Grower stories

Chile’s master winemaker: An appreciation of Ignacio Recabarren

Since he first visited Chile in the early 1990s, Wine Society buyer Toby Morrhall was quick to appreciate the brilliance of Ignacio Recabarren. Here he charts his successes and the influence Ignacio has had on changing the face of Chile’s wines.

Toby and Ignacio Recabarren

Ignacio’s life in wine at a glance

  • Born 28th July 1947
  • 1967-1973: Universidad Catholica, degrees in Agronomy and Oenology
  • 1973-1976: worked with consultant Mario Espinosa (father of Alvaro Espinosa)
  • 1976-1990: Santa Rita: during which time he did three stages (placements) at Bordeaux’s Château Margaux
  • 1987: Vino 120 Medalla Real 1984 won ‘Top Trophy’ as the best of the best in the Wine Olympiad, organised by Gault et Millau
  • 1990-1993: worked in New Zealand at Cloudy Bay, Matua Valley and Morton Estate
  • 1993-1997: V؜iña Casablanca
  • 1997 to present day: Concha y Toro, responsible for Trio, Terrunyo, Amelia briefly and Carmín de Peumo
  • 1999-2002: made Domus Aurea at Quebrada Macul
  • 2003: first vintage of Carmín de Peumo, which obtained 97 points from Robert Parker, the highest score obtained by a Chilean wine
  • 2003-2007: consulted for Matetic, La Rosa and Quintay
  • 2007-2010: made first vintages of Ventolera, Leyda Valley
  • 2015 chosen as one of the 30 best winemakers in the world by Decanter magazine
  • 2018 to present day: making his eponymous Ignacio Recabarren wines from Casablanca vineyards

Ignacio Recabarren wines

We have a range of Ignacio's wines available to enjoy

Browse Ignacio Recabarren wines

Ignacio Recabarren is for me Chile’s greatest winemaker. I should perhaps declare an interest. When I first tasted with Ignacio I immediately realised we had kindred palates. At a time when there were many who made South American ‘fruit bombs’, Ignacio ensured grapes were picked ripe yet fresh, giving expressive aromas, fresh and elegant palates, with bright acidity in his white wines and fine tannins in his red wines. In the cellar there was no over-extraction or over-oaking. His wines had a finesse about them, they were wines which you never tired of and wanted to drink another glass of – a style that, in time, we referred to as less is more.

I was quickly impressed by Ignacio’s passion and dedication, bordering on obsession, his perfectionism, relentless energy and his outstanding blending ability. We became very friendly and exchanged many ideas. In 2001, with funding from Concha y Toro’s CEO Eduardo Guilisasti, I showed Ignacio around Burgundy and he subsequently changed how chardonnay was made in Chile. In the Stevenage tasting room we came up with the brand name Terrunyo for a new range of wines he was making for Concha y Toro. It is Spanish for terroir but spelt differently from the proper noun terruño, so it could be trademarked.

Thus, I am far from an impartial judge but my closeness to Ignacio has perhaps brought some insight and knowledge born of this friendship which I hope readers will find interesting.

Ignacio’s achievements

Ignacio’s greatest achievements, so far, are that he has changed the way Chilean sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and carmenère are made, improving them immensely and creating new styles and techniques which have become the benchmark for these varieties and that the industry have followed. He made excellent cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir. He has a remarkable skill in tasting grapes, finding the best blocks in a vineyard and deciding the perfect time for picking. He is one of the greatest blenders I have tasted with.

Early life

Ignacio was born in 1947 into a middle-class family in Santiago. His father was general accountant for the Universidad de Chile. He has two sisters. At school he enjoyed football. He had aspirations of studying medicine but eventually chose agronomy and then specialised in oenology. His interest in agronomy came from childhood holidays in San Fernando, at the house of his uncle Rafael Recabarren, who was administrator of the Bouchon Family's farm, where the Casa Silva winery is currently located. At that time, they had livestock and a winery.

