Colchagua is the most dynamic wine region in Chile – with many of the big names rushing to buy up new land, says Peter Richards.
During a recent visit to Chile’s Colchagua, I enjoyed a dinner made by local chef Pilar Rodríguez which featured delicacies such as scallop and coconut ceviche and lúcuma (a local fruit) crème brûlée. I asked her where her inspiration came from.
‘Having such fresh and varied local ingredients is the secret,’ she said. ‘It makes me feel proud and lucky to work here.’
There is a buzz about Colchagua at the moment, and with good reason. Gastronomy and tourism are part of it, but at the heart of Colchagua’s appeal are its wines.
Traditional Colchagua was all about warm, rough-edged charm, with ripe and slightly rustic wines but little in the way of real diversity or elegance. This was, after all, a vineyard largely centred on the town of Santa Cruz, where warm temperatures and deep, fertile soils on flat land are the norm.
But since the mid-1990s, something akin to a mini viticultural revolution has been taking place in Colchagua, fuelled principally by a growing producer base and by an expanding vineyard. Thus, while in 1997 the region’s vineyard weighed in at little over 8,000ha (hectares), by 2004 this had more than trebled to reach 22,225ha, with a concurrent growth in the number of producers.
This expansion of the vineyard has led directly to a massive improvement in the diversity of the wines because it has opened up new and promising areas for the vines to exploit. Put simply, Colchagua has been given a new lease of life.
One significant new area is Marchihue (also spelt Marchigüe, and pronounced mar-chee-way). It covers a broad swathe in the west of the region, where poor soils, rolling hillsides and strong afternoon breezes create an environment of controlled stress for the vines, lowering yields and creating naturally concentrated and characterful wines.
Forward-looking producers including Montes, VEO, Canepa, Veramonte and Concha y Toro have all set up shop here. In fact, so fast and furious has been the growth that the government has been forced to put a moratorium on the issuing of new water rights for fear of collapsing water supplies in the area.
Viticultural consultant Roberto Pizarro puts his finger on what it is that appeals to producers about Marchihue. ‘There are lots of very interesting differences in terms of exposures, soils, wind, rain and stress. The plants seem to find their own balance. There will be plenty of diversity, and we’re learning fast.’
Other new areas to look out for in the coastal west of the region include Pumanque and Lolol, the latter of which has been attracting increasing attention due to the activities of producers like Hacienda Araucano, Casa Silva and Viña Santa Cruz.
What’s more, new vineyards are being planted even further west. Two examples of this are VEO developing an experimental vineyard near Pichilemu, just a few kilometres from the coast, and Concha y Toro planting a new 350ha site called Ucuquer near Navidad, for whites and Pinot Noir. This could usher in a completely new era of cool-climate whites from the region.
More established quality hot-spots include Apalta, the south-facing amphitheatre of hills where producers such as Montes, Casa Lapostolle, Ventisquero and Neyen continue to impress with structured, serious wines. Syrah has proved a hit here, and there may yet be more to come – Montes is currently experimenting with Mourvèdre and may plant Grenache in the future.
In terms of varieties, Carmenère is a clear favourite in the region, suited as it is to the warm climate and deep soils. But scratch the surface and it is clear that a host of varieties are doing promising things here, from Cono Sur’s old-vine Pinot Noir in foggy Chimarongo to Casa Silva’s Viognier in Lolol and even Canepa’s young Sangiovese in Marchihue. Syrah is well established, especially in Apalta, and Malbec is another regional forte, particularly from the many old vines that give a ripe but grippy style of wine with earthy, graphite undertones.
Colchagua is a hive of activity and action. It is a region that encapsulates much of what is currently making Chile one of the most exciting and engaging wine countries in the world.
New faces in Colchagua
The brand may be relatively new but the vineyard is anything but. First planted in 1890 in eastern Apalta, this operation was for a long time simply a supplier of grapes to other wineries. Then the Rojas family decided to start marketing a small portion of the fruit under its own brand and Neyen was born. The first vintage was 2003 and it was a self-assured debut, sourced from old Cabernet Sauvignon(30%) and Carmenère (70%) vines and made under the guidance of consultant Patrick Valette. Since the mid-1990s new varieties (including Syrah) have been planted on the hillsides, and these may eventually add another dimension to the wine. In the meantime, the 2004 vintage already looks very promising.
Vina Santa Cruz
A glamorous, star-studded party was thrown in October 2006 to celebrate the launch of this new winery set into the steep southern wall of the Lolol valley. It certainly is an attention-grabbing prospect – part tourist destination, part winery, Viña Santa Cruz is the realisation of what wealthy owner Carlos Cardoen terms ‘my dream’. The winery boasts a restaurant and wine museum on one level and then a cable car that takes visitors up to a hilltop where an ‘Indigenous Village’ and astronomical observatory have been built. The wines are still at a very early stage, but Carmenère and Cabernet are doing well, while Syrah and Petit Verdot off hillside plantings look a sound bet for the future.
