Chile's Fresh Faces
Five wineries from five different regions set the pace for the 21st century.
Since the early 1990s, when democracy and forward-thinking capitalism replaced Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, Chile has been a breeding ground for new wineries. Over the past 10-plus years, fledgling wine operations have been popping up at a rapid pace, as the number of wineries in the country has risen from fewer than 50 to a whopping 172.
The primary outlet for much of the new wine being produced in Chile has been the United States, and the American consumer has certainly been a beneficiary of this increased quantity and variety. But with such an influx of wine, it is difficult to keep track of who is who, how good each winery's bottlings are, and which grape varieties the new bodegas are specializing in.
With that in mind, we're shining the spotlight on five quality-driven wineries whose first vintages were put into bottle only in this, the 21st century. The group spans five different winemaking regions, with four of the five making relatively small quantities of wines. These are the brands—more often than not unconventional and artisan in nature—that you should look for the next time you have a hankering for Chilean wine.
Altaïr Vineyards and Winery > Owners Laurent Dassault and Viña San Pedro > Location Cachapoal Valley > First vintage 2002 > www.altairwines.com
Laurent Dassault, whose family has been in the Bordeaux wine business since the 1950s, is no stranger to South American winemaking. In 1998, he was one of seven primary investors in Clos de los Siete, an Argentinean project headed by Bordelais winemaker Michel Rolland. But prior to the millennium, Dassault's business ventures in Chile had largely been limited to marketing the airplanes manufactured by his family's Dassault Aviation Co., the maker of the Mirage fighter and the Falcon private jet.
"By 2000, I wanted to do something [in wine] in Chile to complement the Argentinean project," says the energetic Dassault, speaking by satellite phone from a yacht off the Croatian coast. "It's so easy to check on both countries while you're there that it made sense."
But why Chile when you were already in Argentina, I ask? And the bons mots begin: "I've always felt very comfortable in Chile. They really do like French people, and I'd known for quite some time that we could do good business in Chile. The country has always been good to Dassault Aviation; they bought the Mirage 5. They also bought the A-12," he notes with a chuckle.
Committed to making a high-end Chilean wine—that is, if he could find the right local partner—Dassault in 2000 met Andrónico Luksic, one of Chile's richest men. The two discussed the possibility of a joint wine venture, with Luksic pointing out that his son, Guillermo, was the chairman of Quiñeco, the conglomerate that owns Viña San Pedro. Soon Dassault met with the younger Luksic, and the two hit it off. Guillermo Luksic, says Dassault, wanted to make a premium wine in the Cachapoal Valley, and Luksic knew of vineyards that were available. Dassault agreed to come on board as a 50 percent partner, and shortly thereafter Altaïr Vineyards and Winery was born with a single goal: to craft a Chilean grand cru.
As we wrote in the June issue ("New Star in the Super Chilean Galaxy," Enth Degree), Altaïr is named after the main star in the Eagle Constellation. Two wines are being produced: Altaïr, the flagship wine, blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère; Sideral is a Cabernet-based mix of five grapes. Winemaking is handled by Frenchman Pascal Chatonnet, himself now a 10 percent owner (Dassault reduced his stake to 40 percent), and Ana-Maria Cumsille, a Chilean.
With a small quantity of the 2002 functioning as the inaugural release, and the very impressive 2003s due out late this year, the hard part has arrived, Dassault acknowledges. "It's not that difficult to make a good wine in any of the New World countries. All you need is the commitment, because the grapes are there in Chile, South Africa, New Zealand, wherever. What's difficult is selling it. That's why it was so important for me to sign on with the Luksic family. They know marketing and they understand image."
94 Altaïr 2003 Red Wine (Cachapoal Valley); $59. Terrific Chilean red wine; seductive and succulent, with a beautiful burgundy hue matched by pure, ripe Bordeaux-like flavors. Deep and satisfying, and smooth as silk. If ever a Chilean red ranked as world class, this is it. Editors' Choice.
91 Altaïr 2003 Sideral (Rapel Valley); $29. Finely oaked, with lovely cedar scents accenting robust but smooth black cherry and dark plum aromas. Sings a pretty tune in the mouth, with ripe berry fruit, tobacco, toast and a long finish. A significant step up from the first vintage.
Caliboro Estate > Owner Francesco Marone Cinzano > Location Maule Valley > First vintage 2001> www.caliboro.com
More than a decade ago Count Francesco Marone Cinzano, owner of Col d'Orcia in Montalcino and an heir to the Cinzano vermouth empire, concluded that he wanted to expand his holdings outside of Tuscany. The only question was where. Thus he and his long-time wine consultant Maurizio Castelli set off on a treasure hunt of sorts, checking out potential joint ventures and solo projects in places like France, Spain, Portugal, even Eastern Europe. But they came up empty; nothing quite clicked.
