She has used French techniques to produce a very Chilean wine and, in a few, short years, established Casa Lapostolle as one of the foremost Chilean producers. JOHN STIMPFIG meets the totally irrepressible Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle

While most of us muddle along at a fairly normal speed, Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, the French chatelaine of the eponymous Chilean winery, lives life on fast-forward. Certainly, her tour-de-force personality goes a long way to explaining the extraordinary fast-track success of Casa Lapostolle.

Ironically, Casa Lapostolle seems to have been around for years, but in fact it didn’t even exist until just over a decade ago. Then, along came Alexandra and her husband, Cyril de Bournet, determined to diversify the family’s well known drinks business further into wine. After countless visits to prospective properties, in 1993 the pair found themselves staying with the Rabat family in Colchagua. When Marnier Lapostolle saw their gnarled old vines in Apalta, she instinctively knew that this was the place to make great wine.

Marnier Lapostolle had waited for this opportunity. Having married young, she’d put her career ambitions on hold to raise her children. As they were now growing up she didn’t waste any time in proposing a joint venture with the Rabats. Nor did she delay in persuading her own family to plough $20m into the project. Her vision was to produce a premium quality wine using a blend of French expertise and Chilean terroir.

The rest, as they say, is history. Yet even Marnier Lapostolle must be surprised at what she has achieved in such short order.

For instance, within five years of launching its Classic and Cuvée Alexandre ranges, Casa Lapostolle was achieving the highest average prices of any Chilean winery. Similarly, it was her original intention to launch a super premium red within ten years. Instead, she did it in three.

‘I couldn’t imagine we could produce a wine like Clos Apalta quite that quickly. But from the very beginning I knew we had great terroir and vines which were between 60 and 80 years old, and I knew we had the potential, providing we focused on quality.’

So how has she pulled it off? Obviously, behind every great woman there is a great man and de Bournet is just as dynamic and hard-working as she is. She’s also extremely lucky to have the financial backing of her family, which owns Château de Sancerre in the Loire as well as a certain famous and highly profitable orange liqueur. So profitable, in fact, that Grand Marnier was recently able to buy out the Rabat family’s shares in Casa Lapostolle. ‘We own it 100% now,’ says Marnier Lapostolle proudly.

She also has a very loyal, talented and professional team, who pull out all the stops, all the time. ‘Sometimes they think I’m crazy,’ she admits, ‘until they see the results. That’s why it is so exciting when we win awards and gold medals.’

The winery has amassed many awards in its short history, but didn’t do as well at the first Wines of Chile Awards, of which she ventures: ‘Possibly they wanted to show that Chile is not just about the larger wineries. It is important to show that Chile is improving with new appellations, new terroirs and new small wineries, but even so the results were surprising.’

Another key factor in Casa Lapostolle’s rise to prominence is the role of the guru-like French oenologist Michel Rolland, who got involved in 1993, when Casa Lapostolle was still in concept stage. ‘His advice and experience remain absolutely crucial,’ says Marnier Lapostolle. Rolland, who is contractually prevented from working for any other Chilean winery, has undoubtedly helped Casa Lapostolle become, and remain, one of Chile’s pioneering producers. But despite their Gallic backgrounds, both partners are very clear about the brief. ‘He’s not here to reproduce Bordeaux or California,’ she says. ‘We want him to produce the best possible Chilean wine from Chilean terroir.’

Most recently, Rolland has been closely involved in Casa Lapostolle’s latest project – a new, five-floor, gravity-fed, $3m winery for the super-premium Clos Apalta red. While the grand design is clearly intended to reinforce Clos Apalta’s cultish image, Marnier Lapostolle is primarily hoping that the winery will have a positive effect on quality. ‘When you reach a certain level of quality it invariably requires a disproportionate amount of effort to increase it further. But I’ve always believed that you need to take risks.’

You also have to wonder whether an outlay of $3m is worth it for just 10,000 cases a year. ‘Yes, it’s a lot of money for very little wine,’ Marnier Lapostolle admits, ‘but it shows how much we believe in Clos Apalta and it proves that we are in this for the long term.’ One thing we won’t see in this space age winery, though, is a

de-stemmer. On the advice of Rolland, she has dispensed with this piece of kit altogether. Instead, Clos Apalta and a new 100% single vineyard Syrah which will also be produced there, will both be entirely de-stemmed by hand – in itself a hugely expensive process.

She began trials in 2001 with a parcel of Syrah grapes and repeated the exercise again in 2002 just to make sure it wasn’t a one-off. ‘We vinified two wines from the same vineyard. One was de-stemmed entirely by hand while the other was sorted by hand and then de-stemmed by machine. When we tasted the results, it was astonishing. The main difference was in the elegance of the manually de-stemmed Syrah, which exceeded what we were hoping for.’

Learning Curve

You might think that she only gets this animated about her top-of-the-range wines, but in fact she is equally passionate about the whole range. Responding to recent criticism of her whites compared to her reds, she says, ‘With our Chardonnay, it is true that it took us a while to find two things. First, we were not happy with our Chardonnay in Requino, so we started to buy in grapes while we did some trials. After experimenting, we found that Casablanca was the best place to grow it, so we planted it there. Then we had to adapt our vinification to the quality of the grape. It has more minerality and fruit in Casablanca and to keep that fruit we changed the vinification.

‘We’re not in Burgundy here, so I don’t want that minerally, Burgundian style. But equally, I don’t want it to be too heavy with too much oak or malo character. Instead, I’m aiming for balance, elegance and vibrancy. You learn little by little, but that is the beauty of being in wine.’

Marnier Lapostolle aims for red wines with elegance and élan, but also silky tannins and concentration. Occasionally though, she has pushed things a little too far in her quest for quality. ‘One year, I lowered the yields too much. The result was too tight and tannic. But we learned our mistake quickly and found our level.’

Not that she’ll stop experimenting to raise the quality level as high as it will go. ‘If you want to improve, you have to constantly look at new ways to get better. Otherwise, you just stand still,’ she argues. Recently, she decided to increase the ageing period for her Cuvée Alexandre reds from 2.5 years to four years. ‘It requires a lot of investment, but we have to do it if we want to show the wines at their very best.’

In addition, she’s thrilled with some early results from 10ha of Petit Verdot, planted in 2001, which she hopes will add another layer of complexity to Clos Apalta. Besides that, she’s also begun breaking another new vineyard in Apalta, where she plans to plant 15ha of Syrah to produce a 100% single vineyard wine.

Clearly, Marnier Lapostolle is a woman with a mission. At the front of her mind right now is getting the new winery up and running for next year’s harvest. Moreover, 2005 is Casa Lapostolle’s 10th anniversary vintage, so naturally she’s planning a special celebratory party. Will she get it all done in time? Given her track record, I wouldn’t bet against her.

John Stimpfig is a contributing editor to Decanter and the 2002 Glenfiddich Wine Writer of the Year.

Written by John Stimpfig