Great Wines of Chile

December 11, 2010

About Wines from Chile
Best wine supplier in Philippines discusses wine related topics

With the soaring Andes as the backdrop, a far-reaching revolution is taking place in Chile’s wine industry. And a handful of statuesque reds lead the way.

A dozen years ago, when Chile cast off the shackles of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and embraced a stable, democratic government, the country had already earned a reputation for fruity and ripe, if sometimes oxidized, red wines at friendly prices. With a supporting cast of $5 and $10 Merlots and Cabs gaining notoriety and winning medals, Chilean wine soared in popularity in international markets, becoming the third-largest source of U.S. wine imports in 1998 with 5.3 million 12-bottle cases, according to the Department of Commerce.

As Chile’s free market economy gained momentum, outside money, expertise and equipment began to pour into its wine industry. Local growers increasingly adopted international wine standards, and Chile’s red wines took a quantum leap in quality. And price.

Chile’s established players are making top-flight reds – among them Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Concha y Toro Don Melchor, Santa Rita Casa Real and Cousiño-Macul Finis Terrae – but the excitement these days is being generated by the country’s newest hybrids.

Today more than half a dozen powerful, complex reds, crafted with state-of-the-art methods made possible by huge cash infusions from both home and abroad, are entering the U.S. market at $20 to $60 per bottle. The money to finance the rapid modernization is coming from some very formidable players. Some of the new wines were born of powerful partnerships between Chile’s wine giants and prestigious foreign wineries: Almaviva, by Viña Concha y Toro and Château Mouton-Rothschild; Seña, by Viña Errazuriz and Robert Mondavi Winery. Others are local endeavors: Montes Alpha ‘M’ by Montes, a brand formed in 1988 by four Chilean wine veterans; Zavala, by Viña Tarapaca, a winery founded half a century ago by Arturo Zavala. Together, or in competition, the local and international wine players are seeking to propel Chilean winemaking into the 21st century. It manifests itself in several ways.

First, premium vineyards are now sited in cooler areas with poorer soils to stress the vines and achieve longer hang-time and more concentrated flavors. Growers who once generously irrigated with Andes snowmelt – unwittingly watering down their wines – have learned to curb the vine’s water supply to further concentrate flavors. Aggressive pruning reduces yields and magnifies flavors.

Casa Lapostolle, south of Santiago, epitomizes the influences of outside experts. The Marnier-Lapostolle family, which owns Château de Sancerre in the Loire Valley, and makes the famous Grand Marnier liqueur, sent daughter Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle to Chile in the mid-1990s with $12 million to build an ultramodern winery in the middle of a very traditional, old grape-growing area. She settled on Chile’s Colchagua wine subregion, forming a partnership with the Chilean Rabat family, which had run a family winery there since 1927, buying acres of vines already planted, some of which today are more than 100 years old. For expert help, she turned to Michel Rolland, owner of Château Le Bon Pasteur in Bordeaux’s Pomerol region and consulting winemaker to wineries from France to Argentina.

To the fabulous old vines, Rolland applied modern methods – offering to pay growers the equivalent of six tons per acre if they thin their crops to deliver only four. And the new winery provided temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks and expensive French oak barrels for aging.

“We provide the equipment, the money and the expertise,” Marnier-Lapostolle explains.

Chile’s Montes Winery typifies local efforts. Aurelio Montes, winemaker and partner, says Pinochet’s departure opened Chile’s wine industry to international ideas and outside money – and competition – prompting local growers to reevaluate their traditional methods.

And when the Chilean government in 1995 adopted the Designation of Origin system, Montes says it spurred new efforts by Chile’s growers to identify the plots of land – the micro-terroirs – most suited for growing each variety.

“One of the major discoveries is the Apalta microclimate,” Montes said at a recent media tasting in New York. “The infertile soil is thick sand and requires mechanical irrigation, which facilitates total control over growth. The southwest orientation means plants are not overexposed to too many hours of sunlight.”

In the Apalta Valley, Montes found ideal conditions for growing cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carmenère, syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot – some of which find their way into his ultrapremium, flagship Montes Alpha ‘M.’

“The resulting wines can be full-bodied, filled with sweet, ripe tannins with loads of ripe fruit that is both elegant and appealing,” he says.

Chile’s winemaking techniques also are undergoing a revolution. Ancient redwood aging vats are being chopped into kindling, replaced by smaller, top-quality French and American oak barrels. Computerized stainless steel fermenting tanks are providing the temperature control to preserve the intense, natural fruitiness of Chile’s grapes. And when Casa Lapostolle began shipping its wines in refrigerated containers for the long trip across the equator to the United States, it prompted other Chilean wineries to start following suit.

Those vintners who mounted the offensive have been rewarded with an impressive series of small victories, prompting them to declare that Chile can produce wines as good as any in the world. And that, yes, indeed, they are capable of turning out a Chilean version of a grand cru.

Michael Mondavi, president of California’s Robert Mondavi Winery, has partnered with Eduardo Chadwick of Chile’s Viña Errazuriz to produce a $55 red table wine called Seña that is now in its second vintage. “I would very proudly put the 1996 Seña in the company of any wine in the world,” Mondavi says.

