In the fall of 2013, several Guild sommeliers accompanied Fred Dexheimer MS on a trip to Chile, sponsored by Wines of Chile. Following are their observations about Chilean wines and wine culture today.
When I first learned that I had earned this trip to Chile, I felt almost guilty because I originally thought that there would be so many people who would have a more interesting time than I would. I didn’t really work with any wines from Chile and, in fact, I didn’t really think that highly of them. Even though I enjoyed some of the wines presented at the tasting, lecture and exam through which I won the trip, I wasn’t exactly eagerly anticipating the visit to Chile.
Well. I am happy to report that after seven days in Chile visiting 11 properties and meeting 13 different producers, I have a much greater respect for this country and what they’re doing—as well as very high hopes for where they’re going.
It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘Old World is better’ mindset. It’s almost cool for some sommeliers to hate on the New World because, as we learn to be better sommeliers, we have learned to look for (and hopefully appreciate) those subtle nuances that a whispering wine brings. What we often forget is that, as sommeliers, our first job is to sell wine and to be hospitable to our guests. In my market, most of my guests want a fruit-forward wine from either California or South America that doesn’t carry a Napa Valley price tag. I think both they (and we) need to be reminded that Chile can often offer that perfect sweet spot.
Almost every single producer we visited wanted to know our honest thoughts about their wines. “No B.S.,” they would say. Many of the producers showcased their wines with food. They were all so incredibly generous with their time, their wines, their knowledge, and with sharing their hopes. They were all very eager to hear our feedback, and they solicited our advice on how to make Chilean wine a more respected player in the US market.
I left with a huge overall respect for the diversity of Chile’s meso- and micro-climates—and therefore the diversity of the grapes with which they can make wine. These winemakers are learning that what works for Merlot doesn’t work for Carmenère, and what works for Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t work for Chardonnay. Much of what they’ve learned came only in the past two decades. But they’ve come so far in such a very short time… I can only imagine what lies ahead.
Also, you’ll never see bluer skies in your life. The stark contrast of the vibrant, cloudless azure sky against the monstrous, brooding presence of the Andes is sure to make anyone welcome that moment when the clock seems to stop, and nature forces them to slow down and appreciate the panorama of beauty that exists here.
Terraced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards at Vina Ventisquero’s Roblería de Apalta estate
We began our tasting tour of Chile with a Pisco flight from Kappa—born of the high pedigree of Grand Marnier and Casa Lapostolle. Charles de Bournet Marnier Lapostolle (whose parents began Casa Lapostolle) represents the seventh generation of the family that began Grand Marnier in France. True to Cognac tradition, Kappa Pisco is distilled twice in an alembic still.
Kappa uses only Muscat grapes (Alexandria and Rosado) from the Atacama and Coquimbo regions. Charles poured us six different distillates from single vineyards and then the blended final product. It was truly astonishing to taste: even distillates could express terroir! They were all completely different. Some of us liked some of the single-vineyard distillates better than the final assemblage, but as in any blended product, supply limits a single-vineyard product. We tasted two Muscat of Alexandria distillates, one from Elqui and one from Limarí. The other four in the flight were from Muscat Rosado, two from Elqui and two from Limarí. They were all delicious and remarkably unique, and as we thereafter tasted a Pisco Sour every chance we got, we quickly learned: There is no comparison to Kappa.
Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer, our Chilean Ambassador, told us there is no astronomical beauty on Earth more brilliant as that found in the skies above the Elqui Valley. It is here that you’ll find the Southern Cross constellation, and specifically the Kappa Crucis star cluster. These stars overlook the vineyards in Elqui and Limarí and were the inspiration for the namesake of Kappa Pisco.
P.S. The perfect Kappa Sour combines 2 oz Kappa Pisco, 1 egg white, 1 oz fresh lime juice, and 1 oz gomme. It’s important to dry-shake the egg white to a perfect, frothy consistency before adding the remainder of the ingredients with ice. Then shake, strain, and add Angostura bitters on top of the egg froth. Delicious. We drank a lot of these. And then played wine charades. You know, stuff only wine geeks do.
As we drove up to the Montes property, we were greeted by 90-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the morning fog, and two huge banners telling the world that Montes was celebrating their 25th anniversary. The Apalta winery was built in 2004 and was wholly designed with the feng shui philosophy. It was a very "Zen" place to be and, of course, everyone was so welcoming!
