Maipo: Chile's Cradle of Cabernet Sauvignon

Chile’s wine industry began more than 150 years ago in the Maipo Valley, and to this day Maipo is the source for the lion’s share of the country’s best wines.

Elevation and myriad exposures to the sun are critical to Maipo Alto's Cabernet-friendly terroir.

Certain wine regions are defined by the notoriety of a single grape, sometimes carrying with it the vinous fortunes and reputation of an entire country. Prime examples are Tempranillo from Rioja, Sangiovese from Tuscany and Malbec from Mendoza. Imagine how Spain, Italy and Argentina would best be known within wine circles if it were not for the cultivation and vinification of those particular grapes in those specific regions.

In Chile, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo Valley. Although emerging areas such as the Pacific coastline, the dry and breezy north and warmer regions to the south are subjects of much modern investment, it is the traditional, established winemaking areas in the sprawling Maipo Valley that continue to yield the bulk of Chile’s top-rated—as well as many top-value—wines. The majority of those are varietal Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet-based blends.

“People need to realize that Maipo remains very strong when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon. If you take the 10 best Chilean Cabernets, all, or almost all of them, are from Maipo,” says Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at De Martino and an avowed terroir hunter. Retamal has been a pioneer among Chilean winemakers and viticulturists in establishing the northerly Limarí region as a source for minerally Chardonnay and the oft-overlooked Maule Valley for palate-staining old-vines Carignan and field blends. “Today, Maipo has come back to being all about Cabernet. Since 1995 that’s the direction we’ve been moving. Before then, everything was grown in Maipo: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, you name it.”

Getting to know Maipo

One of Chile’s largest and most historically significant wine regions, the Maipo Valley (pronounced MY-po) has the nation’s capital city of Santiago at its heart. The valley includes more than 30,000 acres of vineyards, more than half of which are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon. For the past 150 years, vines have grown to the north of the city, while thousands of acres of vines also thrive in the fertile passageway that extends southwest of Santiago toward the towns and subzones of Padre Hurtado, Peñaflor, Talagante, Isla de Maipo and Melipilla.

The Maipo Valley extends from the Andes almost to the Pacific Ocean.When it comes to definitive Chilean Cabernet, however, the area within Maipo that one should know and understand is Maipo Alto—basically a stretch of the foothills of the Andes mountains located roughly 25 to 35 miles southeast of Santiago. World-class Cabs including Santa Rita’s Casa Real, Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, Errázuriz’s Viñedo Chadwick and the 15-year-old Concha y Toro-Mouton Rothschild joint venture Almaviva are produced in Maipo Alto.

Within Maipo Alto, or the “Upper Maipo,” vineyards planted at about 1,200 to 2,500 feet in elevation in places like Macul, Puente Alto, Pirque, Alto Jahuel and Huelquén yield some of the finest, most character-packed Cabernet Sauvignon grapes this side of Napa Valley or Bordeaux’s West Bank.

During my most recent visit to Chile in January 2011, I spent three eye-opening days touring Maipo Valley wineries and vineyards, with a special focus on Maipo Alto. Winemakers insisted that no other place in Chile has the terroir of Maipo Alto. They were keen to note that the upper Maipo offers hillsides with multiple exposures to the sun, warm days and cool nights, little to no rainfall during the late portion of the growing season, and most important of all, alluvial soils that allow for proper drainage and impart minerality into the grapes, and hence the wines.

“Historically, Maipo has had the best reputation among Chilean wine regions; with evolution, we’ve seen Puente Alto and Pirque become the Pauillac of Chile. It’s the most valuable and meaningful name you can put on a label,” says De Martino’s Retamal, who incidentally does not make a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon in Maipo Alto but does craft a top-notch Carmenère from the Alto de Piedras vineyard. “Chadwick, Don Melchor and Almaviva, through their combined quality and marketing efforts on the part of their wineries, are now recognized throughout the global wine community."

It would be easy to add Casa Real from Santa Rita to that list. This outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon is a personal favorite. It’s a dead-ringer for a fine Napa Cabernet—deep, lush, structured and layered with smoky notes, minerality and delicious spice, berry and cassis flavors.

“Cabernet Sauvignon is what Maipo is about. No place else compares,” says Santa Rita winemaker Andrés Ilabaca. “You want to talk Carmenère, that’s Colchagua. For whites, it’s the coast. But for poor soils that drain well, those exist mostly in Maipo. These are the rockiest, most classic soils in Chile.”

Interestingly enough, the Maipo Alto actually begins within the city limits of Santiago, in a hilly area to the southeast of the city center called Macul. The grand winery in Macul is Cousiño-Macul, founded more than a century and a half ago. Today, much of Cousiño’s vineyards in Macul have been sold off and converted to housing, but there remains a sizable “home” vineyard that functions as a bulwark against Santiago’s urban creep.

