Chile’s Cachapoal Valley is sometimes described as the wallflower of Chilean wine. But its unusual terroir is finally attracting ambitious winemakers, keen to maximise the region’s unique potential, says PETER RICHARDS
London’s Kew Gardens is home to many intriguing examples of the vegetal kingdom, and one of its more impressive specimens can be found in the Temperate Glass House. It is a monumental Chilean palm (jubaea chilensis), 16m tall (and still growing) which qualifies it as the world’s largest indoor plant. Its prowess is underlined by a plaque that explains how such trees can make up to 4hl (hectolitres) of palm wine once the tree is felled and its sap drained and fermented. Stature such as this is the result of long and steady development. The plaque at Kew doesn’t mention how old its specimen is, though apparently it was repotted in 1930. One thing for certain, though, is that it is not as old as the many palms in La Rosa’s La Palmería vineyard estate deep in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. Their statuesque, wizened trunks stand like monuments to quiet perseverance.
Such monuments are not out of place in the Cachapoal Valley. This little-known Chilean wine region has long played second fiddle to its more celebrated neighbours, Maipo (to the north) and Colchagua (to the south). Its wines have been described by one Chilean wine expert as, ‘fruity, without great ambitions’. The recent rush to exploit exciting new areas such as San Antonio, Limarí and Bío-Bío has been in danger of sealing Cachapoal’s fate as the wallflower of Chilean wine.
Few people even know the name Cachapoal Valley, let alone its wine. This is not surprising, as the region’s producers usually label their wines under the alternative denomination of Rapel, a catch-all term that covers both the Cachapoal and Colchagua Valleys (like, say, Médoc is to Pauillac and St-Julien). This, added to a general lack of promotion and dynamism, has meant inevitable obscurity.
Until now, that is. At present, the marketplace is seeing Chilean wine undergo an exhilarating transition from good-value everyday wine to something more diverse and quality-orientated. In the same vein, Cachapoal is finally starting to shed its apathy and aiming to put its name up there with Chile’s best wine regions.
There is much work to do, however. Cachapoal Valley is a region of mining, rodeos and farming. Fruit cultivation abounds in the warm, fertile valley, which, while propitious for general agriculture, can make for lazy viticulture and bland wines. The producers know that if the region is to put itself on the map, it has to produce wines of distinction. This means making the vines work harder and finding better vineyard areas.
One such area is the Alto (high) Cachapoal; one such producer is Altaïr. This joint venture between Chilean giant San Pedro and St-Emilion’s Château Dassault was launched amid much fanfare in 2004 and is already enjoying iconic status. Just two wines are made here, both Cabernet Sauvignon-led blends: Altaïr (£35) and Sideral (£17.95).
The prices are as steep as the vineyards in Cachapoal Valley, which spill down the slopes of an atmospheric amphitheatre tucked into the foothills of the Andes. The cool night air and stony soils promote complexity and freshness.
Altaïr’s consultant winemaker, Pascal Chatonnet, is convinced that this kind of site is the secret to great-quality wine in Chile. ‘We have discovered a very special, original place,’ he says. ‘There are lots of easy places in Chile to make wine. This isn’t, and that’s why we chose it. It is a beautiful hillside which gives expressive grapes.’
So what does this mean in terms of the wine, exactly? Altaïr’s Chilean winemaker Ana María Cumsille says the vineyard gives wines with fresh fruit and acidity as well as silky tannins. ‘We have a very special terroir,’ she states. ‘With Cabernet here, the one thing you notice is concentration, but with elegant tannins and no rusticity like Maipo or Colchagua can give. Plus we get lots of fresh fruit, not the dried or jammy fruit of many Chilean reds.’
Altaïr is an ambitious project and one which will take time to arrive at its ultimate goal, as Cumsille admits: ‘We’re on a steep learning curve now, looking to improve, to find the best expression of this terroir. The blend and winemaking may change, but the style and quality won’t.’ In particular, recently planted Syrah looks to hold great promise here.
Syrah is also the talk of Casa Lapostolle’s nearby Las Kuras vineyard. Although the vineyard is mainly planted to Sauvignon Blanc, 17ha (hectares) of vines have been grafted to Syrah which, says farm manager Jorge Castillo, ‘has great potential in this stony, alluvial soil.’ Proof came with the release of a 2001 Syrah as part of Casa Lapostolle’s Cuvée Alexandre line.
Also attesting to the quality of this pre-Andean territory is Gonzálo Pérez, winemaker at Anakena. Like many, he’s keeping his options open as to which varieties will do best here.
‘In Chile, your proximity to the mountains or the coast is far more important than which valley you’re in,’ explains Pérez. ‘Alto Cachapoal has more in common with Alto Maipo than other places in the same valley.’
Alto Maipo, north of Cachapoal but still close to the Andes, is already making a name for itself as an excellent area for Cabernet, Syrah, Carmenère and Malbec. So what has Anakena planted here in Alto Cachapoal?
The answer is mostly Cabernet, Merlot and Carmenère, though Malbec, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay have also gone in. ‘Our philosophy is to do new things, look for diversity,’ says Pérez. ‘Not all these will work well here; with time, we’ll see if we get better results elsewhere, and we’ll go from there.’
On this topic, and with Lapostolle’s Las Kuras vineyard in mind, I quiz him about the suitability of whites in Cachapoal, particularly Sauvignon Blanc. Cachapoal is a warm region, and red wine takes up nearly 90% of production, so why have whites here?
‘Well, this is a cooler part of Cachapoal,’ he replies, ‘and we can see that in the reds. Syrah and Merlot, for example, are more restrained, perfumed and fresh here. Our Sauvignon is different, less intense aromatically than, say, Casablanca, but fuller on the palate, which makes it good with food. This is a very interesting zone for a particular style of Sauvignon Blanc.’