Winemaker Jorge Gutierrez (a.k.a. The Big Chilean!) and export manager Dennis Murray immediately greeted us, and our visit began with a tour of the hillside Apalta vineyards. We went by truck… the bed of which held us, seated on park benches bolted to the bed (see below)! It was like a roller coaster at times driving up and down such steep hills! Some of the vineyards in Apalta were so steep it reminded me of the Mosel Valley. The views of the valley were astonishing, as was seeing (and feeling) the different microclimates.
After the lovely tour of the vineyards, we moved into the winery where Jorge led us through a tasting. My overall impression of the Montes wines is that THESE are what my guests are looking for. I found the Montes Alpha lineup and the Icon Wines (Montes Alpha "M," "Folly" Syrah and "Purple Angel" Carmenère) to be particularly tannic and HUGE, delivering the concentration that many of my guests desire—and at a very affordable price.
Part of the lineup was the 1990 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon—their third vintage of this bottling. It was definitely approaching decline as most of the notes were tertiary, but stewy, dried, dusty red fruit was also still hanging on. Notes of leather and tomato leaf dominated, yet it was an incredibly contemplative experience to be allowed inside the evolution of such a wine.
The wines that captured my heart this trip, however, were from Montes’ relatively new line called Outer Limits. They make a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from the extremely foggy and windy Zapallar Vineyard in Aconcagua. This vineyard is located around 112 miles northwest of Santiago and just four miles from the Pacific Coast. Call it the Carneros of Chile. Lots of fog, absolute summer highs are near 75° Fahrenheit while lows average just 54, and the soils are granite and clay. Montes is the only one who has planted vineyards here.
We started with the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, which was round, juicy and tropical—my favorite Sauvignon Blanc of the trip, for sure. I found so many Chilean Sauvignons to be incredibly aggressive and domineering, while this one was a whisperer and quite alluring. The 2011 Pinot Noir was exquisite as well: super floral and high-toned, full of clean white button mushrooms and a beautiful, silky texture. The wine spent only 13 months in 30% new French oak, leaving a gorgeous balance and the most delicate Pinot Noir I’ve ever had from Chile.
Then came my “wine of the trip”: the 2012 CGM (50% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre). Believing that Carignan doesn’t produce very tasty fruit until the vines are quite old, Montes grafted 17-year-old Carignan vines onto Cabernet Sauvignon roots to make fruit for this wine. The wine saw 12 months in less than 30% new French oak, but I didn’t notice the oak at all. The wild iris, black pepper and strawberry notes in this wine were utterly captivating, and the acidity made it just dance across the palate. This was a truly delicious, gorgeous, honest wine that simply brought a huge smile to all of our faces… and it was a very sad moment when the bottle was empty.
After our morning with Montes, we went down the street to Casa Lapostolle’s Apalta facility where their flagship wine, Clos Apalta, is made. Some parts of the final blends of the "Cuvée Alexandre" projects are vinified here, but by and large, this 100% gravity-fed, six-story winery is dedicated to Clos Apalta.
Casa Lapostolle was founded in 1994 by Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle (of France’s Grand Marnier) and her husband Cyril de Bournet. Alexandra was looking for a project in the New World, and with the help of Michel Rolland, she decided Colchagua was the place for Casa Lapostolle. She fell in love with the naturally low-yielding, dry-farmed old vines on the hillsides of Apalta valley, and it is those vines that produce the fruit that eventually becomes Clos Apalta. Always a blend dominated by Carmenère, Clos Apalta has been a labor of love since its inaugural vintage in 1997. The clusters are manually sorted and de-stemmed by a group of 80 women because, they say, “women are better at multi-tasking.” The berries are pressed and everything is gravity fed from there.
After a lovely luncheon (that included Kappa Sours and seeing the largest hummingbird we'd ever seen!) we had a tour of the facility with our host Julien Berthelot, followed by a tasting of wines with Maria Angélica Carrasco, Casa Lapostolle’s Executive Sommelier. We tasted through some of the "Cuvée Alexandre" wines, including the 2011 Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2010 Syrah (massive structure for a Syrah!) and the 2010 "Borobo" (blend of Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir). Then came a special treat: the 1999 "Cuvée Alexandre" Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine was showing classic Bordelaise notes, including cassis, mint, gravel and coffee bean; but the Chilean signature tomato leaf note was there as well. It was quite intensely tannic on the palate despite its 14 years. It will be interesting to see this wine with more time. Our tasting concluded with the 2010 Clos Apalta, and with it came a moment of silence as we marveled at its richness and balance.