That was until the Count, by chance, was introduced to Mariano Fernández, then Chile's ambassador to Italy (and now the country's ambassador to England). "Mariano is a gourmet, a lover of wine, and he invited me to Chile to see his country. I fell in love with it," says Cinzano. "I was convinced to look closely at Chile."
And so, in 1994, he and Castelli embarked on a scouting trip to Chile, "and every area we looked at, Maurizio shook his head no," Cinzano recounted. "Finally, when we came to Maule, his head went up and down, and not side to side." That was the nod Cinzano needed to purchase 500 acres near the Perquilauquen River, a property he would christen Caliboro Estate.
Immediately after buying the land, Cinzano moved his family from Italy to Santiago so that he could oversee the planting of 125 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, grapes that would form the foundation of a wine called Erasmo, named after a local elder who gave Cinzano invaluable encouragement with respect to building Caliboro.
Planting of the vines, which were imported from France and then quarantined for three years, began in 1997. Over the years Cinzano has also planted other European grapes, including Tempranillo, Mourvèdre and several Italian varieties. "To maintain a competitive advantage, I will stick with unique blends. There is no need for more Chilean varietal wines," Cinzano insists.
In 2001, an excellent vintage by Chilean standards, Cinzano and his winemaking team (Castelli, and native Chileans Augusto Reyes and Andres Sanchez) produced their first Erasmo, which was released earlier this year. Total production came in at 1,200 cases, but ultimately there is capacity to make as much as 10,000 cases a year. "The intent is to produce a high-end, traditional Bordeaux blend. The 2005, which is now in the cellar, is our best to date. Each year the vines get older, and each year the wine gets better," notes Cinzano, who recently moved back to Italy, now that his treasured Chilean estate is self-sufficient.
88 Caliboro Estate 2001 Erasmo (Maule Valley); $30. Caliboro's first-ever release sports excellent aromatics. But like any serious red made from young grapes, it's not terribly concentrated. The mouthfeel is light, while the depth and texture are modest. Still, it offers a glimpse of what's to come, and the future looks bright. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc.
Matetic Vineyards > Owner Matetic Family > Location San Antonio Valley > First vintage 2001 > www.mateticvineyards.com
From Matetic Vineyards' keenly designed gravity-flow winery, you can see the port of San Antonio and the mighty Pacific. And you can feel the nip of the wind as you look at Matetic's 220 acres of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and other grapes. Clearly, San Antonio is not one of those warm, flat Chilean valleys capable of pumping out large quantities of Cabernet and Merlot. Just the opposite: It may be the toughest place in Chile north of Bío Bío to make a go of it.
Undaunted, the tiny Rosario Valley subsection of the larger San Antonio Valley D.O. is where Jorge Matetic, the third generation of a Croatian immigrant family that made its money in the wire and fencing businesses, chose to plant grapes in 1999. And to make the most of the venture he didn't shy away from assembling a team of young Chileans and American consultants that could help.
"We are very experimental. We aren't following the crowd. And we want to do new things," says Matetic, 35. "I guess you could say we're typical New World."
The résumé of 31-year-old winemaker Rodrigo Soto definitely reads New World. Out of agronomy school he headed to New Zealand, and then followed that experience with a stint at Fetzer in California. Thus it's no surprise that his best wines are a rich but grassy Sauvignon Blanc and a meaty Syrah. Meanwhile, consulting winemaker Ken Bernards, who for the past dozen or so years has worked at California wineries including Domaine Chandon, Truchard, Whitford and his own Ancien, has played a major role in getting Matetic off the ground. "Barrel selection has been one of Ken's major contributions," says Matetic, who also credits Ann Kraemer, a UC-Davis trained vineyard specialist, for her work with the vines.
"From the start, the whole team has been at my side. We built our winery based on how we wanted to make wine. And we're not afraid to say that we wanted to draw some tourism" says Matetic. And quite the winery it is. Designed by Laurence Odfjell (see accompanying profile), it's built partially into a hill, the barrel vault lined with polished stones and light wood.
As for the wines, there are currently two lines: the higher-tier EQ, which stands for equilibrio, or equilibrium, includes Syrah, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc; the lower-tier, Corralillo, features a Chardonnay and a blend of Malbec and Merlot. The EQ wines (about 5,300 cases total) have been in the United States for two vintages, while Corralillo (about 1,700 cases) is just now coming into the U.S.
