The Maipo Valley is the beating heart of the Chilean wine industry, known for its distinctive style of Cabernet, writes PETER RICHARDS. But today its producers are moving beyond their comfort zone to work with new varieties, terroirs and styles.
Truly it was a moment of enlightenment, smelling those leaping scents of blackcurrant, eucalyptus…’ An eminent British wine writer is explaining to me how he first got into Chilean wine many years ago. We are relaxing in a hotel pool in Santiago. It’s hot; the Chilean summer is swelling grapes all over the country. And the wine in question? It almost doesn’t need to be said, so strong is the scent of Maipo Cabernet in his words.
Of all Chile’s wine regions, Maipo is the most widely recognised. It is, if you like, the daddy of the Chilean wine scene. It is where the Chilean fine wine industry first began in earnest; it is home to most of the country’s largest and most established producers; it lies in and around Santiago, the nation’s capital, home to over a third of the country’s 15-million population. Maipo has for a long time been the beating heart of Chilean wine.
It’s not just about tradition or size, though – Maipo is neither the oldest nor the largest wine region in Chile. Where Maipo has really made its name is in consistently delivering a recognisable style of wine of the character described above, and then selling it to the world. Maipo Cabernet has been the Chilean equivalent of Marlborough Sauvignon or Barossa Shiraz.
But things are changing. No longer is Maipo simply a handful of traditional producers making simple though striking Cabernet. (For the record, the wine described above was a 1976 Maipo Cabernet.) The Chilean wine scene is currently evolving at breakneck speed, and Maipo is by no means immune. And while progress elsewhere means Maipo’s dominance of Chilean wine is not what it used to be, many of the momentous changes taking place across the country are captured in this important region.
All over Chile, the buzzword is diversity – of plant material, grape varieties, terroirs, wine styles and producers. A massive re-evaluation of the country’s vineyard is underway as Chile asks itself what does best where, and why. Such a profound change in focus in the vineyard has not happened since the mid-19th century, when the first noble vine stock was introduced into Chile – mainly, in fact, into Maipo – from France.
What this means is that Chile’s wine map is being rewritten. Maipo, for example, can no longer be considered a mono-terroir specialising in minty Cabernet. Although that is a role it can still play (Cabernet accounts for 60% of plantings), the emerging reality of Maipo is far more diverse.
Carmenère and Syrah are two varieties really starting to shine here. There are also, as is the case across Chile, numerous smaller producers that have emerged in the last 10 years and are focusing on small-scale, terroir-driven winemaking. Considering the range of terroirs, varieties and producers in the region, there is a recipe for real diversity in the wines.
It helps to consider Maipo as divided into three broad areas: Alto (over 600m altitude), Medio (350 to 600m) and Bajo (less than 350m). This kind of conscious partitioning of Chile’s winemaking country into vertical strips is a relatively recent concept but one that
is fundamental to understanding the wines and producers. Maipo is no exception. Alto Maipo is the eastern extreme in the Andes foothills, where the altitude, mountain breezes and coarse-grained soils make for excellent though challenging viticultural terrain. Medio Maipo is on the lower hills, with slightly heavier, more alluvial soils, and provides a good quality intermediary zone. Bajo Maipo, meanwhile, covers the hot, generally flat alluvial soils of the central and western areas, ending at the coastal range of hills, where in some cases sea breezes can provide a cooling influence.
But what does all this mean in terms of Maipo’s wines of today? Generally speaking, Alto Maipo is the most marginal of the three and the one that seems capable of making the finest wine. In this cooler area, vines are pushed to their limits and can express a complexity and equilibrium often lacking in wines from the hotter, more fertile lands of the Central Valley. Puente Alto and Pirque are two top areas, with Cabernet the dominant variety, occasionally supported by Carmenère.
‘We’re working close to the limits here,’ says Patrick Valette, who makes single-vineyard reds in Alto Maipo at both Quebrada de Macul and El Principal. ‘In Chile, it’s easy to make good wine; it’s not easy to make great wine.’ Other names that have already helped Alto Maipo stake a claim to greatness are Almaviva and Viñedo Chadwick, two of Chile’s most expensive wines.