The 1997 inaugural vintage of Clos Apalta
Chances are, the first Chilean wine you ever tasted was from Concha y Toro. I tasted my first "Castillero del Diablo" some time in the 1990s and almost didn’t want to admit that a wine of that price level could taste quite that good. My perspective and my familiarity with Chilean wines have changed a lot, especially after this fantastic trip.
The perfect start for our tour of wineries was indeed Concha y Toro. After exploring the surrounding vineyards, and trekking to the "Castillero del Diablo" wine cellar, we were treated to a tasting at the Pirque Manor House, an outstanding property founded in 1883 alongside the winery in Maipo Valley. Its influence is clearly French, from the architecture to the grape varieties that were imported at the time of its inception. Concha y Toro is Chile’s largest producer and exporter as well as one of the world’s great wine brands—but don’t hold that against them. "Don Melchor" (named after the winery’s founder), is the real gem in their portfolio, yet stands amid so many other good wines that it would take too long to mention all of them; the "Marques de Casa Concha" line of wines was exceptionally good.
The "Don Melchor" tasting was led by the charismatic Enrique Tirado, who has made the wine since 1999. "Don Melchor" was Chile’s first “icon” wine, with 23 vintages under its belt today. The vineyard is located in Puente Alto at 650 meters above sea level in the Alto Maipo Valley, and is home to self-rooted vines that are over 20 years old, planted in the phylloxera-free, alluvial soils.
The 1999 "Don Melchor" is like Chanel’s little black dress; it’s a classic beauty that shows lots of nuances. It could easily be mistaken for a great Bordeaux because of the classically styled core and its earthiness, but the fruit is definitively Chilean. It’s elegant and supple and shows extraordinary ageability. Tasting this wine clearly demonstrated to me the potential and soul that it embodies.
The 2009 "Don Melchor" is fleshier, showing a more seductive style at this age yet with lots of complexity, finesse and pedigree. It will only get more gorgeous with time. Both vintages are blended with a little Cabernet Franc that express its perfume along with purple, lean fruit in the best possible way. It has a good 15 years of drinking ahead of it, and I can only hope I will be able to taste its development over the years.
The view from the Fundo Roblería is breathtaking. We were about a two-hour drive away from Santiago, at an elevation of 500 meters, and the serene atmosphere and spring air were intoxicating. This is the Estate property of Viña Ventisquero (ventisquero is an old Spanish word for “glacier”), which is one of the six wineries allowed to grow grapes up the hillsides there in Apalta Valley, a horseshoe-shaped northern subzone of the Colchagua Valley. The area is highly prized for its southern exposure and a climate that occupies a middle ground between California and Bordeaux.
This is a modern and relatively new winery, founded in 1998 in the Maipo Valley; today Viña Ventisquero also owns properties in Casablanca and Leyda. They use lighter bottles to reduce their carbon footprint and, as a part of their commitment to the local community, they’ve allowed the inmates from the Santa Cruz Penitentiary Centre to work the 2013 harvest. This is the first agreement of that kind between a winery and the Chilean prison system.
The winery hired now-famous terroir consultant Dr. Pedro Parra to help them match their soils with ideal rootstock (the first winemaker to support him was Concha y Toro’s aforementioned Enrique Tirado, an old friend of Marcelo Retamal of De Martino). We got to experience his work firsthand, and it was the closest encounter with the subsoil I’ve ever had; standing in a seven-feet-deep trench that exposed the root system of the Syrah vine, digging through granitic bedrock mixed with layers of clay.
I enjoyed the whole lineup we tasted with winemaker Alejandro Galaz. The standout for me was the 2011 “Grey” Carmenère from a single block of the Trinidad vineyard in Maipo Valley. It showed off smoked meat, pepper, paprika, coriander, cocoa, black fruit, violets, a full-bodied core with focused acidity and a stylish personality. The 2009 “Pangea” Syrah and 2009 “Vertice” (a blend of Carmenère and Syrah, made by chief winemaker Felipe Tosso and John Duval) both have generous Apalta flesh, concentrated spice, polished tannins and a proud expression of the creativity of both winemakers.
