Chile Tackles The 21st Century

Chile Tackles The 21st Century

Deep within the Cachapoal Valley, there is a secluded nook where thousands of native palm trees outnumber Viña La Rosa’s grapevines. Seeing this on my recent trek to Chile, a revelation struck me: This is not the image of Chilean vineyards that most Americans possess; far from some nondescript valley-floor plantation, this could be Shangri-La.

Two days later, while standing atop hills only a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and gazing at all four vineyards in the fledgling Leyda Valley wine region, another salient point was driven home: Chile is not some South American version of the San Joaquin Valley; true, some regions are geared to mass production, but Chile, like California, is an incredibly diverse wine producer.

And on my final day in country, I visited Macul, once the epicenter of Chilean wine and a place I first visited in 1999. Today in Macul, split-level houses are being built on land that for decades was home to Cousiño-Macul’s prize Cabernet vineyards, all against a yellow-brown backdrop of Santiago smog.

Welcome to Chile in the 21st century, a place where the undiscovered, the up and coming, and the old school share time and space, where efforts to remain competitive in the ever-growing world of wine have never been more intense.

This past December I took my third trip in four years to Chile, with an eye toward uncovering what was new in established regions like Rapel, Colchagua, Casablanca and Maipo, but also to see what was brewing in emerging places such as Leyda, Buín and Marchigue. And my findings were encouraging.

With a free trade agreement between Chile and the United States in effect as of January 1, many new winery and vineyard projects are under way or have been completed recently. Veteran and new wineries alike are exploring unconventional sites for planting, while overall the quality of the wines continues to rise, albeit at a modest pace. All in all, I came away feeling that Chile is on the right track.

Because the regions I toured differ significantly in terms of microclimates and grape varieties, and also because the wineries I visited do not have a lot in common, this report is in snapshot form. My goal is to provide updates on wineries we’ve been covering for the past several years while also introducing some of the new players and their endeavors. Admittedly not comprehensive, this report will, we hope, provide a clearer understanding of what is taking place in Chile, arguably contemporary South America’s most progressive country.

Colchagua and Cachapoal Valleys

The Rapel Valley begins about 70 miles south of Santiago and consists of two parallel east-west valleys, Cachapoal and Colchagua. Both are considered warm regions with modest ocean influences, and the grapes here tend to ripen easily, especially red varieties.
Over the past several years much of the attention lavished on Rapel has centered around Colchagua and, more specifically, the efforts being undertaken at the horseshoe-shaped Apalta Vineyard by Casa Lapostolle, Montes and Santa Rita. Montes, based in Curicó, is building a modern winery in the Apalta Vineyard, and hopes to have it ready this month or next, in time for the 2004 harvest. That, however, seems like a lofty goal considering how much work remained to be done on the facility when I saw it in December.

Elsewhere in Colchagua, Viu Manent, the undisputed leader in Chilean Malbec, has hired Grant Phelps as its chief winemaker. The New Zealander’s touch can already be detected in the winery’s Sauvignon Blancs, which are some of Chile’s best. Phelps, working with longtime consultant Aurelio Montes, has also been instrumental in the launch of Viu’s new Secreto line of wines. The secret, and thus the catchy name, is that each wine is 85 percent what it says on the label—Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Malbec, Carmenère or Syrah—and 15 percent unidentified other grapes. For now, the Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec have the most going for them. (They should retail for under $15 when they come to the United States.)

At Los Vascos, the 15-year-old Chilean project of Domaines des Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), international consultant Christian Le Sommer is now working closely with chief winemaker Marco Puyo, and their prime goal is to get more out of the winery’s flatlands plantings in western Colchagua. One of the main projects under way is to increase vine density in order to strengthen the fruit, says Puyo, and we were shown sapling vines that have been planted exactly halfway between existing rows, thereby doubling density.

Out along the coastal outskirts of Colchagua, windswept lands with little to no natural water are now home to Montes’ Finca El Arcangel. Planted over the past five years in Marchigue, just 10 miles inland from the Pacific, El Arcangel is more of a high desert than your typical vineyard estate. Undeterred by the seemingly harsh conditions, Montes has drilled several deep wells and is now committed to about 350 acres of vineyards there. Look for El Arcangel/ Marchigue-designated wines from Montes in the not-too-distant future.