The cooler climate also allows for whites to be grown successfully. Concha y Toro winemaker and self-confessed Chardonnay obsessive Marcelo Papa is obtaining good results from his Santa Isabel vineyard in Pirque, among the highest in the region at 730m altitude. The fruit constitutes more than 90% of his acclaimed Marqués de Casa Concha Chardonnay.
‘We used to have Cabernet there, but it never ripened,’ explains Papa. ‘Now we have Chardonnay and it gives amazing wines with tremendous power, figgy character and high acidity. Chardonnay can be boring when it’s in the wrong place; but when it’s in the right place, it’s outstanding.’
Medio Maipo is also producing some first-rate wines, spurred along by such terroir-driven producers as Pérez Cruz, where only reds are made and the likes of Syrah, Carmenère and Malbec (Cot) are thriving.
‘We can’t do magic with the grapes, so we look to retain all the qualities our terroir can give us,’ explains owner Andrés Pérez Cruz. ‘Maipo is big in terms of terroir, so we try to make wines that differentiate us from the rest.’ That style, when well made, tends to be an appealing mixture of fresh and dried fruit, with good balance, breadth and body.
Bajo Maipo is a far larger zone than the other two, but generally warmer, with more fertile, flat soils. However, with careful site selection, viticulture and vinification, good wines can be made here, usually in a full-bodied, ripe fruit style. Factors that can make the difference include good sites (think poor hillside or rocky former river-bed soils, or closer to the sea for slightly cooler temperatures) and restrained winemaking. Good wineries include Casa Rivas, Ventisquero, De Martino, Odfjell and Chocalán.
Chilean wine is in an exhilarating state of flux. Every region is questioning its vinous identity and coming up with different results. As for Maipo, Cabernet continues to be the dominant force, though made in an ever more diverse range of styles and increasingly blended for best results. Syrah, Carmenère and even Malbec are rapidly developing into stars within the region and, in very specific sites and with intelligent winemaking, Chardonnay provides some good white relief.
The combination of forward-looking traditional producers and dynamic new faces in Maipo is already crafting a bright future for the region. A new era has begun.
One senses that, as long as the focus remains firmly in the vineyard and winemakers have the courage to let the fruit express itself, all that Maipo now needs is time.
Concha y Toro (FOUNDED 1883)
Concha is a huge operation, accounting for nearly a quarter of total Chilean wine production. But size has not sullied it, with brands such as Casillero, Trio, Terrunyo and Marqués offering consistently outstanding quality for the price. In winemakers Marcelo Papa and Ignacio Recabarren, it has two of the country’s most inquiring, restless winemaking minds. Concha is a giant on the Chilean winemaking scene both in quantity and quality; it is a great force for positive change.
Santa Rita (1880)
Another traditional operation, Santa Rita prides itself on having the highest average export value among Chile’s largest producers. So are the wines worth it? Well, they certainly offer complexity at the top level – witness the likes of Casa Real, Triple C and the innovative Floresta line, which explores promising areas for both reds (Apalta) and whites (Leyda). Beyond this, the wines are generally reliable, though some uncharacteristic inconsistency has crept in recently.
Santa Carolina (1875)
Historically an important player, Santa Carolina has been experiencing a downturn in wine quality of late. Change is needed and, to a certain extent, is being effected, with new management, winemaking and viticultural input coming on stream. One particularly encouraging move was the recent hiring of top Chilean viticulturist Pedro Izquierdo to advise in the vineyard.
Troubling times for Tarapacá. First, it lost winemaker Leonardo Contreras during the 2003 vintage. Then, in late 2003 it gained a promising young winemaking talent in Santiago Margozzini – only to lose him again early this year. None of this has changed the fact that the wines have been consistently disappointing for some time now. This is a pity, as the winery enjoys a fine location in a hilly amphitheatre that is surely capable of producing some quality fruit. Perhaps new direction is needed.