I liked the 2010 “Enclave” Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Pirque in Maipo Valley made by the same team, showing Bordeaux elegance and classical structure with balanced black fruit. The lineup also included 2012 Pinot Noir from Leyda, which reminds me of the Russian River style, and 2011 “Herú” Pinot Noir from Casablanca—more Sonoma Coast-like, with lots of crushed granite undertones.
What we experienced were great examples of the present state of many Chilean wineries. These “glaciers” are running deep and steady into the bright future.
And then came Marcelo Retamal.
Our group of six sommeliers from across the US sat at a crowded bar in Santiago, and thanks to Fred Dexheimer’s magic, we got to pick the brain of one of—if not the most—exciting winemakers of Chile, Marcelo Retamal of De Martino winery.
Not that there weren’t some extremely interesting facts about these wines, but at this table the tasting notes were not being taken, the tech sheet questions were not being asked. It was just a group of excited and appreciative somms absorbing the experience, breathing in the wisdom and talent of “El Doctor” (as Retamal is known in Chilean wine circles).
The Doctor bottled the first-ever Carmenère in Chile. He’s at the forefront of biodynamic winemaking. He’s in a relentless pursuit for the best terroirs from Elqui to Itata. And he loves Iron Maiden. The stories of his travels—tasting with Aubert de Villaine among many others—are just a backdrop for the philosophy of this really innovative and deeply thoughtful winemaker.
The wines he brought for us were as different, unique and honest as Retamal himself. His winemaking style was a bit unexpected for me because the fruit is very restrained and rustic at the same time. The wines have a polished texture and a very expressive character; they are a true definition of my favorite mantra: “Less is more.” Here’s a rundown of tasting notes:
The common thread with all three wines is an extraordinary elegance, a purity of soil, a balanced and focused acidity and a beautiful texture. These wines are enjoyable and interesting with complex layers that provoke your curiosity; and, just like our conversation with Marcelo Retamal, they keep you motivated and inspired to discover more, to visit them again and again.
Arriving at Casa Silva within San Fernando, I was reminded of an old 19th-century Midwest ranch. The property, which was once the family home, now consists of a boutique hotel, polo field and professional Chilean rodeo! My fellow sommeliers and I were eager to play… but unfortunately we were unable to find any competition.
Casa Silva’s roots go back to 1892, when Emilio Bouchon founded this property. For most of the 20th century, the majority of the grapes were sold to bulk wineries. In 1997, all of this changed when Mario Silva decided to produce estate wines.
Casa Silva is the Carmenère specialist within Chile. They are the only producer who sells more Carmenère then Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2002, Casa Silva began studying Carmenère, hoping to find its best expression. They observed numerous variables, including where it grew, aspect, how it ripened and a micro-soil study. Following their studies, a clonal study project began, including 65 clones within the Los Lingues vineyard, intended to find the best vines and create a clonal selection system. From 65 clones, three were selected. Now, Casa Silva hopes to have its own clone in the near future.
Casa Silva believes in harvesting their Carmenère in mid- to late April—two to three weeks earlier then other wineries, believing that Carmenère lacks overall acidity, and picking later will only adversely affect the grape.
Tasting through the lineups, my favorite was their 2012 Sauvignon Gris. Made from 100-year-old vines, this wine showcased flavors of tart apple, pistachio, almond and lemongrass.
After our visit with Casa Silva, I found it extremely fascinating how many different views there were on Carmenère. Each winery has its own philosophy on how to ripen this unique grape and when to pick it. My perception was that, when the grape was initially discovered in Chile, it was viewed as the red-headed stepchild. However, as demonstrated at Casa Silva, with the amount of money and research being spent on it today, this view has dissipated entirely. I am extremely excited to see where Chilean Carmenère will be 10 years from now.