Transformational winemaking

Refining Chilean cabernet sauvignon

Ignacio tells me that the three stages (work placements) with Paul Pontallier at Bordeaux’s famous Château Margaux were a major influence on his winemaking style. While making Casa Real and other wines at Santa Rita he imported some of the first barrels from Bordelais cooper Seguin Moreau. Later at Concha y Toro he made superb cabernet under the Terrunyo label, often basing the style on grapes from Concha’s superb vineyard at Pirque. Here, on the southern bank of the Maipo River, vines at about 700m make wines with exquisite cedary and richer, blackcurrant aromas, achieved by picking earlier than some. If one were to compare Maipo and Bordeaux communes, Pirque is elegant and fragrant like Margaux or Saint-Julien, compared to say Puente Alto, which is rich and powerful like Pauillac, where Almaviva, Don Melchor and Chadwick originate. Ignacio often worked with Concha’s Bordelais consultant Eric Boissenot (as low profile a man as Michel Rolland was high profile!) which added to his knowledge and feel for this grape.

A master at work: Ignacio blending wines
A master at work: Ignacio blending wines

Revolutionising Chilean sauvignon blanc

When I first travelled to Chile in the early 1990s, Chile’s best sauvignon blanc came from a warmish area, Lontué, and from sauvignonasse, or tocai friulano, which had been incorrectly identified as sauvignon blanc. It had little typical sauvignon blanc character.

With fantastic timing, Ignacio returned from New Zealand, having learned from Kevin Judd at Cloudy Bay, among others, how to make sauvignon blanc, just when the cool Casablanca Valley had been planted with some of the first clones of sauvignon blanc, much of which was Clone 1 from Davis, later joined by French clone 107 and others. He started working at Viña Casablanca and made remarkable intense, blackcurrant leaf and gooseberry-scented wines with a fresh palate with grapefruit-like acidity. It is no exaggeration to describe this as a revolution!

He later made some of the best sauvignon blancs under the Ventolera label in the newly planted, and cool Pacific Ocean-influenced Leyda Valley. He now makes Casablanca sauvignon blanc under his own label, Ignacio Recabarren.

Transforming Chilean chardonnay

Ignacio recognised he knew a lot about sauvignon blanc but little about chardonnay. At the time Chilean chardonnay was made with the malolactic fermentation, which produced an excessively buttery flavour (diacetyl) and was made too ‘protectively’ with too much sulphur dioxide and not enough oxygen. The wines were OK for six months and then developed a tinned asparagus flavour.

I suggested a trip to Burgundy which Eduardo Guilisati, CEO of Concha y Toro, funded. From this trip came a raft of new techniques for Chilean chardonnay. Firstly, the malolactic fermentation would be blocked to avoid the excessively buttery flavour. Secondly, much less sulphur would be used. This allowed the less noble aromas, which would turn asparagus-like, to fall away, and the aromas which remained, which were initially less intense, were able to develop more classical profiles with an appley freshness, turning honeyed and hazelnutty with time -the less-is-more approach I referred to earlier.

Ignacio turned to Burgundian coopers for his chardonnay barrels, especially Chassin latterly, which added a further gloss to an already excellent style of wine.

The man behind Chile’s best carmenère – Carmín de Peumo

As has now been well documented, carmenère had also been misidentified as merlot in many Chilean vineyards. Carmenère is a very late ripener, often not ripening until three or more weeks later than cabernet sauvignon and is often the last variety to be picked in Chile. Merlot, on the other hand, ripens a week or more earlier than cabernet, so the confusion meant that carmenère was being picked far too early, as if it was merlot. The first carmenère wines made were unripe and had unpleasant green bell-pepper aromas and could be lean and harsh. Selecting Concha y Toro’s Block 32 at Peumo, whose water-retaining clay soils were ideal for carmenère, Ignacio picked the grapes ripe so the aromas were more black pepper and spice, but earlier than many carmenères made by others who picked too late, making jammy wines that were difficult to drink. A little Maipo cabernet sauvignon, and later some cabernet franc, was blended in to give some extra backbone and the first vintage of Carmín de Peumo 2003 was soon recognised as Chile’s best carmenère.

Lorena Mora and Ignacio Recabarren
Lorena Mora and Ignacio Recabarren

A lasting influence in the Chilean wine industry

At 74, Ignacio is still making world-class wines under his eponymous label, so it’s really too early to speak of his legacy. Better to speak of his influence which lives on in his widely admired styles of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, which many seek to emulate.

One of the greatest winemakers of the younger generation, Rafael Urrejola, recognises how much he learnt working a vintage with Ignacio and he has trained up the very bright and talented winemaker Lorena Mora, at Concha y Toro, who has a great future ahead of her.

Explore our range of Chilean wines.

Toby Morrhall

Society Buyer

Toby Morrhall

Toby has been a Wine Society buyer since 1992, and covers Burgundy, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

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