90 Matetic 2003 EQ Syrah (San Antonio); $25. Opaque in color and dense throughout. Starts with a smoky, baked-plum personality before showing its true colors, which include a silky texture, soft tannins and masculine coffee, mocha and pepper qualities. Great mouthfeel and a lot of richness.
88 Matetic 2004 EQ Sauvignon Blanc (San Antonio); $15. Laudable for its combination of size and balance. The melon, kiwi and citrus flavors are fat yet tempered by classic grassiness, so even though it weighs in at 14.6% alcohol, it's palatable. Should be drunk with a solid white fish like halibut.
86 Maetic 2003 EQ Pinot Noir (San Antonio); $25. Not your average Pinot Noir; it's inky, with a nose of sugar beet, black-fruit liqueur and a touch of alfalfa. Further nosing reveals mineral and black currants, characteristics more akin to a Mediterranean red than textbook Pinot. In the mouth, it's a hulk, with berry and kirsch, pepper and ultimately some heat.
Kingston Family Vineyards > Owner Kingston Family > Location Casablanca Valley > First vintage 2003 > www.kingstonvineyards.com
Nearly 100 years ago, C.J. Kingston, who worked the mines in northern Michigan, came to Chile in search of copper and gold. Settling on the western edge of the Casablanca Valley, only about 12 miles inland from the chilly Pacific Ocean, he didn't find exactly what he was looking for (copper: yes; gold: no). But he did find 7,500 acres of ranch land smack in the middle of what has recently become Chile's winegrowing equivalent of California's highly regarded Sonoma Coast.
Today the fourth and fifth generations of the Kingston family, with help from partner and former Saintsbury winemaker Byron Kosuge, are making small batches of cool-climate wines from 200 acres of grapes grown on the property C.J. Kingston founded. With Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah in the arsenal, Kingston Family Vineyards, which sells about 90 percent of its crop to other Chilean wineries, is already making its mark with boutique retailers and like-minded sommeliers in major American cities. For example, the wines are on offer at fashionable wine-driven New York restaurants such as Hearth and Cru as well as San Francisco's Michael Mina and Aqua, among others.
And in tasting the wines for the first time, I can see the appeal. Although the vines were planted only in 1998, the Pinots have a powerful flavor profile that's one part Santa Rita Hills and one part Sonoma Coast. They are crisp, elegant, firm and real in personality, the best Pinot Noirs I've tried from Chile. Meanwhile, the Syrah is a zesty chameleon that seems to change in the glass every few minutes, and the Sauvignon Blanc, the lone white in a stable of wines all named after beloved family horses, shows the chops to someday be a benchmark white for Chile. (It's fermented on the lees in 78-gallon steel barrels, something you just don't see.)
Courtney Kingston, 35, was born in Princeton, New Jersey, to a Chilean-born father (Michael Kingston) and American mother. She now imports and markets the wines from her home in Portola Valley, California. Kingston notes that the family has modeled itself after the Hirsch and Pisoni enterprises, two California vineyards that sell their prized fruit to a number of wineries and winemakers. "Our goal is to some day make 7,500 cases of our own wine, but we will always sell the majority of our grapes," she says.
Until now the Kingstons have been renting winemaking space nearby (at Casas del Bosque), with production for 2004 topping out at 1,900 cases, up from a mere 450 cases in 2003. Courtney Kingston says the 2005 vintage will yield about 4,000 cases, while 2006 remains a mystery. "We just broke ground on our own winery. Our hope is to have it ready for the next harvest."
90 Kingston Family 2004 Cariblanco Sauvignon Blanc (Casablanca Valley); $15. The bouquet deals a fine mix of citrus, melon, bell pepper and asparagus, yet it's not vegetal. Shows weight and sweetness on the palate, thus it will offset Asian foods like magic. Interestingly, it's fermented in stainless steel barrels, not tanks, and with natural yeasts.
89 Kingston Family 2004 Alazan Pinot Noir (Casablanca Valley); $28. Hillside fruit yields
87 Kingston Family 2004 Tobiano Pinot Noir (Casablanca Valley); $18. A "second" wine, if you will, with warm, dusty cherry aromas along with mineral and spice notes. Runs a touch hot and aggressive, with medium depth and fairly high alcohol (14.5%).
85 Kingston Family 2003 Bayo Oscuro Syrah (Casablanca Valley); $28. To get this wine ripe, the grapes were picked in May (the equivalent of November in the U.S.). And still it has a zesty personality. The bouquet offers distant meaty notes along with shades of asphalt and violets, but it's fairly tart and juicy in the mouth, with sharp raspberry fruit.