David Williams, a New York investor who has joined with Chilean vineyard owner Ricardo Peña and veteran Chilean Winemaker Ignacio Recabarren in making the new Domus Aurea wine, goes even further. “It’s absolutely there now. We don’t try to imitate the Bordeaux style or the California style. We allow the wine to express what we think is the Chilean equivalent of a grand cru.” Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, of Casa Lapostolle, also is optimistic. “There will be a premier cru from Chile,” she says, “as high as the quality of Burgundy, Bordeaux or California.”

By next year, another ultrapremium Chilean wine will enter the U.S. market. In the Andean foothills near Santiago, Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux, and Bruno Prats, retired proprietor of Château Cos d’Estournel, are developing a 48-acre vineyard in an old apricot and walnut orchard; they call it Viña Aquitania. With Winemaker Felix de Solminihac, a third-generation Chilean of French descent, they are growing cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenère, and plan to plant petit verdot and syrah. The new wine will be called Domaine Paul Bruno.

Pontallier is not as effusive as some of his peers. “The problem is to know how far you can go,” he says. “So far, it’s possible to make good wine in Chile; eventually very good wine. But not yet a great wine.”

There is a price to pay for all of these quality advancements. While Chile retains its economic advantages over California – lower land costs and cheaper labor – these factors must be balanced against the substantial costs of modernizing and escalating transportation costs. California’s cult Cabs are now retailing at $75 to $100 per bottle and more. It was only a matter of time before some of Chile’s elite reds would move in the same direction, which raises the question: Will wine aficionados pay up to $60 for wines from Chile?

It’s a challenge, but a necessary one, Mondavi says. “It’s easy to sell a $60 Bordeaux, or even a $150 one,” he says. “But people ask, ‘How can you do it from Chile?'” Mondavi says Seña’s $55 price tag reflects, in part, the extra costs of making a truly fine wine, even in low-cost Chile. “You’re far more selective in the vineyards, you prune more, get less of a crop. You pay the crew a premium to select only the very best, ripest, grape bunches.” But it’s also a matter of image, he says. “If you price a wine too low, people think it’s not very good.”

Not everyone agrees. Don Amado sells for $20, and Viña Tarapaca’s Zavala for $25.

The cream of the crop

As it happens, the wines profiled here are very good. They’re not Bordeaux wines, and they don’t try to be. The most successful of them take advantage of Chile’s sunny climate to stress sweet fruit and ripe tannins, without giving up the balance and structure needed for aging. In the end, the marketplace will decide if they are worth their hefty price tags.

Almaviva, named for the main character in the opera The Marriage of Figaro, is the achievement of a partnership between Viña Concha y Toro and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It is 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, 19 percent merlot and 6 percent cabernet franc. The grapes are hand-selected from 100 acres of vineyards in Puente Alto that Concha y Toro uses as a source for its top-of-the-line Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon. It is made to the same exacting standards as Mouton-Rothschild’s grand cru Bordeaux, says Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, president of the French château that has a $6 million stake in the Chilean venture.

Clos Apalta, 95 percent merlot and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and carmenère, is made at Casa Lapostolle, located in the Apalta Valley and built in 1996 to the specifications of veteran Pomerol Winemaker Michel Rolland. Marnier-Lapostolle says she has dreamed of producing a wine of this caliber for ten years. The grapes come from 50- to 60-year-old vines on poor, sandy soil – some of the same vines that produce Casa Lapostolle’s excellent Cuvée Alexandre Merlot ($16). “We believe very much in old vineyards,” Marnier-Lapostolle explains, “and it was this vineyard that made my family decide to invest in Chile.”

Domus Aurea, by Viña Quebrada de Macul, is 96 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent merlot and petit verdot, from 30-year-old vines. The fruit is grown on a 35-acre parcel in the Andes foothills bordering the Maipo Valley, east of Santiago. Until Ricardo Peña inherited the winery, his family had sold its grapes to other wineries. “It was the most expensive fruit in the country,” investor David Williams says. “We decided that, rather than sell it, we’d get the best winemaker in the country and make it ourselves.” Recabarren often hears himself referred to as “Chile’s best winemaker.” In 1986, he won the Gault Millau World Olympics in Paris with a 1984 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1997, the Guide to Chilean Wines gave him its first, second and third prizes for the 1995 Chardonnays he had made for three different wineries: Viña Casablanca, Trio by Concha y Toro and Viña La Rose.

Recabarren is frequently asked what makes the Domus Aurea so special. “My answer is always the same,” he says, “magnificently situated old, hillside vines; low, low yields; non-interventionist winemaking; and, above all, complete commitment to the highest possible quality, no matter what the commercial consequences.”

Named Clos Quebrada de Macul, the hillside vineyard is composed of gravelly rubble and is sited at the base of the mountains, which rise up 45 degrees at the edge of the vineyard. It has near-desert conditions, making the control of irrigation easy. The pruning is rigorous, the winery brand new, the barrels new French oak. “The secret is terroir,” Williams says. ”Whether you like it or not, I promise you’ve never tasted anything like it. It just screams site-specificity.”