On Friday morning, we departed from the Maipo Valley and made our way to Casablanca. There was a significant drop in temperature as we came into closer proximity of the Pacific Ocean. Fog plays a huge role within the Casablanca Valley, and we were fortunate enough to see the visual difference between it and the Central Valley. While in the Central Valley, the fog would burn off between 9:30 and 10:00 AM, leading to clear sunny skies. The temperature would also climb significantly during this time. Contrast that to what we found in Casablanca: fog and overcast skies would linger until 2:00 PM before leading to partly sunny skies. I had an "ah-ha" moment and finally, truly, understood why certain varieties grow in specific areas.
Arriving at Veramonte, we were greeted by current winemaker Rodrigo Soto. Rodrigo, originally from Chile, joined Veramonte in 2011. Previously, he was the head winemaker for six years at Benzinger Winery in Sonoma. Rodrigo led us through a detailed tasting and discussion, including wines from their entire portfolio.
The 2012 "Ritual" Pinot Noir was, for me, the highlight of the entire tasting: bright, fresh, with jammy red fruits and plenty of oak. This wine had all the characteristics of Pinot Noir from the Central Coast of California, without the price tag—it wholesales for about $15.00 in the US.
Neyen was founded in 2002 within Apalta; this distinguished wine is made of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it became part of the Veramonte family in 2011. The vines date back to the 1890s and are pre-phylloxera cuttings imported from Bordeaux. Rodrigo poured four different vintages, 2008 through 2011. Patrick Valette (current winemaker at VIK) crafted the first three vintages we tasted, and these three all displayed “Old World” hallmarks (the 2009 vintage also suffered from an abundance of brettanomyces). The 2011 was Rodrigo’s first and a personal favorite of mine as I felt I was tasting a sense of place.
Rodrigo mentioned throughout our discussion that he is trying to “create a brand for Chile.” He worried that people may view Chilean wine as cheap, and he expressed a desire to help change this perception. My views are that Veramonte wines are value-driven and delicious; I left there having found a new respect for Rodrigo Soto and Veramonte Winery.
Veramonte's Sauvignon Blanc
Santa Rita is a serene, tree-lined property located in the Alto Jahuel region of the Maipo Valley. It was founded in 1880 by Domingo Fernandez Concha, a historic Chilean politician, and is recognized as the oldest winery in Chile. Their 100+ acres of land are home to their main facilities, which includes a quaint 16-room hotel and a neo-gothic chapel with Sistine roots. The ambiance made me feel like I’d been transported to a southern plantation during the revolutionary era. With over 25 different wines and eight winemakers, Santa Rita is a prolific winemaking machine. We were fortunate enough to sit down with one of their two Chief Winemakers, Cecilia Torres, for a tasting of nine wines. Cecilia is a warm, humble woman but has a spunk that demands your attention when she talks about the wines. She spoke proudly of her studies of Agronomy and Enology as well as her harvest work at Clos Du Val and Penfolds. Medella Real may only be considered the middle tier label in Santa Rita’s lineup, but these wines really stood out. The Medella Real 2012 Chardonnay from Leyda Valley was very ripe but had surprisingly great acidity. Leyda is in the Cordillera de la Costa area, but its location further away from the Andes allows for a greater marine influence on the vineyards. The Medella Real 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo was velvety and smoky with fine, grainy tannins. It was one of the most restrained as well as one of the prettier Cabernet wines of the trip.
As was discussed throughout the week, Carmenère is extremely hard to ripen and is often the last grape to be picked. Cecilia made a significant point of mentioning that their team asks each year how they are going to grow and ripen Carmenère, rather than make Carmenère, and that canopy management is more important with this grape than with any other. The long, hot and dry summers of the Colchagua Valley certainly help the process. The Medella Real 2009 Carmenère from Colchagua was a testament to the Santa Rita team doing great work growing this tough variety. The texture of Carmenère at its best is silky, and the under-ripe, pungent green pepper aromas turn into great savory spices like cumin, turmeric and chili powder. The Medella Real had all of these qualities working at a price-point around $15 wholesale. The “icon” wines of Santa Rita, the Casa Real 2010 (100% Cab Sauv) and the Pehuén 2007 (100% Carmenère), were certainly polished with amazingly balanced structure, but my top wine of the tasting was the 2008 "Triple C," a blend of 65% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Carmenère. Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc come from Maipo while the small percentage of Carmenère comes from the Apalta Valley—all 80+ year-old vines. The wine had a fresh profile with herbal aromatics. What I most liked discovering about Chile is that, as a winemaking country, it has quality offerings for all aspects of your wine program. Santa Rita fit that mold perfectly. If you need to hit a lower price point for large-scale banquets, their “120” lineup is meant for youthful consumption. The Medella Real hits a nice price point on your core list, and the icon wines are solid options for deep pockets looking to try something new.