De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal calls the Puente Alto and Pirque subzones the “Pauillac of Chile."From within the 80-year-old vineyard, one immediately notices that all four sides are surrounded by buzzing roads. By necessity as much as choice, the plants live in a high-density environment based on models from Bordeaux, which is where the original cuttings came from, says Pascal Marty, Cousiño’s technical director. Yields are no more than 1.8 tons per acre, with all grapes harvested here going into the winery’s top two red wines: Lota, an $85 Cabernet Sauvignon that contains 15% Merlot, and Finis Terrae, a blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah that is also bolstered by fruit harvested in Buin, a town near Alto Jahuel.

“People used to come out here from the city by horse,” notes Marty as we walk the property. And while nobody is taking Trigger from central Santiago to Macul anymore, it’s not often that one can walk vineyards that are technically within the limits of a metropolis made up of six million people.

Next door to Cousiño-Macul is Domus Aurea, owned by Santiago lawyer Ricardo Peña, his brother, Jorge, and David Williams, an American attorney. Domus’s first wines were made in 1994, when the property switched from selling grapes to making its own wines. The original winemaker was the well-known Ignacio Recabarren, now at Concha y Toro, but in 2002 a Frenchman named Jean-Pascal Lacaze came on board to manage the property and make the wines, with Bordeaux’s Patrick Valette coming in as Lacaze’s consultant (Valette left after the 2006 vintage).

“It was in 2003 that we first started to get into the vineyards and see what we had,” Lacaze says. One of the first things he did was cut down about half of the invasive eucalyptus trees that surrounded the 40-acre vineyard. Lacaze also cut grape production by two-thirds. “I guess you could call me a bad viticulturist. Yield-oriented vineyard managers would not like me,” he says. As for the eucalyptus element, that’s all but gone from the wines, as evidenced by the purity in the 2007 and 2008 vintages of Domus Aurea, but Lacaze says one can’t avoid it entirely. “The nuts fall, the pollen is blown into the vineyard, and it soaks into the ground water that comes down from the Quebrada de Macul [a fissure in the foothills above the vineyard]. It’s a potent force; one handful of eucalyptus nuts can make a 4,000-liter tank of wine taste and smell minty.”

When asked what defines the Maipo Valley’s identity, Lacaze is quick to say Cabernet Sauvignon. “Maipo is the king of Chilean wine regions; the wines show force, strength and a sense of place. A great Maipo Cabernet sticks out; it can compete with great wines from around the world.”

Chile’s Pauillac

The next stop on any tour of Maipo Alto would be the “Pauillac” of the region, better known as Puente Alto and Pirque. It is here, about 20 miles south of Santiago on the north bank of the often dry Maipo River, that several of Chile’s most stately and expensive Cabernet Sauvignons take root. If you’re a follower of Chile’s top-scoring wines, you know the names and the prices: Concha y Toro Don Melchor (93 pointsfor the 2007; $95); Almaviva (93 points for the 2007; $50) and Errázuriz’s Viñedo Chadwick (92 points and a mind-blowing $260 for both the 2007 and 2008 vintages).

Above, the architecturally impressive barrel vault at Almaviva in Puente Alto.These vineyards are extremely rocky and porous, and sit on plateaus overlooking the river bed. In the case of Don Melchor, now in its 20th year, winemaker Enrique Tirado has been on board from the early years, when it was a potential-filled, occasionally awkward wine that cost under $20 a bottle. Today it is polished and consistent, one of the best and highest-priced Cabernet Sauvignons from Chile.
For wines less burly, dark and expensive, there’s Pérez Cruz, which has 225 acres of vineyards in Huelquén, located 10 miles south of Puente Alto and Pirque and down the road from Santa Rita (Alto Jahuel) and almost next door to Antiyal, the boutique winery run by Alvaro Espinoza. Current production at Pérez Cruz is about 60,000 cases, and it boasts one of the more architecturally stunning wineries in Chile. The owning family hails from the energy and gas business, and they bought the land in the 1970s, planted vineyards in the 1990s, and started making wine in 2002. The land here is rugged, tree-covered and hilly, with multiple exposures. “This is the Alto Maipo,” says winemaker Germán Lyon, gesturing east to west as we taste his elegant, red fruit-driven wines outdoors. “It runs from the border with Argentina almost all the way to the Pacific.”

Lyon, whose consultant is Espinoza, says his prime goal in making crisper, more light-bodied reds (including Cabernet Sauvignon) is to show “the identity and character of Maipo Andes, which means aromatically they have some herb, eucalyptus and garrigue. They must also have freshness and good acidity, while texturally the tannins should be fine,” which he admits renders his wines “less robust” than what many consumers might normally associate with Chilean reds.