Colchagua may be Chile’s new darling, even garnering a nomination for Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year for 2003, but Cachapoal, which sits to the north of Colchagua, should not be overlooked. From Peumo, Concha y Toro is harvesting incredible Merlot for its highly affordable Marqués de Casa Concha line, as well as star-quality Carmenère for its Terrunyo line. In the hands of Casa Concha Winemaker Marcelo Papa and Terrunyo Winemaker Ignacio Recabarren, the reds under these labels represent some of the best wines for the price in all of Chile.

And it bears repeating: La Rosa’s La Palmeria Vineyard in Cachapoal, about 300 acres of vines among 10,000 acres of native jubaea chilensis (a species of native palms), is a truly breathtaking spot. The land, now a national reserve as designated by the Chilean government, was purchased in 1980 by Recaredo Ossa, father of La Rosa’s current owner, Ismael Ossa. It is a contender for the most scenic vineyard I’ve ever seen. La Rosa’s wines generally represent good value, especially the red varietals, particularly the Carmenère.

Casablanca and Leyda Valleys

West of Santiago toward the Pacific is the Casablanca Valley, founded as a wine region in the 1980s by Pablo Morandé, when he was still working for Concha y Toro. Today Veramonte is the largest vineyard owner in the Casablanca region, where its 1,000 acres of vines represent about 10 percent of all plantings in the valley.

Casablanca is a cool-climate region with strong coastal influences. It’s not unlike Santa Barbara and portions of Sonoma, and fittingly, the grapes that have done best over the past half-decade or so have been Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Veramonte, owned by Chilean-turned-Californian Agustin Huneeus, is succeeding with crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc and snappy Chardonnay. But until recently it struggled with its red wines, including its signature red, Primus. In a positive sign of what might be coming down the pike, 2001 marked a breakthrough vintage for Primus, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère. Gone are the vegetal and bell pepper notes that previously marred the wine. In contrast, the 2001 is ripe and delicious, a product of both a fine vintage as well as the fact that Veramonte’s red grapes, first planted in 1992 and 1993, now seem to be mature enough to fend off the chilly sea influences.

One of Veramonte’s neighbors in Casablanca is Casas del Bosque, founded five years ago by the Cúneo family, owners of the lucrative Falabella department store chain. About 500 acres are planted at Casas del Bosque, with production now at approximately 25,000 cases. Located in Casablanca’s cooler western quarter, Casas del Bosque’s vines benefit from an extra 10 days of hang time compared to fruit planted farther inland. And to combat persistent foggy conditions, Casas has turned to planting its red grapes on hillsides, where the fog burns off first, thus leading to additional sun exposure. Like many Chilean wineries, Casas del Bosque is delivering solid wines for the money.

Of interest to many in Chile is the slow but steady emergence of the tiny Leyda Valley, located south of Casablanca and even closer to the ocean. This area has no natural water sources, and thus the land, which is technically part of the Aconcagua Valley, has historically been used for cattle grazing and chicken farms. But in 1997, the Fernandez family, headed by the industrialist Luis Alberto Fernandez, built a five-mile water pipeline and started planting the vineyards that today are providing fruit for Viña Leyda.

The Leyda Valley is a dead-ringer for the Sonoma Coast. Only eight miles to the west is the Pacific Ocean and the port of San Antonio. An about-face to the east yields a view of the only four vineyards currently planted in the area, one of which is Viña Leyda’s.
“We think we can make very good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here,” said Managing Director Gustavo Llona. In a tasting, Viña Leyda’s young-vines Chards and Pinots, made by Rafael Urrejola, showed an individuality of character. Clearly they are not Maipo or even Casablanca wines. “With so little water, this area won’t get big. It will stay exclusive,” said Llona. “Definitely we need more time, more experience. But I would not expect wines similar to Casablanca’s. We think we’ll have more mineral, more citrus” in our white wines, he said.