During our visit to VIK, we were able to taste three unblended Cabernet Sauvignons, two Carmenères and one each of Syrah, Merlot and Cab Franc. All were from grapes planted in vastly different areas of the property. The Cabernet Sauvignon planted on sandy loam was smoky with huge tannins, while the version planted on clay was more iron rich and mineral-driven. While our table seemed to favor the Syrah (which was definitely killer), I leaned more in favor of the Carmenère planted on sand. The wine had a silky mouthfeel, rich with poignant, savory aromas of curry and cumin.
In the end, what matters at VIK is the final version of VIK: a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère with small percentages of Syrah, Merlot and Cab Franc. We were able to taste the 2011 during our visit and felt it was extremely tight, having just been bottled in April. I was able to try some of the 2010 upon my return to New York, and it was showing more aromatics: red and black fruits with that trademark Carmenère spice. Overall, the wine seems to show huge potential with a few more years of bottle age. A bottle of VIK comes with a price tag ($99 wholesale in NYC), so it will likely prove a bit of a difficult sell to many consumers who are less familiar with Chilean wine. However, I can’t help but wonder if this is one of the best-kept secrets in South American wine. Maybe one day VIK will give Clos Apalta and Seña a run for their money.
The second winery that we visited was Santa Carolina, one of the oldest wineries in Chile, established in 1875. This was a unique experience to visit a “city” winery, as Santa Carolina is located in Santiago itself.
When we arrived, the buildings looked as if they were just recently constructed… and they were: In 2010 a large earthquake hit Chile, causing severe damage to both Santa Carolina’s winery and the entire city of Santiago. After two years of reconstruction, the property has finally been restored to its original glory—not an easy thing to accomplish since the cellars were declared a National Monument in 1973! In order for them to keep this treasured title, strict guidelines had to be followed during the rebuilding, as it was essential to keep the authenticity and history alive through construction.
Santa Carolina’s portfolio is quite expansive. We tasted wines from all four collections: “Specialties,” Reserva de Familia, VSC Icon Wine and Herencia.
The “Specialties” collection hosts a range of wines that highlight different terroirs and styles of winemaking. Their "Ocean Side" Sauvignon Blanc is from Valle de San Antonio and reflects their cooler-climate winemaking style. With a burst of intense citrus-fruit aromatics, grassiness and salinity, this wine is meant to drink now and enjoy with the local seafood.
The "Dry Farming" Carignan is from The Cauquenes Valley and reflects Chile’s natural dry climate. The result is a raisin-like, dried-fruit characteristic with a touch of smoke and earthiness. The wine is on the richer side with plumpness on the mid-palate.
"Wild Spirit" Mourvèdre is from the Cachapoal Valley. Made from 100% Mourvèdre, it is a wonderfully easy-drinking wine that showcases the potential this grape has in Chile. The aromatics are rich with spices and herbs: boldo, saffron, vanilla and cinnamon.
Last, we tasted the "West Andes" Malbec from Valle de Cachapoal. Unlike Argentinean Malbecs, this was much more broad-shouldered with smoky and meaty notes over rich black fruits. The structure was powerful and plump with slightly drying tannins.
Santa Carolina’s Reserva de Familia wines are, for the most part, supposed to emulate Bordeaux in style. There is a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley, a Malbec from Peumo and a Carmenère from Rapel Valley. The wines resemble more of a Chilean interpretation of Bordeaux, with varieties that thrive on their home soils and fatten up in the Chilean sun. All of the wines share a common thread of dark, juicy, black fruit and a big, bold structure. The Carmenère leans more toward its typical exotic spices on the nose while the Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon each show hints of earth or leather.
Grown on granite soil in central Chile, their VSC Icon wine is a base of Petit Verdot with bits of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Mourvèdre and Malbec. This wine displays not only the potential of the Cachapoal Valley but also the potential of Santa Carolina to produce age-worthy wines.