Further south but in similar country is Rengo, where new kid on the block Misiones de Rengo is fast becoming a success story. Its more established, family-owned neighbour Torreón de Paredes is carrying out a range of improvements, introducting irrigation and satellite mapping, and experimenting with new plantings and blends.
‘We have to be viticulturists with the mentality of gardeners,’ says Alvaro Paredes. ‘This means working small scale, knowing your vines and developing diversity. Chile is starting to discover its potential. We’re on the right track.’
Torreón winemaker Yves Pouzet adds: ‘Alto Cachapoal, like Alto Maipo, has big temperature fluxes from warm days to cool nights, just like the northern Rhône.’ It’s no surprise, then, that Torreón has high hopes for its recently planted Syrah and Viognier.
Unlike its neighbour Colchagua, the main body of the Cachapoal Valley runs north-south, which means it enjoys fresher climates from the foothills of the Andes. However, an important part of the valley branches west, following the Cachapoal River through a narrow hilly corridor and out towards the sea.
Here, around the main growing centres of San Vicente, Peumo and Las Cabras, the climate is warmer and the soils more fertile. It is most suited to reds, in particular the late ripening Carmenère, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
It is home to the historic La Rosa, which, despite more than 180 years in the business, is still dedicated to improving viticulture across its 750ha in this western area of the valley. ‘You never stop learning,’ says winemaker José Ignacio Cancino.
Another major player in the area is Chilean colossus Concha y Toro which, although based in Maipo, has long placed special emphasis on Peumo as a quality site for Carmenère, Syrah and Malbec. Its Terrunyo Carmenère, which has had much acclaim, features the names Peumo in prominent fashion. ‘Peumo is warm, exposed to plentiful sunlight and is an outstanding region for Carmenère,’ says Adolfo Hurtado, winemaker at Cono Sur, which also sources fruit from the area.
Cachapoal’s drive for recognition is, it seems, beginning to deliver results. The wines convey something of the valley’s diverse character and producers have a new sense of commercial awareness. The valley has even formed a Wine Route to encourage visits and promotion of the area.
As with those ancient palms, it will take time and perseverance if Cachapoal is to build a solid reputation. It is heartening to see the initial stages of this development, though I for one would appeal to the region’s producers to use their labels more often to champion the name of Cachapoal. Its rich, subtle, evocative syllables would surely serve the region’s wines well.
Contact: Cachapoal Wine Route. Tel: +56 72 55 3684; www.cachapoalwineroute.cl; firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t miss: Hot spring bathing at Termas de Cauquenes; visiting historic Rancagua; golf at Los Lirios; eating at Gracia’s in-house restaurant; Río Cipreses national park; local mines like Sewell; water sports at Lago Rapel; Cachapoal on horse back
Wineries on the Wine Route: Altaïr, Anakena, Casa Lapostolle, Chateau los Boldos, Gracia, Isidro, Misiones de Rengo, Morandé, Porta, Torreón de Paredes
Hotels/Guest Houses: Porta (+56 72 2198 0932), Il Giardino (www.hotelilgiardino.cl); Hacienda Los Lingues (www.loslingues.cl)
Casa Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre, Syrah 2003
This is a Syrah very much in the meaty, toasty Rhône style – full of rich spice, savoury, elegant and food-friendly. It’s still a little tight so could benefit from at least a few months more in bottle before drinking. A real sign of the region’s potential with this variety. Drink now to 2008.
£15.99; BlB, Hax, Hou, PWA, Sel
Concha y Toro Terrunyo, Carmenère, Peumo 2003
Undoubtedly one of Chile’s very best examples of this grape variety, Terrunyo Carmenère is sourced from one block of
25-year-old vines in Concha’s Peumo vineyard and then blended with Cabernet Sauvignon for structure. The 2003 is beautifully constructed: ripe but balanced, packed with spices, pepper and heady dark fruit. Will improve with time. Drink now until 2007.
£9.99; Odd, Som
Cono Sur Visión, Syrah 2003
Although there’s also some Cabernet, Carmenère and Viognier in this delightfully fresh, spicy wine, 85% of the blend is Syrah from Totihue. The Viognier gives a peachy lift to the sweet black fruit of the Syrah, a technique also used in the Rhône. A wine that will benefit from a bit of age. Drink now–2007.
Anakena, Single Vineyard, Carmenère 2003.
Anakena is a winery to watch and this well handled Carmenère shows why. Its fragrant character shows oak spice and dark fruit with notes of grilled red pepper and dark chocolate. Drink now to 2006.
Anakena Single Vineyard, Viognier 2003
Crisp and exotic, this is a fine everyday white with a very appealing character. Fresh peaches, apricot and peppery nose leads into a balanced, midweight palate. Drink now.
£7.99; Thr, WRa
Concha y Toro, Lot 137, Malbec 2004
There’s no shortage of character in this exuberant wine, which is made from 30-year-old vines. Aromas include cherries, damsons and sweet spices, while the palate is soft, broad and with savoury hints on the finish. Delicious. Drink now. £6.49; Odd
Misiones de Rengo, Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2003
Though a relative newcomer, Misiones is producing some excellent value wines. This is one example, mainly Cabernet from Totihue, complemented by a little Syrah and Carmenère and aged for 12 months in new French barrels. It shows ripe cassis fruit with notes of leather and roasted herbs and a balanced, savoury palate. Drink now.
Viña La Rosa, La Palma, Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
Though rightly known for its Merlot and Carmenère, La Rosa also does a very good line in Cabernet and Syrah. This is classic La Rosa: plenty of plump fruit, very user-friendly and great value for money. Drink now.
£4.49; Coo, Odd