The Best Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon
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.
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“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.”
Certain wine regions are defined by the notoriety of a single grape, which sometimes carries the vinous fortunes and reputation of an entire country. Prime examples are Tempranillo from Rioja, Sangiovese from Tuscany and Malbec from Mendoza.
In Chile, the signature grape is Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley.
Granted, emerging areas in Chile have drawn attention in recent years, including the Pacific coastline, the dry and breezy north, and warm regions to the south. However, the traditional, established winemaking areas in the Maipo Valley continue to pump out the bulk of Chile’s top-rated—as well as a good many value—wines. The majority of these are varietal Cabernet Sauvignons or Cabernet-based blends.
“People need to realize that Maipo remains strong when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at De Martino and an avowed terroir hunter. “If you take the 10 best Chilean Cabernets, all, or almost all of them, are from Maipo.
“Maipo has come back to being all about Cabernet. Before the mid-1990s, 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 Santiago, the nation’s capital, at its heart. The valley includes roughly 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. In addition, thousands of acres of vines also thrive in the fertile passageway that extends southwest of Santiago toward the subzones of Padre Hurtado, Peñaflor, Talagante, Isla de Maipo and Melipilla.
For definitive Chilean Cabernet, however, the area within Maipo that one should know is Alto Maipo—a stretch of Andean foothills located roughly 25 miles southeast of Santiago. World-class Cabs produced here include Santa Rita’s Casa Real, Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor, Errazuriz’s Viñedo Chadwick and the Concha y Toro-Mouton Rothschild joint venture, Almaviva.
A Region of Distinction
Within Alto Maipo, or the “Upper Maipo,” vineyards from 1,200 to 2,500 feet in elevation in places like Macul, Puente Alto, Pirque, Alto Jahuel and Huelquén yield some of the most character-packed Cabernet Sauvignon grapes this side of Napa Valley or Bordeaux’s Left Bank.
Winemakers here insist that no other place in Chile has the terroir of Alto Maipo. They point to hillsides with multiple exposures to the sun, warm days and cool nights, as well as little or no rainfall late in the growing season.
Most important of all, the rocky alluvial soils 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,” says Retamal. “With evolution, we’ve seen Puente Alto and Pirque become the Pauillac of Chile. For us, it’s the most valuable and meaningful name you can put on a label.
“Chadwick, Don Melchor and Almaviva, through their combined quality and marketing efforts, are now recognized throughout the global wine community,” he says.
“Cabernet Sauvignon is what Maipo is about,” says Andrés Ilabaca, winemaker at Santa Rita. “No place else compares. 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.”
Alto Maipo 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 in 1856.
Today, many of Cousiño’s vineyards in Macul have been sold and converted to housing, but there remains a sizable “home” vineyard that functions as a buffer against Santiago’s urban crawl.
The 80-year-old vineyard is surrounded on all sides by buzzing roads. By necessity as much as choice, the plants live in a high-density environment based on models from Bordeaux, home of the vineyard’s original cuttings.
Yields are no more than 1.8 tons per acre, with all grapes going into the winery’s top red wines: Lota, an $85 Cabernet Sauvignon blend that contains about 30 percent Merlot; and Finis Terrae, a blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah bolstered by fruit harvested in Buin, a town near Alto Jahuel.
Next door to Cousiño-Macul is Domus Aurea, which made its first wines in 1994 when the property switched from selling grapes to producing its own wines. The original winemaker was the well-known Ignacio Recabarren, now at Concha y Toro (pictured), but in 2002, a Frenchman named Jean-Pascal Lacaze came on board to manage the property and make the wines.
“In 2003, we first started to get into the vineyards and see what we had,” Lacaze says.
One of his first tasks was to cut down about half of the invasive eucalyptus trees that surrounded the 40-acre vineyard. Lacaze also reduced grape production by two-thirds.
The eucalyptus element is all but gone from the wines, as evidenced by the purity of recent vintages of Domus Aurea. But Lacaze says it can’t be avoided entirely.
“The nuts fall, the pollen is blown into the vineyard and it soaks into the ground water,” he says. “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,” he says. “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.”
It is no stretch to say that Puente Alto and Pirque are the “Pauillac” of the Alto Maipo. It’s 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 follow Chile’s top-scoring wines, you know the names and prices: Concha y Toro Don Melchor (93 points for the 2010; $125); Santa Rita Casa Real (93 points for the 2010; $85) and Errazuriz’s Viñedo Chadwick (93 points and a whopping $400 for the 2011).
For wines that are less burly, dark and expensive, there’s Pérez Cruz, whose vineyards are in Huelquén, located 10 miles south of Puente Alto and Pirque and down the road from Santa Rita (Alto Jahuel).
Pérez Cruz boasts one of the more architecturally stunning wineries in Chile. The owning family hails from the energy and gas business. 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 from east to west. “It runs from the border with Argentina almost all the way to the Pacific.”
Lyon, whose consultant is the esteemed Alvaro Espinoza, says that making crisper, more light-bodied reds (including Cabernet Sauvignon) shows “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. Our alluvial soils lead to lower pH levels. We don’t need to correct acidity.”
Pérez Cruz wines express a distinct red-fruit character, with dominant flavors of raspberry and red plum.
Espinoza and his wife, Marina Ashton, own and operate Antiyal, founded in 1996. A bon vivant with a permanent smile and exceptional social skills, Espinoza makes just 400 cases of Antiyal (92 points for the 2011; $75) per year, and not much more of Kuyen (92 points for the 2010; $40), 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 an almond grove. “Now we have Cab, Syrah, Carmenère, Petit Verdot and Garnacha planted,” he says.
In the 1850s, the Maipo Valley was where Chile’s wine industry began. Today, Maipo and its Cabernets continue to define Chilean wine.