Maipo Valley (Puente Alto, Pirque, Buín and Macul)

For generations the best Chilean wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, have been made in the Maipo Valley, in vineyards located just southeast of Santiago. And despite urban sprawl and competition from Colchagua and beyond, there remain few Chilean wines that can compete with a good Maipo Cabernet.

Two of Maipo’s prime Cabernet-growing regions are Puente Alto and Pirque, the former being home to the excellent Almaviva, the well-publicized joint venture between Concha y Toro and Mouton Rothschild. However, just across a barrier of poplar trees from the Almaviva winery is a vineyard that until recently was relatively unknown.

On a former polo field once graced by Alfonso Chadwick Errázuriz and his well-heeled mates is the 40-acre Viñedo Chadwick, planted in 1992 almost exclusively to Cabernet. The brainchild of Eduardo Chadwick, Alfonso’s son, the wine bearing the same name represents the newest entry into the super Chilean sweepstakes. Priced at $70, Viñedo Chadwick could prove to be a challenging sell, yet from a pure quality perspective the wine is a dark, masculine mix of deep fruit and toasty oak.A bit further to the south, in Pirque, we visited one of the most opulent, classy wineries in all of Chile: Haras de Pirque. As we explained last fall when Haras made its U.S. debut, the winery is owned by the entrepreneur Eduardo Matte, while his son, Eduardo Jr., is executive vice president. Meanwhile, winemaking is being overseen by the popular and extremely busy consultant, Alvaro Espinoza.Set on a thoroughbred stud farm flush up against the Andes foothills, Haras is an operation that spares no detail. The winery is 57,000 square feet of architectural genius—shaped like a horseshoe and entirely gravity-flow.

In December I learned more about the Matte family’s joint venture with Piero Antinori of Italy, called AMSA (Antinori-Matte S.A.), including the fact that sometime this year AMSA will release a 2001 red called Albis, the name of which is derived from the word “dawn” but is also the nickname of Albiera, one of Antinori’s three daughters.Matte Jr. said about 500 cases of Albis have been bottled, and that it’s a blend of special lots chosen by Espinoza and Antinori’s chief winemaker, Renzo Cotarella. The wine is 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Carmenère.

And slightly further to the south, in Buín, are the new operations of venerable Cousiño-Macul. Realizing that the city of Santiago was encroaching on its vineyards in the Quebrada de Macul suburbs, the Cousiño family decided in 1996 to begin relocating to bucolic Buín, about 30 miles south of Santiago. Here Cousiño-Macul has built a new winery and has planted some 550 acres of vines in what was previously a fruit orchard.Not only are the vines new, but so is the winemaking and management team at this multigenerational, family-owned business. Freshman winemaker Matías Rivera is bringing a modern touch to both the white and red wines. Whereas in the past Cousiño-Macul’s wines were ultratraditional, they are now vibrant and youthful.”Over the next 15 years the Cousiño family will turn all land in Macul into housing. [Buín] is where our future is,” said General Manager Colin Rogers, the first person without the surname “Cousiño” to hold that position.

If the Cousiños are leaving Macul due to pollution and urban creep, at least one winery is hanging in there. Viña Aquitania, a small, quality-driven operation, is co-owned by the Chilean Felipe de Solminihac and three Frenchmen: Bruno Prats, Paul Pontallier and Ghislain de Montgolfier. De Solminihac is the winemaker and resident manager, and his wines carry a distinct French touch that differs from much of the competition.

Aquitania’s top-of-the-line Cabernet is Lazuli, a name that pays homage to the lapis lazuli gemstone mined in Chile. The wine itself is made from basket-pressed grapes, half of which come from the estate vineyard in Macul and the other half from a Maipo vineyard managed by de Solminihac.De Solminihac also makes one of Chile’s finest Chardonnays, a wine called SoldeSol, which hails from the Malleco Valley in Traiguen, deep in the south of the country. The 2002 SoldeSol, made from grapes grown at a 12-acre vineyard on the property of de Solminihac’s in-laws, is racy and spry, with lovely apple and mineral flavors.And there you have it, snapshots of just some of what’s going on in a vibrant country still fighting for its piece of the global wine pie.

Published on March 1, 2004
Topics: Chile, Wine Trends

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