What would lead Santa Rita, one of Chile’s biggest and most famous names, to pull up hundreds of hectares of its vines? Amanda Barnes reveals the wisdom behind the Casa Real producer’s radical next steps, and picks out five wines from their diverse portfolio...
Change is afoot in Alto Jahuel. First planted in 1850, the roots of Santa Rita’s historic 600ha wine estate run deep. This is a site of both viticultural heritage and cultural importance for Chile: it was once a hideout for 120 soldiers during the independence wars, and it was in this same vineyard that Carmenère was first identified, hidden away between Merlot vines, in 1994. Alto Jahuel is part of Chile’s vinous patrimony and it is the main artery for Santa Rita’s 100 million-litre production – including its Carmen brand and Casa Real, one of Chile’s foremost icon wines.
Long though its history may be, there is a seismic shift underway in Santa Rita. Cecilia Torres, winemaker for Casa Real since its inception in 1989, stepped down in 2017, handing the reins to Sebastian Labbé (who joined Viña Carmen in 2005). Labbé is also taking over Santa Rita’s premium wines from Andrés Ilabaca, who after 20 years is now downscaling to consultant winemaker. There may be new faces in the barrel room, but the big change is going on in the vineyards.
Scroll down to see Amanda’s tasting notes
Santa Rita – a timeline
- 1850 Carmen, Chile’s oldest winery, is founded
- 1880 Santa Rita founded in Alto Jahuel
- 1983 Cecilia Torres starts at Santa Rita
- 1987 Santa Rita acquires Viña Carmen
- 1989 First Casa Real vintage released
- 1994 Carmen produces Chile’s first organic wine
- 1996 Andrés Ilabaca starts at Santa Rita
- 1996 Carmen becomes first Chilean winery to label and sell Carmenère
- 2005 Sebastian Labbé joins Carmen
- 2014 WiSe replantation in Alto Jahuel starts
- 2017 More than 230ha replanted so far
- 2017 Torres retires; Ilabaca becomes director of technical research; Labbé becomes premium winemaker; Emily Faulconer joins as Carmen winemaker
- 2018 The final replanting of 150ha planned
- 2020 First harvest of new vines expected
Santa Rita is in the middle of an unprecedented replanting programme, called WiSe (Wine & Seeds). One of Chile’s most ambitious to date, it is costing £15 million and involves the replanting of two-thirds of Santa Rita’s Maipo estate – 380ha over five years. That’s the equivalent of half the appellation of Pomerol in Bordeaux. ‘I don’t think anyone has done a replanting project of this size in Chile before – certainly not in Maipo,’ Labbé tells me in an assured tone that veers towards excitement rather than anxiety.