Chile's top flight

Chile's top flight People & Places Articles
  • Thursday 1 November 2001

Chile is shaking off its reputation for cheap plonk and entering the fine wine market. christine austin looks at four premium wines which are successfully commanding prices of between £10 and £40 per bottle

We aim to make the highest quality wine in Chile,' says Pedro Izquierdo, chief viticulturist of Errázuriz as he surveys his new Seña vineyard. The young, spindly vines slope down the hill, close planted in the rocky soil. There is no room to drive a tractor between these rows – this is a vineyard that must be worked by hand.The Seña vineyard makes a definite statement about new-style Chilean viticulture and where the country's wine industry is heading. Just a few years ago most wines from Chile were confined to the good-value end of the price spectrum, and 'under a fiver' was the target price for the majority. Now there is an ever-increasing number of wines moving up the scale between £5 and £10, and beyond to £20. Even this is not the top price. Four wines command more than £30 per bottle: Seña, Montes M, Almaviva and Clos Apalta. All were launched in the last four years and each claims market success.

Seña is the result of a joint venture between the Mondavi family and the Chadwick family of Errázuriz. It is a handmade, low-yield wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Carmenère, matured in French oak for around 14 months. Since its launch in 1998, the grapes for this wine have been sourced from the existing Don Maximiano vineyard surrounding the Errázuriz winery in Aconcagua and from vineyards in Maipo, but the aim is to gradually introduce grapes from the Seña vineyard as soon as they achieved the right quality.'So far 16 hectares have been planted from a possible 60,' says Izquierdo. 'We've been careful to select clones from the Don Maximiano vineyard to give the quality we are looking for.' The vineyard is naturally stony and these have been retained, although many surface stones have been moved into alternate rows to allow access between the vines.

Tim Mondavi is captain of the blending team and visits Errázuriz regularly to oversee its development. Just 2,000 cases of Seña were produced for the first vintage in 1995 and subsequent vintages have produced roughly the same amount, though the aim is to gradually expand production as the new vineyard comes onstream. Eventually the aim is to build a dedicated winery next to the vineyard. This is how Seña justifies its £30 price tag, which will soon rise to £35 for the 1998 vintage. The wine is undoubtedly good. I tasted the 1998 vintage at the winery and it is deep and concentrated, packed with fruit, with a definite streak of tannin that will take time to

soften. Even when young, it clearly has personality, density and length.

Seña is not alone in this lofty sector. Other producers are aiming just as high in quality, and justify their prices in much the same way. Almaviva has impeccable credentials as the product of a joint venture between Concha y Toro and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Launched in 1998, the wine sells for around £40 and is made mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon, with 19% Merlot and 6% Cabernet Franc. Grapes come from the Puente Alto vineyard in the Isla de Maipo, a site selected not only for its old vines, planted in 1976, but also for the deep layer of gravel just below the topsoil surface. On such a well-drained site, and with no summer rain, irrigation is vital for vines to survive. This is delivered by drip, a system that is relatively new in Chile but is well established in other parts of the world.Winemaking is by Pascal Marty, a man who has made wines such as Opus One for many years and is no stranger to high-class winemaking.

Unlike Seña and Almaviva, which both have big-name financial and advisory partners outside Chile, Montes M is a totally Chilean wine. Grapes come from a single vineyard in Apalta, more than two hours' drive south of Santiago in the Colchagua Valley. The area was earmarked by Aurelio Montes several years ago when he was working for Undurraga. He noticed that grapes from this region were of a better quality than others, and in 1990 he bought Finca de Apalta, a mixed-fruit farm, and set about turning it into a first-class wine estate. Tons of stones were removed from the sloping site, then irrigation was installed with pumps so water could be delivered where it was needed. Unusually, vines were planted on south-facing slopes so sun exposure was limited and, as the grapes approached maturity, Aurelio Montes ensured concentration of flavours by cutting off excess bunches. Average yields are low. Montes M is made from 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc and a long, traditional-style fermentation is followed by 18 months in new French oak. All these costly elements build Montes M into a £35 wine for the current 1997 vintage. I tasted the first vintage while it was still in cask and known by its code name, Project X. Then it had enormous fruit, slightly unbalanced by too much wood, but over the years that has softened out, leaving harmony, elegance and fruit to the fore.

Clos Apalta is the latest addition to the high-priced ranks. This is the top wine from Casa Lapostolle, the French-owned winery near Aurelio Montes' own Apalta vineyard. 'It was the 60-year-old vines in the Apalta vineyard that attracted me,' says Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle. Since then she has expanded her vineyard, planting in close density and preferring a southerly aspect to give the vines a shorter exposure to the sun. Michel Rolland is consultant and the style of his wine is very French, but with layers of complexity creating a fine, elegant wine.All these super-premium wines represent a breakthrough in Chilean winemaking. For each the vineyard site is the main consideration. Whereas initial improvements inside the Chilean wine industry were in the wineries, with new tanks, new presses and new techniques dominating progress, now the talk is of site selection, clones and yields. Vineyards are moving on to hillsides, a move meaning that irrigation must begin to use more precisely delivered drip irrigation.