Still a project in its infancy, Los Maquis looks to have good potential. Set on a triangular island of land between two convergent watercourses, the vineyard is largely planted on deep alluvial soils. Only reds are planted and the aim is to move away from the classic Colchagua mould of big, alcoholic reds towards something more restrained and fresh in style. The main wine is Lien, the blend for which is still being defined but with a base mainly of Syrah and Carmenère.
Formerly known as VOE, this winery has had a mini re-brand as part of its ongoing transformation from pioneering organic and biodynamic producer to more established territory. The winery aims to have 450ha of certified organic vineyard by the end of 2007, with the possibility of more to be ceded from sister company Viñedos Emiliana. This growth is indicative of Emiliana Orgánico’s success, built around the charisma of organic winemaking guru Alvaro Ezpinoza and a range of excellent wines including the Adobe, Novas and Coyam brands. A new top-of-the-range biodynamic wine named G was launched in 2006.
A relative newcomer to the Colchagua scene, Estampa’s early years have been characterised by sound if unexceptional blends. Winemaker Ricardo Baettig admits the initial motivation for making blends was commercially driven but is now convinced it makes for more interesting wines. Baettig is a promising young winemaking talent and, with the prospect of new plantings in Marchihue coming online soon, this makes Estampa one to watch.
Key players in Colchagua
‘A bingo feeling’ is how Aurelio Montes describes his discovery of how well Syrah is suited to Apalta. He goes on: ‘As a winemaker, when you find the right terroir and the right grape variety, you’ve made it.’ It’s fair to say that Montes has made it in Colchagua – which is interesting for a winery whose initial base was in Curicó – but this is typical of the man and the operation. A restless search for new things and real focus on quality characterise this winery, examples of which are its growing plantings in Marchihue and experiments such as head-trained Mourvèdre high up in Apalta’s steepest slopes. Wines are generally made in a full-on style but the range has excellent diversity and quality.
There are many reasons why Cono Sur is, for my money, one of Chile’s very best wineries. These range from having a sound commercial plan (based around the Isla Negra brand) to a consistently innovative drive (they were the first to use screwcaps in Chile for fine wine). But most of all it is to do with the wines, the vines, and the man who puts it all together, winemaker Adolfo Hurtado. An earnest, quick-witted man whose favourite word, charmingly, is ‘super’, Hurtado makes some of Chile’s best whites (20 Barrels Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, plus Gewurztraminer and Riesling in other lines) and is doing pioneering work with Pinot Noir.
Two strong personalities lie at the heart of Casa Lapostolle: owner Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle and consultant winemaker Michel Rolland. That, and a prime site in Apalta with some old vines and, since 2006, a brand new, stunning US$6m winery, built (with the aid of dynamite) into the solid granite hillside. There is certainly no shortage of ambition at Lapostolle, a fact also demonstrated by the wines, such as Clos Apalta, a heady, ripe, broad-shouldered blend of Merlot, Carmenère and Cabernet from old Apalta vines. The Cuvée Alexandre line also offers good quality in its reds, especially the Cabernet and Merlot.
On a recent visit to Los Vascos’ scenic Cañeten estate, outgoing winemaker Marco Puyo (now at San Pedro) told me how the wines had been evolving in recent years. ‘I’d like to think they’re more honest, more Chilean now,’ he says. ‘The aim for elegance remains, but we’re starting to prove Chile isn’t just about cheap and easy wine, it can do great things too.’ This is no doubt music to the ears of majority owners the Rothschilds (Lafite branch). Evidence of this subtle change comes in the Grande Réserve, which since 2003 has moved from being a single-varietal Cabernet to having Carmenère, Syrah and, by 2005, Malbec included in the blend.
‘Chile is making good wine but the potential is still immense; we’re learning every day.’ So says Yerko Moreno, agronomist and viticultural sage who not only heads up Talca University’s CTVV wine research facility but is also overseeing Casa Silva’s three-year micro-terroir study in Colchagua. It is a statement of intent from a winery that has grown from bulk production into fine wine territory only since the late 1990s. Five grape varieties are under scrutiny in two areas: Los Lingues (east Colchagua) and Lolol (west), and initial results are already helping give more balance and character to the wines.
MontGras is a winery in the throes of an aggressive programme of expansion. Sales are growing and the winery has been buying and planting land in Maipo, Leyda and sites in Colchagua, including Pumanque. The idea is to create several new brands within the MontGras umbrella as well as improving quality. Winemaker Santiago Margozzini says: ‘Winemakers used to believe we could make anything anywhere, but now we realise the importance of terroir.’
Viu is another old-school Colchagua producer in the process of reinventing itself, largely due to the arrival in 2003 of livewire Kiwi winemaker Grant Phelps. Some wines are still overly rustic but there is potential in the old-vine Malbec and Cabernet as well as new, varied plantings in Peralillo, further towards the coast.
