Agrícola Macatho is the winery project of Macarena del Río and Thomas Payrare, who started making wine together in 2016 near their home in Chillán in Chile’s Itata Valley. Their story embodies the entanglement of France and Chile in one chapter of the history of Chilean natural wine. Maca was born and raised in Chile by a French mother in a household where wine was always a presence; she studied Agronomy in Valparaíso and the Maule valley, then went to France to learn oenology at the prestigious University of Bordeaux. Thomas was born in France and came to Chile while working at a bank; he ended up moving in with Louis-Antoine Luyt, another Frenchman who was then just beginning his path towards making natural wine in Chile.
A life in wine was never really a question for Macarena, and her studies in France led her to an internship at Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion in 2011 (who hired her partially out of admiration for her audacity: she rode right up to the château on her bike and asked for a position), then consulted with wineries in the south (notably natural wine luminaries Domaine Léonine in Rousillon in 2013) and worked harvest with Yvon Métras in Beaujolais, Patrick Bouju of Domaine La Bohème in Auvergne, and Jean-Christophe Comor of Domaine Les Terres Promises in 2015.
Thomas caught an interest in wine from his roommate Louis-Antoine and worked harvests at his projects in Chile while starting his own graphic design business. Back in France, he also worked a harvest at Domaine Les Terres Promises. Maca and Thomas met during one of these harvests and it wasn’t long before their own project Macatho was born in 2016. Inspired by Luyt’s model of working with small local growers, they rented a little cellar outside Chillán and started reaching out to, then working with, farmers in the Maule and Itata valleys. By paying fair prices for grapes (in a market that deeply undervalues them) and working with these families in their fields, they’re able to encourage their partner growers towards organic and regenerative farming.
Without family vineyards or external funding, this is the only approach to making wine that is viable for Macarena and Thomas, and it also respects and helps sustain the traditional farmers of the area. Itata and Maule have an almost unique viticultural heritage: spared the international pest of Phylloxera, the area’s vines are wholly own-rooted and mostly very old. However, the local demand for these unique grapes is very limited, and the low prices paid by cooperatives and large wine producing companies discourage careful farming and encourage overproduction – or worse, destruction of vineyards and replacement with mono-cultural tree farming or residential plots.
Indeed, the larger human environment – the combination of a timber industry that incentivizes overproductive and intensive styles of agriculture with widespread rural poverty – in south-central Chile present the greatest challenges for Macatho. Climate change has altered normal weather patterns and the massive timber industry’s plantations of fast-burning pine and eucalyptus have created the ideal environment for cycles of wildfires. In 2017 and in 2023, massive fast-moving fires threatened vineyards that Maca and Thomas work. The small farmers who work these plots, most of which are surrounded by timber plantations, are forced to look to alternatives to viticulture when fires repeatedly damage or destroy their grapes and hurt their income. Conversely the same farmers are suspicious of organic and regenerative practices that might improve quality and reduce susceptibility to fires but will reduce overall yields in their vineyards.
Nonetheless, Maca is quick to point out that Itata is an almost uniquely blessed place to work with grape vines. There is no phylloxera, most seasons are mild, and most vineyards are composed of old, hardy vines that are well-adapted to the dry, warm environment. The plagues of mildew and rot that she encountered in her work in France are far less common here. And the ancient vineyards produce fruit of great purity and intensity when farmed carefully. Yes, there are perils, but also great rewards.
In the cellar Maca and Thomas work with simple vessels and limited interventions. Grapes are harvested in small boxes and either fermented whole cluster or destemmed with a large mechanical destemmer. Luckily, they inherited this machine along with the cellar, as it works very well and unlike many smaller destemmers it yields a very high percentage of whole berries (which makes Maca quite happy). All the vessels are stainless steel - though they would like to work with some concrete vessels at some point in the future. When doing carbonic maceration, Maca’s approach recalls Métras: the whole clusters are deposited in tanks and left for about two weeks, with CO2 added once to the top of the tank. Sulfur is used only when necessary, and only at bottling; even when sulfur is added, the total SO2 is usually below 15mg/L.
ChaCha is from Chasselas (69-year-old vines) and Chardonnay (13-year-old vines) plantings in the organically farmed Cerro Negro vineyard, which is 70 meters above sea level and 60 km away from the Pacific. The soils are a mix of basalts with a loamy texture. The grapes are harvested by hand (the Chardonnay before the Chasselas). The grapes macerate gently on their skins (30 days for the Chardonnay, 20 days for the Chasselas) and ferment with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks. The two varieties are blended and then bottled without fining, filtration, or sulfite addition.
María Rosé is from the Chimiltito vineyard of ancient (~200-year-old) own-rooted País vines. The vineyard is about 45 km from the Pacific, and 110 meters above sea level. Soils here are sedimentary with multiple layers and a loamy texture. The grapes are harvested by hand and destemmed. They macerate on their skins for five days in stainless steel tanks, then ferment with indigenous yeasts in the same vessels. Bottled without fining or filtering.
Segundo Flores is made from 0.5ha (in 3 tiny parcels) of 150-year-old pie franco País grown in the Maule Valley on granite clay soils. This is the highest elevation vineyard that they work with and the vines are within 20km of the Pacific Ocean. The grapes are hand-harvested in early April and cooled overnight, destemmed and spontaneously fermented in stainless steel with 14 days on skins, then racked and raised 6 months in the same vessels. Bottled with the bare minimum of added SO2.
Toca Tierra is made from centenarian pie franco País grown in the Itata Valley on granite clay soils. The grapes are hand-harvested in early April and cooled overnight, de-stemmed and spontaneously fermented in stainless steel with 69 days on skins, then raised in the same vessels for 6 months. Bottled with the bare minimum of added SO2.
Tinajacura is made with pie franco Cinsault co-planted with young Carignan (grafted onto old país rootstock) grown in the Itata Valley. The grapes were hand-harvested the first week of April, de-stemmed and co-fermented in stainless steel with 14 days on skins, then aged on fine lees in the same vessels for 6 months. Bottled unfiltered, with the bare minimum of added SO2.
Allípallá is made from young-vine pie franco País, Garnacha & Mourvèdre grown in the Itata Valley on granite clay soils. The grapes are hand-harvested in early April and cooled overnight, de-stemmed and spontaneously co-fermented in stainless steel with 14 days on skins, then raised in the same vessels for 6 months. Bottled with the bare minimum of added SO2.
Caña Dulce comes from a 0.3ha parcel of young cinsault grown 32km from the Pacific, close to the Itata River. The grapes are hand-harvested in mid-March, 100% whole-cluster carbonic maceration in stainless steel with 15 days on skins, then raised on fine lees in the same vessels until the following March. The finished wine is bottled unfined, unfiltered, and with the bare minimum of added SO2. Fresa Grossa comes from a 0.4ha parcel of young Syrah grown 51km from the Pacific, close to the winery. The grapes are hand-harvested in late March, 100% whole-cluster carbonic maceration in stainless steel with 21 days on skins, then raised on fine lees in the same vessels until the following March. The finished wine is bottled unfined, unfiltered, and with a small amount of added SO2.
Appellation: Valle del Itata
Village: San Nicolás
Elevation: 50-350 meters
Soils: Granite & clay
Vineyard Land: all rented and farmed collaboratively with local small farmers.