Dan Odfjell, born in Bergen, Norway, knows the international shipping business. He also knows that it rains a lot in his native country. So in 1982, the transport magnate, eager to soak up some austral sun, purchased land in Padre Hurtado in Chile's Maipo Valley. Not content to let that land just sit, he planted what seemed natural: an orchard.
"Trouble is, fruit is a commodities business and the family wanted a brand it could control from ground to market," explains Dan's son, Laurence, an architect by training and now the person ultimately responsible for Odfjell Vineyards as well as Odfjell ASA's South American shipping operations. "So, in 1991, we turned most of the property over to winegrapes." A decade later, Odfjell released its first wines to widespread praise.
But not before Laurence, who got his architecture degree at Yale, oversaw the building of the family's winery, Chile's first true gravity-flow bodega, much of which is subterranean. "Now I don't even design. I run our businesses here in South America, from São Paulo of all places. Matetic was my last project, and it was a Faustian deal. I promised my father that if I could do Matetic I would then concentrate on the core businesses."
Given that Laurence Odfjell, 40, is comfortable spending more time in Brazil than Chile, the winery must be in good hands. And we say it is, based on a tasting of the extensive roster of 2003s. Day-to-day management is the responsibility of Pedro Torres, while winemaking is handled by Frenchman Arnaud Hereu, who is aided by California-based überconsultant Paul Hobbs. "A lot of what we're doing today is because of Paul," says Odfjell. "He came to us in 1999 and the first thing he said is: 'beautiful winery; neglected vineyards.' He said we needed to learn about Chilean viticulture and he basically instructed us to go up and down the valleys to learn what is good from where, and to buy it."
As a result, Odfjell now purchases grapes like Carignan and Carmenère from Maule, and Malbec from Curicó to supplement its homegrown fruit. Hobbs also offered tips on winemaking; now everything is whole-cluster fermented, which means no crushing. "All our wines are cold soaked and all maceration occurs prior to fermentation," Odfjell says. "This is what creates gentleness in red wines. We're all about mouthfeel and tannin management."
Indeed, the unfiltered wines, which are exclusively red and come into the United States in three ascending lines—Armador, Orzada and Aliara—feature softly extracted but flavorful fruit, mild tannins and highly palatable price tags. "We think of ourselves as a big garage winery," says Odfjell, noting that production is now at about 60,000 cases. A smartly designed garage, that is.
91 Odfjell 2003 Orzada Malbec (Curicó Valley); $18. Exceedingly fruity, with graham cracker and jelly bean aromas. It's a berry lover's paradise, with bold, jammy flavors pushed by pulsating acidity. Very racy and nice, with purity and lots of depth. Editors' Choice.
90 Odfjell 2003 Orzada Carmenère (Central Valley); $18. Black as night, with cola, mint and very little herbaceousness. In fact, the whole package offers only the slightest note of Carmenère's notorious herbal character. Without that identity, it's pure and delivers unabridged ripeness. Finishes with bitter chocolate and vanilla.
89 Odfjell 2003 Orzada Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley); $18. Deep in color with mint, tobacco, licorice and coconut shadings to the deeply fruited nose. Very well tuned, with lush blackberry and cassis flavors in front of a moderately tannic, no-bull finish.
88 Odfjell 2003 Orzada Cabernet Franc (Maule Valley); $18. Not a whole bunch of that typical leafy, French character; this is a South American rendition for sure. Ripe, with hard rubber and black cherry to the heady nose. Quite dense and saturated, with firm tannins and a lot of extract.
87 Odfjell 2003 Orzada Carignan (Maule Valley); $18. Colorful, with hints of mushroom to the cherry and raspberry nose. A very nice wine that is ripe but monotone. It's juicy and fruity, but ultimately simple. Chocolate and vanilla notes soften the finish.
87 Odfjell 2003 Armador Merlot (Maipo Valley); $12. Ripe as fresh-picked fruit, but with a creamy mouthfeel and a lot of natural warmth. Unlike so many murky, insipid Chilean Merlots, this wine has spine and spunk. Best Buy.
86 Odfjell 2003 Armador Syrah (Maipo Valley); $12. Rather gamy and savory, with aromas of black olive and cured meat followed by a creamy, baked-fruit palate that is simultaneously candied yet earthy. Don't judge it too quickly; it unleashes hidden pizzazz with time in the glass.
85 Odfjell 2003 Armador Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $12. Earth, leather and bell-pepper aromas tangle with some fresher cherry and berry notes. Juicy and full in the mouth, with a red-fruit core followed by chocolate and mint on the finish. Good texture, but overall it's a touch green and medicinal.