“Our alluvial soils lead to lower pH levels; we don’t need to correct acidity,” says Lyon. To that end, all Pérez Cruz wines express a distinct red fruit character, with elegance and flavors of raspberry and red plum. If they have a fault, it’s similarity: In my tasting with Lyon, it wasn’t easy to distinguish his Cabernet Sauvignon from Carmenère, Cot (Malbec) or Syrah. One after the other showed feminine red fruit aromas and flavors, higher-than-average acidity and lastly, some creamy oak to provide texture.

A proper place to end our selective look at the Maipo Alto is at Antiyal, the winery owned and run by Alvaro Espinoza and his wife, Marina Ashton. I first met Espinoza in 1999 when he was working at Viña Carmen; now running Antiyal is his full-time job, although he also consults for several wineries, including Pérez Cruz, Undurraga, Emiliana and Cruz Andina, the latter an Argentine Malbec with a great quality-to-price ratio. A bon vivant with a permanent smile and exceptional social skills, Espinoza has an ownership stake in Geo Wines, brews beer with his eldest son under the Cuatreros label and is, by most accounts, one of the most innovative and skilled winemakers Chile has ever produced.

Today, Espinoza makes just 500 cases of Antiyal ($60) and 1,800 cases of Kuyen ($30), both of which are lusty blends of Syrah, Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2002 Espinoza bought a property near his home in Huelquén. Called Escorial, the land had been owned by a Swiss pharmaceutical executive. “It was an almond grove,” he says. “Now we have seven hectares of Cab, Syrah, Carmenère and Petit Verdot. I’m preparing (another) five hectares of Garnacha.”
In the 1850s the Maipo Valley is where Chile’s wine industry began; today the region and its Cabernet Sauvignons still largely define Chilean wine.

A Mixed Case of Recommended Maipo Valley Wines

93 Almaviva 2007 Red Wine (Puente Alto); $50.

Dark, toasty and minerally to start with, then throw in some olive, herb and cassis and it’s pure Maipo Cabernet at its best. The palate is deep, layered and lush, with a smooth, elegant yet lusty flow of cassis, berry, olive and herbal flavors. Fine on the finish, with mild barrel-influenced chocolate. Editors’ Choice. Imported by Diageo Chateau & Estates.

93 Santa Rita 2007 Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $75.

Typically inviting. The nose is ripe and lusty, while the palate is fresh and crisp with fine flavors of black currant, cherry, chocolate and more. Probably the closest thing Chile has to great Napa Valley Cab. Imported by Palm Bay International.

92 Domus Aurea 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $60.

Hits with mild eucalyptus, spice and pointed berry aromas. Chewy, sweet, modern and ripe, with round berry, herb, olive and graphite flavors. Available in early 2012; drink through 2017. Imported by Global Vineyard Importers.

91 Antiyal 2008 Red Wine (Maipo Valley); $60.

Shows milk chocolate, leather and char along with deep berry aromas. The palate is lush, with cassis, cherry, berry and a light leafiness. Mildly herbal, but that’s pure Maipo Alto. Imported by Global Vineyard Importers.

91 Santa Rita 2008 Medalla Real Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $20.

Opaque, while the nose is deep and earthy, but also intensely fruity. Shows fine structure, black cherry and cassis fruit. Grabby, tight and ageable. The real deal in affordable Chilean CS; drink now through 2012. Imported by Palm Bay International.

91 Concha y Toro 2009 Marqués de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $22.

Exhibits graphite, minerality, berry fruit and oak aromas. Pure and stylish, with balanced cassis and sweet berry flavors. Big tannins lend structure. Will be better over the next few years. Imported by Banfi Vintners.

91 Undurraga 2007 Altazor (Maipo Valley); $60.

A five-grape blend (61% Cabernet) that delivers baked berry aromas followed by a tannic palate housing flavors of blackberry, olive and mineral. Long and layered on the finish, with acidic zest to keep it pulsing. Imported by Vision Wine & Spirits.

90 Cousiño-Macul 2006 Lota Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $85.

Displays eucalyptus, leather, licorice and herb aromas. The structure and tannins are firm. Tastes of powerful cassis and blackberry, and shows concentration. Imported by Winebow

90 Apaltagua 2008 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $30.

Lively, fresh and spicy, with cassis and berry aromas. The palate is angular, but there’s no issue with the berry, cassis and herbal flavors. Finishes with elegance and balance. Imported by Global Vineyard Importers.

89 Santa Carolina 2008 Reserva de Familia Cabernet Sauvignon (Maipo Valley); $15.

The nose is firm, crusty and a bit herbal in that patented Maipo way. The flavors are a mix of dark berry, cassis, herbs and medicinality, while the mouthfeel is solid; drink now. Imported by Carolina Wine Brands USA.

88 Viña Pérez Cruz 2009 Cot Limited Edition (Maipo Valley); $20.

Aromas of fine herbs and purple flowers are light and elegant; the palate is almost weightless, with red fruit flavors and chocolate notes. Imported by South American Wine Importers. 

Read more about Cabernet Sauvignon and Chilean Wine in the Buying Guide >>>>

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