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Wine Legend: Santa Rita, Casa Real 1989

'A lovely, old school, traditional Chilean Cabernet...'

Wine Legend: Santa Rita, Casa Real 1989

  • Bottles produced 12,000
  • Composition 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Yield 40hl/ha
  • Alcohol 12.5%
  • Release price £9.99
  • Price today n/a

A legend because…

This was the first vintage of Santa Rita’s icon wine, and it soon became established as one of Chile’s greatest Cabernets. It is only produced in exceptional years in order to retain the quality level set by the 1989 vintage. None was released in 1992, 2000 nor 2006. The winemakers had been aware for some years that Santa Rita’s Carneros Viejo vineyard was capable of producing exceptional Cabernet, but it was only in 1989 that they took the decision to offer a separate bottling under the Casa Real label.

This vintage is extremely scarce and only five bottles remain in the Santa Rita cellars.

Looking back

Santa Rita was founded in 1880 and acquired a century later by the late Ricardo Claro, a tycoon with diversified interests. He expanded the company by acquiring other wineries, such as Carmen, and opening the Doña Paula winery in Argentina. In the mid-1980s he launched an export drive, which hugely increased the international availability of Santa Rita wines. Their success has been boosted by the shrewd recruitment of winemakers, such as the consultant Patrick Valette and the veteran in-house winemaker Cecilia Torres Salinas. She was trained at Santa Rita under Ignacio Recabarren and then spent time in the late 1980s at La Rosa and Luis Felipe Edwards before returning to Santa Rita as chief winemaker in 1990.

The pair of winemakers had been experimenting with the wine that would eventually become Casa Real for the best part of a decade.

The people

From the first vintage to the present day the winemaker has been Cecilia Torres Salinas, and since 2009 her work within Santa Rita is devoted exclusively to the production of Casa Real. For her, the primary criterion for selection is the quality of the tannins, as she seeks both accessibility and ageability.

The vintage

Together with 1982, 1989 is regarded as the best vintage of the 1980s in the Maipo region. Yields were quite generous – in more recent vintages they have been far more restricted than they were back then.

Torres also picked much earlier than she would today, as she was seeking elegance rather than roundness.

The terroir

The vineyard, called Carneros Viejo, is a single block of around 20ha (hectares) located within the Alto Jahuel zone in Alto Maipo, where the soils are alluvial over a clay subsoil. This vineyard is located quite close to the Santa Rita winery at an elevation of 500 metres, and the vines are now 50 years old and in good condition. The vineyard contains three different selections of Cabernet planted together in a field blend. Alto Maipo is widely considered the finest region in Chile for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yields at Carneros Viejo are low, and today they never exceed 30 hectolitres per hectare.

The wine

A pure Cabernet Sauvignon, Casa Real is given a 20-day maceration, then aged in barriques for up to 15 months. In 1989 the wine was fermented in large wooden casks, but today vinification takes place in stainless steel.

Torres always preferred a very gentle extraction, with brief pumpovers, the aim being to retain the elegance and velvety character of the wine, with tannins that are present but discreet. In the mid-1980s Santa Rita began to import new French barrels, so it was logical that its top red wine should be aged entirely in new oak, although today the proportion has dropped to 90%.

The reaction

Written recollections of this wine are scarce. Torres herself regards Casa Real as a work in progress: ‘In 1989 we were far less worried about potential greenness in the wines, whereas today we pick at much higher sugar levels to obtain more roundness and softness. In 1989 we vinified in a classic way, but today we are experimenting with barrel fermentation for a small proportion.’

In 2013, Peter Richards MW wrote: ‘Lovely dried fruit, leather and tobacco nose. Lots of age here. But lovely cogency and fluidity on palate. Still got good juicy acid. Earthy tannins. Not at all decrepit. Roasted green pepper, may have been green and mean when young! But it’s a lovely, old school, traditional Chilean Cab, just lovely to drink.’

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Decanter

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