The dramatic Apalta Valley is one of Chile's newest regions to produce quality wines, especially from Syrah and Carmenère. MONTY WALDIN meets the top producers

The dramatic Apalta Valley is one of Chile’s newest regions to produce quality wines, especially from Syrah and Carmenère. MONTY WALDIN meets the top producers

Chile’s Apalta Valley is the kind of new wine region every wine-producing country needs to emerge periodically in order to challenge the status quo. Traditionalists maintain that Chile’s greatest red wines come from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grown in the lee of the snow-capped Andes. Not so with the Apalta Valley, which lies among Chile’s warmer, scrub-coated Pacific hills where grapes such as Syrah and Carmenère prosper. Apalta Valley has fewer than 800ha (hectares) of vineyards, out of a Chilean total of 100,000ha, but unusually nearly 50% of its vines are at least 30 years old.

The valley itself is a half-moon shaped cul-de-sac between the towns of Santa Cruz de Colchagua and San Fernando. Apalta Valley wines are labelled under the Colchagua Valley denomination, which is part of Chile’s Central Valley. The first major winery along the road running west from San Fernando towards the Pacific is Casa Lapostolle. This is co-owned by two familes: the French Marnier-Lapostolle family, who produce the Grand Marnier liqueur and the Chilean Rabat family, whose vineyards are among Apalta Valley’s oldest.

‘Wine is one of a number of crops farmed here,’ explains Casa Lapostolle’s French winemaker Michel Friou as he paces among vines planted in the 1940s and points to pear, apple and plum orchards, fields of maize, vegetables and livestock. ‘Even though the vines were old and unirrigated, which is uncommon for this part of Chile, nobody knew world-class wines could be made here.’

Until 1994 that is, when the Rabat family’s Apalta vineyards and winery were renovated under the guidance of Michel Rolland, the globetrotting, Bordeaux-based winemaker. Rolland is renowned for his opaque, blockbuster reds overlaid with overt influences of new oak barrels, and Casa Lapostolle’s flagship Apalta Valley wine Clos Apalta is true to form.

‘The grapes for Clos Apalta always come from our estate vineyard in Apalta Valley,’ says Michel Friou, ‘but its character changes slightly each year according to the vintage conditions.’ Fewer than 40,000 bottles of Clos Apalta are produced each year, and the most appealing and typical recent vintage, 1997, contained a dash of Malbec with near-equal proportions of Merlot and Carmenère.

Other wines from Casa Lapostolle’s 120ha Apalta Valley vineyard include the Cuvées Alexandre Merlot and Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon, although grapes from elsewhere in Chile or from third-party growers may also be included. Some vintages of Cuvée Alexandre Merlot (the 2000, for example) and Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon (1999) outstrip Clos Apalta for finesse, if not concentration.

Equally concentrated wines are made by experienced Chilean winemaker Aurelio Montes who co-owns Viña Montes – which owns 110ha of Apalta vines – with three Chilean wine professionals. They decided to plant Syrah on the hills surrounding the Apalta Valley floor in the early 1990s. The resultant wine is called ‘Montes Folly’ because, as Montes explains: ‘Some of our neighbours thought we were crazy to plant Syrah, which had not been tried here before, and crazy to plant on the hills, some of which must be worked by hand rather than by tractor.’

Montes Folly sets a benchmark for Chilean Syrah in terms of concentration. The 2000 vintage produced 9,000 bottles and contains a challenging 14.8% alcohol. It shares some of the burnt, impenetrable characteristics of its Rhône alter-egos, Hermitage and Côte-Rotie.

Viña Montes makes another Syrah from Apalta Valley, the ‘Montes Alpha Santa Cruz, Apalta Vineyard Syrah’. The 2000 vintage contains 10% Cabernet Sauvignon with 90% Syrah and produced 70,000 bottles. Its level of alcohol (14.3%) is perhaps too forthright for the fruit, which seems subdued, although a heavy oak influence may also play its part.

Other varietal red wines from Apalta Valley in the Montes Alpha range include a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. The Montes Alpha ‘M’, the Montes flagship wine, is blended along the lines of a Bordeaux Médoc, and contains Cabernet Sauvignon (80%), Merlot (10%) and Cabernet Franc, all from Apalta. The Cabernet elements dominate, and the aroma is full of eucalyptus, although this flavour is more usually associated with Cabernet Sauvignon grown further north in Maipo, Chile’s historic wine heartland.

Most of the wines mentioned so far are priced at the premium end of the market. Those looking for good everyday drinking should consider the Apaltagua range of red wines from Viñedos Donoso. The winery owns 60ha of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Apalta Valley, the oldest of which date from 1945–1950. Donoso sold its grapes or the wine produced from them in bulk until 2000, when it produced its own wine. Alvaro Espinoza, former Viña Carmen winemaker, oversees the blending, while a New Zealander, Peter Mackey, carries out day-to-day winemaking.

Espinoza is Chile’s most vocal proponent of Carmenère, which was confused in Chile with Merlot until 1994. ‘Carmenère ripens later than Merlot and was often picked too early,’ he says. ‘But when it’s ripe it has better structure than Merlot, with fresher, darker fruit flavours and a wild note. To get Carmenère ripe, you must lower yields and pick at the right moment.’
Chile is the only country in the world promoting Carmenère, and Apaltagua’s varietal example shows why Espinoza’s confidence is justified: a bright, deep colour, a floral aroma and a refreshing palate with concentration and finesse. The Apaltagua Envero, a blend of two thirds Carmenère and one third Cabernet Sauvignon, ages in French oak with elegant fruit dominating. A prestige bottling called Grial is made from the oldest vines. ‘We called it Grial,’ says Espinoza, ‘because this means “grail” in Spanish. Our Holy Grail is to make the best Carmenère in Chile.’
The Apalta Valley suits the Carmenère grape, Espinoza feels. ‘The red clay soils found in parts of the valley encourage the Carmenère to ripen in a complex, but
balanced, way.’ And Peter Mackey says: ‘I think the balance in the grapes can be attributed partly to the age of our vines but also to a reliable 7pm, northeasterly breeze which drops evening temperatures. This gives more “continental” ripening of warm days and long cool nights. The river Tinguiririca sends up thermals at night which also helps the vines recover from a scorching 35–40?C summer day heat.’

The success these producers have enjoyed in Apalta Valley has seen other wineries such as Viña Ventisquero and Viña Nuevo Mundo plant vineyards here recently, along with the likes of Viña Carmen. Carmen is owned by Viña Santa Rita, one of Chile’s ‘Big Four’ wineries, so perhaps Apalta Valley is no longer a challenger to Chile’s status quo, but is now part of it.

Monty Waldin is a freelance wine writer.
He visited South America’s wine regions
earlier this year.

Written by MONTY WALDIN