Peter Richards’ top new Colchagua releases
Neyen 2003 ?????
Grilled fruit, gingerbread and cured meat flavours held together in a savoury, mouthwateringly structured style.
Up to 2009. £23.95; BBR
Viu Manent, Malbec Rosé 2006 ?????
Malbec is this winery’s forte and this is a crunchy, red-fruit rosé with bright, fresh flavours. Drink now. £7.50; ElV
Hacienda Araucano, Clos de Lolol 2003 ????
A ripe but sleek blend of Cabernet and Carmenère that shows notes of mint, leather and tar with a velvety, balanced palate. £9.95; C&B
Luis Felipe Edwards, Doña Bernarda 2003 ????
Appealing, warm fruit and creamy oak nature with a long finish and plump flesh. Up to 2008. £14.99; D&D
Montes Alpha Syrah 2003 ????
Classic Montes, classic Apalta – dense ripe fruit with a firm structure and plenty of peppery, warm personality. Up to 2008. £9.99; Wai
Novas, Syrah-Mourvèdre 2004 ????
Scented, meaty, floral aromas and a fleshy, spicy palate that cries out for food. Up to 2008. £8.95; VRo
Viña Candelaria Yaquil Vineyards Carmenère 2003 ????
Lovely stuff from this relative newcomer: spicy and broad but well balanced, with flavours of charred herbs, damson fruit and fresh meat. Up to 2008. £10.95; L&S
Viña Casa Silva, Reserva Shiraz 2004 ????
Engaging, smoky, meaty nose with a
juicy and complex palate. Up to 2009. £7.50; B&T, Bal, BlB, Nak, TMs
Caliterra, Malbec Tribute 2004 ???
Brooding, ripe and meaty but with a
fresh and grippy palate. Up to 2008.
£7.99; Evy, ViW, Wmb, WsB
Viu Manent, Malbec Single Vineyard 2004 ???
A rustic, broad-shouldered style that needs a bit of age to settle down, but this is foody and full of spicy, damson and graphite flavours. Up to 2009. £6.04; CPy
Yali, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ???
New release from Ventisquero; smooth, warm black fruit with a warming finish. Drink now. £5.99; PLB
…and best value buys
Cono Sur, Viognier 2006 HHH
Proof that Viognier could be Colchagua’s best bet with whites: floral, peppery and fleshy. Drink now. £5.49; Maj
Doña Dominga, Old Vines Sauvignon Blanc 2006 HHH
Traditional style of Chilean Sauvignon made from a vineyard first planted over 100 years ago – light herb and hay aromas give way to a dense citrus palate. Drink now. £6.99; Thr, WRa
Cono Sur, Pinot Noir 2006 HHHH
Superb value for money in an elegant package, sourced from sites across Chile including Bío Bío, Alto Maipo, Colchagua (Chimbarongo) and Casablanca. Drink now. £5.99; widely available
Adobe, Syrah 2004 HHH
Perfumed and gutsy Syrah at an excellent price. Drink now. £5.95; VRo
Cantaluna, Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 HHH
Great value for money in this leafy, fresh red with a touch of tannin to go with food. Drink now. £5–5.99; Pat
Cucao, Carmenère-Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 HHH
A sound blend of toasty, ripe dark fruit and a fresh, spicy palate. Drink now. £5.99; Geo
Doña Dominga, Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 HHH
A trophy winner at the DWWA – and at a very affordable price. Drink now. £6.99; Thi
Estampa, Malbec-Petite Sirah 2005 HHH
An unconventional but successful blend that shows lots of peppery, juicy dark fruit. £5–5.99; McK
Los Vascos, Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 HHH
Classic traditional Chilean Cabernet: silky, fresh, with aromas of cassis, earth and mint. Drink now. £6.99–7.99; Ave, C&B, Hax, Jer, L&W, Lay, Sel
Montes, Limited Selection Cabernet Sauvignon-Carmenère 2005 HHH
Tons of ripe dark fruit with plenty of chocolate and spice. Up to 2008. £7.99; Maj
Veramonte, Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 HHH
Sourced from Marchihue, this is a warm, silky, cassis-charged red. Drink now.
Peter Richards is the author of The Wines of Chile (£25, Mitchell Beazley)
Colchagua: Know Your Vintages
2006 ???? Cool, long and dry vintage of sound though variable quality. Short to mid-term ageing potential.
2005 ????? The most highly rated Chilean vintage for many years, especially for reds – top wines will benefit from cellaring.
2004 ??? Uneven vintage, with a hot summer and late-season rains leading to some dilution and over-ripeness. Choose carefully, many wines are drinking early.
2003 ??H? A very good year: wines have good concentration and continue to develop well.
2002 ?? Patchy. Only high-quality wines are holding up well. For everything else, drink up.
2001 ???? Excellent year. Top
wines are ageing well but most are drinking now.