name for a destemmer), and given 5 days of skin maceration during fermentation in concrete tanks without temperature control. After fermentation is completed, the wine is pressed into old barrels to rest for 3 years before bottling without fining, filtration, or SO2 addition. Rojo Loco is Moscatel Rosada, País, Moscatel Amarilla and Cristal from organically farmed centenarian vines planted at 850m above sea level on clay soils. Colliguay is at the edge of the Marga Marga valley and is dry with an upland Mediterranean climate. The grapes are destemmed by hand using the traditional Zaranda, then coferment for 5 days with their skins in wooden vats without temperature control. After fermentation is completed, the wine is pressed with a vertical press into old barrels to rest for 1 year before bottling without fining, filtration, or SO2 addition.
Oro Negro is made from a rented vineyard of centenarian País grown in Colliguay, at the southeastern end of the Marga Marga Valley. Grapes are hand-harvested in early April and wild yeast fermented whole-cluster in cow skins without temperature control, with skin maceration lasting throughout alcoholic fermentation. They then rack the wine into old barrels to age for 15 months on fine lees, and bottle without fining, filtering or added S02. Cuero de Vaca is made from their Carmenere grown on clay at 320 meters in the Marga Marga Valley. Grapes are hand-harvested in mid-March and wild yeast fermented whole-cluster in cow skins without temperature control and given 17 days of skin maceration. They rack the wine into old barrels to age for 15 months on fine lees, and bottle without fining, filtering or added S02.