Don Amado, by Vinedos Torreon de Paredes, is 80 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent merlot from old vines. The family-owned winery is situated 75 miles south of Santiago in the Cachapoal Valley, Rapel region. “We are equipped with state-of-the-art technology,” General Manager Javier Paredes Legrand says. “French oak barrels are used to ferment or age our reserve wine.” The first vintage

of Don Amado was made in 1986, but not released until 1996, the 90th birthday of family patriarch Don Amado. New vintages of the wine are a selection of the best lots from the family estate, aged in new French barrels.

The Los Boldos Grand Cru, another new wine which arrived in U.S. markets in 1999, is 80 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent merlot. Some of the fruit is from vines that date back as far as 1936, from vineyards in Requinoa, in Cachapoal Province, 70 miles south of Santiago. The winery was founded in 1850, and purchased in 1990 by the G.E. Massenez family of France’s Alsace region, producers of eaux-de-vie and fruit crèmes.

The Montes Alpha ‘M’ is made by co-owner/winemaker Aurelio Montes with grapes from La Finca de Apalta estate in the Apalta Valley, Colchagua region. It is 80 percent cabernet sauvignon, 10 percent merlot and 10 percent cabernet franc. Nearly 98 percent of it is exported. “In the last two decades,” Montes explains, “the main objectives for winemakers in Chile have been to focus on improving quality rather than volume, and building our export markets.”

Seña is made of select grapes from the Aconcagua Valley, 70 miles northeast of Santiago, at the base of the Andes, from the same vineyards that produce Viña Errazuriz’s highly regarded Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve. The 1996 Seña is 91 percent cabernet sauvignon and 9 percent carmenère. It is jointly crafted by the Robert Mondavi Family of Wineries’ Managing Director Tim Mondavi and Chilean winemakers Irene Paiva and Edward Flaherty. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the partners intend to plant new vineyards and build a new winery in the area.

Zavala, crafted by Viña Tarapaca Winemaker Sergio Correa, is 52 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot and 18 percent syrah, sourced from three vineyards on the Viña Tarapaca Isla de Maipo estate. Correa was among the first to plant syrah in Chile. “As I suspected,” he says, “the resulting fruit from the syrah/shiraz vineyard has the typical powerful flavors and structure of the variety grown in France’s Rhône Valley and Australia.”

Tasting Chile’s ultrapremium hybrids

Almaviva, 1997 Red Table Wine, Puente Alto – $60: Vivid purple hue. Complex, shifting aromas of citrus blossom, black raspberry, black pepper and iodine. Velvety, opulent, concentrated black raspberry flavors; lush and intense with huge, ripe tannins and a bitter chocolate-coffee finish. Score: 94

Casa Lapostolle, 1997 Clos Apalta, Apalta Valley, Rapel – $40: Shimmering, intense purple hue. Aromas of licorice and violets. Powerful black rasp-berry and powdered cocoa flavors; silky and smooth with a long, bittersweet chocolate finish. Score: 92

Château Los Boldos, 1996 Grand Cru, Requinoa – $45: Dense, dark purple hue. Aromas of cedar and mint. Big, muscular black pepper and black plum flavors; concentrated, firm, youthful tannins with a long, dry, powdered chocolate finish. Score: 89

Don Amado, 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Especial, Cachapoal Valley, Rapel – $20: Limpid purple hue. Sweet cherry blossom and cedar aromas. Opulent, intense, black cherry flavors; generous, ripe tannins and a long, lean, fruit-infused finish. Score: 91

Domus Aurea, 1996 Viña Quebrada de Macul – $40: Transparent, deep ruby hue. Complex aromas of oak, mint, bacon fat and mulberry. Intense black plum and menthol flavors; medium-bodied and silky with drying tannins and a bittersweet mocha note in the finish. Score: 89

Montes Alpha, 1997 ‘M,’ Santa Cruz (Colchagua) – $60: Deep ruby hue. Sweet oak and black cherry aromas. Sweet, juicy red plum flavors; lively acid, firm tannins and medium body with a dark chocolate finish. Score: 89

Seña, 1996 Red Table Wine, Aconcagua Valley – $55: Vivid violet hue. Intense, shifting aromas of sweet cedar and violets. Concentrated, lively flavors of sweet black plum and caramel; silky and smooth, excellent balance with a long, fruity finish. Score: 92

Viña Tarapaca, 1997 Zavala, Maipo Valley – $25: Grape-purple hue. Black cherry, oak and earth aromas. Intense, spicy black cherry and black plum flavors with firm tannins and a very dry, chocolatey finish. Score: 90

Tomorrow’s Mouton?

How far has Chile come? A long way. And, thanks to its combination of excellent terroir, new money and expertise, it has done so in a shorter time than most other countries. Is there a grand cru yet? It would be difficult to anoint one without more years of demonstrating not just excellent quality, but also consistency. Mondavi doesn’t entirely disagree. “If you look just at the wine [Seña] itself, it deserves to be in that company. If you look at the image, we still have a long way to go to win credibility.”


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