But these changes are new, and reputations take time to build. The Chilean wine industry has enormous advantages over much of the world in terms of climate, fertile soil and the absence of pests and diseases. Phylloxera never arrived, although continuing traffic between Chile's vineyards and those of Mendoza in Argentina means that it could only be a matter of time before it does. Even so, the very elements that make Chile such an ideal place to grow grapes may work against its ability to make fine wines. Marginal climates and poor soils are often seen as the key factors in making high-quality wines, and Chilean winemakers have to make a determined effort to find sites where slope, drainage and aspect make the vine struggle. Whether these super-premium wines from a newcomer like Chile are worth their high price tags is debatable and there are suggestions that the UK is resistant to the cost of such wines, but the rest of the world is certainly enthusiastic. 'Global demand for high-quality Chilean wines is much stronger outside the UK,' says Philip Tuck MW from Hatch Mansfield, distributors of Seña.But the aim of super-premium wines is much more than mere sales. Although the real money is to be made by selling vast quantities of wine at realistic prices, the whole structure of selling a region and its wines hangs on a premium name to lend credibility. Long ago, Bordeaux established its classification system to show the pecking order of quality. The fact that many people spend their lives enjoying claret, but never taste much beyond the lower reaches of the charts doesn't diminish the allure of a region that can produce wines to sell at astronomic prices. Questions of value for money are relatively unimportant for wines where the total production is tiny.

Wines such as Seña, Montes M, Almaviva and Clos Apalta send out a clear signal about the state of the Chilean wine industry. Undoubtedly each will develop and improve as vines mature and techniques are refined. But for now they set the outer boundaries of quality, allowing a trickle-down of expertise and experience to other wines in the range. It is at this intermediate level between basic, value-for-money wines and the top-priced super-premium wines where there is considerable interest from supermarket buyers.'We haven't rushed into buying the top-priced Chilean wines,' says Helen McGinn, development manager for South American wines at Tesco. 'While Chile has such an excellent range of wines at around £5, it is important to build up gradually towards higher prices.' Wines such as Don Maximiano from Errázuriz fill that gap well. This was the top wine at Errázuriz before Seña was launched. At around £20, the big, creamy fruit and powerful flavours with ripe, soft tannins mark this out as a wine of quality. The same applies to Caballo Loco from Valdivieso, a wine that was conceived from a collection of casks discovered in their cellar. Some had been refreshed with wine from a different vintage, and so it was not possible to declare a vintage. Now the company takes pride in hiding the grape varieties and the age of the wines. At around £15, Caballo Loco is well made and is good value, with the ability to age. The first blend, Caballo Loco No 1, launched five years ago, has developed well and now shows some of the complexity which had been lost in the initial onslaught of flavour.

Other mid-price blends include Casa Lapostolle's Cuvée Alexandre and the new Terrunyo range from Concha y Toro.Whether Pedro Izquierdo's vision for Chile's greatest wine is correct remains to be seen, but it is steps like that, and those made by many other wineries that will take Chile's wine industry into the future.

Christine Austin is a freelance wine journalist and lecturer.

CHILE'S TOP-FLIGHT WINES

l Seña 1997

Ruby colour, minty blackcurrant aroma, dark chocolate laced with cherries, fine tannins.

£29.99–34.99

l Seña 1998

Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Merlot 15%, Carmenère 5%.

Mint on nose, palate shows fruit, a finish of bitter chocolate and plums. Needs time.

£35–40 (from end 2001)

l Montes Alpha M 1997

Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Merlot 10%, Cabernet Franc 10%. Deep colour, blackcurrant fruit and spicy aromas; elegant fruit with balancing acidity.

£35

l Clos Apalta 1997

Merlot/Carmenère 95%, Cabernet Sauvignon 5%.

Vibrant colour, plummy nose, and ripe, elegant plum and cherry fruit. Long finish.

£40

l Almaviva 1997

Deep, ripe blackcurrant nose, concentrated fruit with good tannin structure.

£36.50–43.05

l Don Maximiano, Founders Reserve 1998

Cabernet Sauvignon 95%, Cabernet Franc 5%. Plummy fruit, powerful flavours, elegant tannins and soft oak character.

£19.99

l Casa Lapostolle, Cuvée Alexandre, Merlot 1998

Rich vibrant colour, slightly

austere nose, deep complexity of fruit overshadowed by firm, ripe tannins. Should age well.

£14.99

l Valdivieso Caballo Loco No 3

Intense colour, round, spicy aroma, rich plums, blackcurrant fruit and long finish.

£14.99

l Terrunyo 1999 Carmenère

Deep coloured, black forest fruits and spice on the nose, big plummy flavours, spicy, round and full.

£12.99

l Errázuriz Don Maximiano 1997

Juicy black fruit and ripe

tannins. £19.99

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