Charlie Villard on Vendimia in Chile’s Casablanca Valley

From the time the grape vines first start to sprout leaves, Charlie Villard, along with fellow enologist Anamaria Pacheco—at family-owned Villard Fine Wines in Chile’s Casablanca Valley—is keeping track of their progress. This valley, which is close to Santiago, between the coastal range and the Pacific Ocean, is recognized as one of Chile’s premium cool climate viticultural regions, and enjoys sunny days and cool sea breezes. Over the winter, vines are pruned in preparation for the following growing season. Then, these warm and cool nights coax tiny sprouts from the vines after wintering over. By December, tiny proto-grapes appear, and the veraison or pinta (the onset of color) starts about two months before harvest. First a tiny spot of color appears, then they’re at 50% and then they take on full color. Approximately three weeks later, Charlie says, grapes are are ready for harvest.

The Villard Family (originally from France) first arrived in Chile in 1989, after years of experience in the wine industry in Australia. Charlie, son of Thierry Villard is one of the most public members of the team, and can often be found at wine events and dinners, when he is not off at Matanzas or Puertecillo, two of his pet surfing spots.

But these days find the whole Villard team mostly in the vineyard, and that’s because Chile’s vendimia, or harvest season is upon us, We caught up with him on the 26th of February—the very first day of Villard’s harvest—on his way to Santiago to pick up an aspiring winemaker from Portugal to come and work this year’s vendimia at the winery.

And while we would have loved a face-to-face meeting, catching a winemaker during vendimia in Chile is tough. They’re all working from sunup to sundown, as many as sixteen hours a day, Charlie says. Winemakers’ worlds shrink down to what happens in the fields and at the winery, which, though it means a lot of hard work for the winemakers, makes it a really fun time for visitors to see the vineyard when it is at its busiest and most immersive. 

Before today’s Pinot Noir harvest, a lot of hard work goes in, Charlie says, from pulling bunches of grapes to improve harvest quality, and to selecting individual leaves to cut away.

About the deshoje, or defoliation of the vines, he says,  “you have make sure the grapes get good ventilation, allow them to breathe and remain dry, and that way avoid disease.” He calls the grapes the “newest members of the family,” saying “you have to take care of them, make sure they’re in the best possible condition” to make the kind of wine they’re capable of becoming.

The 2018-2019 growing season in Casablanca has been a good one, Charlie says, with no major environmental factors, like damp weather, that can negatively affect the harvest, though the Pinot Noir harvest typically is not until March, and this year it is about a week earlier. Charlie points to global warming, and says that thirty years ago, Villard’s Pinot Noir harvest started around mid-March. Warmer temperatures mean the first sprouts appear earlier, and the grapes ripen faster.

But no matter when it starts, there is a tremendous amount of decision-making that goes into the harvest of each grape varietal. To decide when to start the harvest, he and Anamaria taste the grapes, basing their decision of when to harvest on factors such as the tannic quality of the skin, the acidity of the grapes, the tannins present in the seeds, and how green or how crunchy the seeds are.

From the actual harvest, the grapes are transferred to the bodega, where fermentation takes place. In the case of their two Pinot Noirs, and some of their whites, some of the grapes are not destemmed, but are put in the fermenting tanks stems and all, to coax out different flavors.

In the end, Charlie says, it is the grape that guides the winemaker, not the other way around. Over time, wine styles have changed, including using earlier harvests to capitalize on the acidity of the wine. “You change the style and adapt to the climate,” he says.  The ultimate goal of the vendimia, Charlie says, is to transform the humble grape into wine.

“We are,” he says “mere intermediaries between nature and wine.” Our job “is to make the full expression of what the grape is offering us, not to cover up anything but allow it to fully express itself.”

At Villard, they make many different kinds of wines, and as soon as one grape varietal is fully harvested, or even before, it may be time to harvest another. How do they deal with the overlap?

“You have to be organized and prioritize,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t sleep,” he adds, with what I think might be a smile.

It sounds like a very stressful time for winemakers, so I ask Charlie about it. “The days are long, but that’s what being a winemaker is all about,” he says.

“How do winemakers relax during vendimia?” I ask.

Charlie says simply, “we drink some nice wine.”

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