Lastly, the most “Chilean” of their wines, as they described it, is the Herencia. This is mostly made up of Carmenère and the fruit hails from Peumo and Los Lingues—which they consider to be the best terroirs for this grape. Although I found this wine to be massive, it was completely balanced… and the price point definitely beat out its peers (Opus One, Caymus, etc.) in this category.
On the opposite end of the traditionalism spectrum lie Grant Phelps and Casa del Bosque. Grant Phelps, winemaker, is a New Zealander who now calls Chile home. In a country where the wine industry faces an identity crisis, a different perspective and approach is just what the doctor ordered. He is conquering the whimsical Casablanca Valley with a force of charm and precision.
Sitting almost 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Casas del Bosque is nestled in Casablanca Valley, Chile’s first cool-climate winemaking region. The valley is much cooler than one might think: in terms of growing degree days (GDD), Casas del Bosque stands at about 750 (°C) GDD in an average growing season. Now let’s compare that with one of my favorite cool climate regions: Champagne, which climbs to 950 GDD! Casablanca has the Pacific Ocean to thank for its marginal climate; cool breezes and fog roll in from the water, providing the grapes with a slower maturation period, which in turn preserves the elegant acidity and freshness.
Grant Phelps described the eastern side of the valley as having more sandy soils mixed with clay and loam. The western side is similar, save for a few black patches of volcanic soil. As you climb into the hillsides there is a top layer of red volcanic soil, which sits on sedimentary granite, formed about 120 million years ago beneath the Pacific—tectonic plate movement uplifted it over time. The grapes undoubtedly have big potential. The valley is perfectly suited to cool-climate varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Syrah. But what escalates them to another level is the man behind the madness…
Grant’s style of winemaking is not Chilean. It is not a New Zealand style either. It is a style all his own, and people are starting to take notice. For example, no one makes Sauvignon Blanc like Grant Phelps. The 2013 Reserva spent six days on its skins—as opposed to most wineries that allow the juice and skins barely enough time to start a love affair. Grant insists that when the grapes come from great terroir, you can intensify flavors with ample skin contact. And “intense” is a good way to describe this juice. Grant doesn’t believe in marriage to a single winemaking technique: in contrast to the Reserva, his Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc carries fatness and more glycerol, and is barrel-fermented in French barriques. Where the Reserva leads with a punch of herbaceous and citrus aromatics, the Gran Reserva offers more subtle notes of minerality and salinity.
My favorites here were the Chardonnay Gran Reserva and the Syrah "Pequeñas Producciones." Although I found the Chardonnay to be reminiscent of a Puligny-Montrachet and the Syrah of a Côte-Rôtie, they were also distinctly different from these models. The Chardonnay sees up to seven days of skin contact, which gives the wine a fantastic, gripping texture. If you like California Chardonnays in their most typical and commercial form, you will hate this wine. Malolactic fermentation is blocked, so that the richness in mouthfeel comes from other methods—bâtonnage, barrel fermentation, and 11 months in French oak. The Syrah "Pequeñas Producciones" has a tight backbone of acidity but fills out with supple fruit and savory notes like smoked meats. Grant explained that these grapes see almost two months of extra hangtime in the vineyard, meaning they are able to reach that harmonious level of phenolic ripeness. The nose on this wine is like nothing else in Chile; the palate will stop you in your tracks… It is a beautiful woman with soft skin—but sharp nails.
During our time in Chile, we visited quite a few wineries and winemakers. It was probably a good thing that Grant was the last winemaker we visited. When posed with questions, he was not only quick to respond with a detailed and precise scientific explanation, but he also gave us his reasoning behind it. I have heard a lot of different opinions about Grant, from criticism about his unpredictable antics to disbelief in a personality so strong. But there is one thing that can be said for Grant (and, I’d argue, for not many other winemakers in this world): there is, in fact, a method to his madness.
Santiago at Sunset
Great write-ups everyone! I think Julie said it best and it's exactly how I felt since I was lucky enough to visit Chile 3 years ago, it's far too easy for Everyone (Sommeliers, salespeople and lay people) to be dismissive of Chilean wine. Until. They. Go. There. And most of the ahem, haters, haven't. If you think about the relative youth of the country's industry (post-Pinochet) and the age and intelligence of the people who are making the wines now, I think there is amazing wine to be found…but you do have to go looking for it. And if you're lucky enough, you get to look for it in Chile.