Fleuroir in Chile (Put Flowers in Your Grapes)
Millahue, a sub-area of Cachapoal Valley in central Chile, is surrounded by more than 10,000 acres of pristine wilderness, including 2,500 acres of forestland. The region, “Golden Place” in the language of native Mapuche people, is home to Vik Winery, one of the area’s few modern inhabitants. Because of this, owners Alexander and Carrie Vik aim to tread lightly and embrace the natural environment. They take a holistic approach, including an eco-conscious design for their winery and sustainable viticulture and winemaking techniques to reinforce efficient wine production.
Winemakers are often control freaks, and while practicing organic viticulture and natural winemaking are symbiotic with Mother Nature, Vik winemaker Cristián Vallejo is constantly thinking outside the box in pursuit of new ways to fine-tune the wines while remaining true to the winery’s holistic ethos, which borrows from Aristotle’s theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
One example is experiments with barrels; assembled in-house from staves shipped from France, they are toasted using fallen oak gathered from the estate. Vallejo is also trialing toasting the barrels with hot rocks, which he says maintain a hot temperature yet provide a more subtle toast.
Beyond oak, clay amphorae are handmade by a Chilean potter using clay from the property, to accentuate authentic terroir, according to Vallejo. “[This] evolution is in order to have a purer version of the wines’ personality,” he says, adding, “The family gave me a chance to work on these ideas, but I have to show numbers too.” He hopes the results, which include outstanding and classic-rated wines, reflect Vik’s quest of making quality wines that are most expressive of this majestic place.
And he’s digging even deeper. “Since 2021, we’ve harvested and dried spring flowers to put on the grapes [during fermentation],” he explains of his latest project, which he calls “Fleuroir.” “We’re not looking for them to impart [floral] flavors or aromas; just use the native yeasts,” he adds.
Vallejo says he took a cue from Vik’s estate chef, who uses edible flowers in many of his dishes. He begins the process in late November and early December, foraging native flowers from plants, bushes and vines among the bio-diverse areas not near the winery’s vineyards. With the help of the culinary team, they found a dehydrating method that keeps the yeasts dormant until needing reactivation come harvest time in March. It’s painstaking work. Fifty cases full of fresh flowers become 10 after drying, resulting in approximately two pounds of flowers.
When selecting flowers from various parts of the massive estate, Vallejo presumed they included many kinds of yeast. He sent samples to a local university, which discovered two strains of yeast that were not previously in the winery and good for fermentation.
His 2022 trials with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Carmenère included one 700-kilo tank of each, in which he sprinkled dried flowers on top of the grapes before fermentation. Handfuls of flowers may seem inconsequential, but Vallejo discovered that flowers act as a perfect cup for accumulating yeasts, which are different from those in the grape clusters.
“Each yeast works at a different time, while some work in tandem,” says Vallejo, noting that some start the fermentation while others chime in at different alcohol levels.
Different yeast strains are an excellent tool for winemakers, as they can dramatically affect aromas and flavors, as well as the texture of a wine. Commercial yeast can be more reliable, while natives can be a wildcard, but with the right grape and cellar, they can be a secret weapon for creating stellar wines.
“The idea now is to reproduce [the yeast] and hope that, at one point, they’ll mix, and we’ll achieve a ‘Vik strain’ that is an ambient combo of all three yeasts,” he adds. Vallejo also creates a dried yeast, which he uses in the vineyards to combat botrytis.
Vallejo believes his wines will achieve more layers of aroma and flavor this way. For him, an amalgamation of the yeasts into one is more representative of the property, which comprises a dozen valleys with various microclimates and unique complexities. And that when combined with the barrels and amphorae made from local resources, Vik wines will represent a profoundly intimate tribute to the land.
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