Under the same ownership as Santa Rita, Carmen is a similarly traditional, reliable producer. Personally, I’d love to see an injection of dynamism and innovation to the range. Something like what happened a few years back when they introduced the organic Nativa line, which continues to prove a high point in the line-up. As winemaker María del Pilar González states, in tribute to organic viticulture: ‘The grapes for Nativa are the best that come into the winery in both varieties.’
Cousino Macul (1856)
It’s all change at Cousiño. This venerable producer has struggled to keep pace with an evolving market and Chile’s rapid development. In 1996 the decision was taken to develop most of its historic vineyard and land in Macul for construction (the Cousiños also have real estate business). They will keep 35ha but now have the main vineyard and winery to the south to Buin. Young winemakers are in charge and the winery is looking to introduce ‘a more New World style’ to the wines.
De Martino (1934)
A consistently reliable producer, De Martino is now starting to branch out in laudable fashion. Forward-thinking winemaker Marcelo Retamal has undertaken a major terroir project to study individual sites in detail, and not just in Maipo. Interesting new regions (Limarí, Leyda) and varieties (Syrah, Malbec, Carmenère) are being taken in hand. It is to be hoped that the somewhat formulaic winemaking of the past is adjusted, and risks taken, to allow such terroir and diversity to express itself.
Not the most historic winery on this list, but one with plenty of history behind it. This joint venture between Concha y Toro and the Rothschilds of Mouton Rothschild has raised the bar for Chilean wine (in terms of price as well as terroir focus) and is now entering a new phase in its development. New vineyards have been planted and, as of the 2004 harvest, Californian Tod Mostero has sole control over winemaking. New second wine Epu is a treat if you can find it; top wine Almaviva remains a delightfully restrained, spicy, food-friendly style of wine.
Vinedo Chadwick (1999)
Its proximity to Almaviva is no coincidence. The Errázuriz family (of the eponymous winery) sold the Puente Alto land to Concha y Toro in 1967, keeping just 25ha for a family home, park and polo field. In 1992, the property was converted to a 15ha vineyard of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc and Carmenère. First release was the 1999 vintage; the 2000 has performed spectacularly well in recent blind tastings against the world’s finest; the 2001 is looking quietly impressive.
Driving past on the road from Alto Jahuel to Huelquén, you’d never notice Antiyal. That’s because, at first sight, it seems little more than a family house. On closer inspection, however, there are a few rows of vines and a tiny winemaking cellar, as well as an organic vegetable garden, a compost pile and several geese (there were alpacas, but they moved out recently). It’s clear this is no normal winemaking operation, nor would husband-and-wife team Marina Ashton and Alvaro Espinoza want it to be. Started in 1996 as a ‘fun, family’ project, they now run the winery jointly from home and make just two reds: Antiyal and Kuyen. Both wines are made following biodynamic principles, which Espinoza has effectively introduced single-handedly into Chile. Quantities are tiny but growing: as well as sourcing fruit from several areas in Maipo, the operation has just gained a new 7ha property nearby. Both wines come highly recommended. www.antiyal.com
Haras de Pirque
Since Haras produced its first wines in 2000, constant change has been afoot. In the vineyard, plantings have crept up into the highly promising hillsides and there have also been changes in varieties. ‘We’re now starting to get the right ingredients,’ says new winemaker (since 2004) Cecilia Guzmán, ‘so we can play around with them to get even better results.’ In addition, the winery recently announced a joint venture with Italian firm Antinori, which will see a red (Albis) and white (Albaclara) produced, and input from Antinori winemakers including Renzo Cotarella can only be a good thing. The style of wines produced in these coolish slopes high in Pirque tends to be fresh, savoury and food friendly, with the Cabernet and Chardonnay particularly impressive. The focus is on terroir, as Guzmán comments: ‘We don’t have the climate to make tropical Chardonnay, so we focus on minerality and mouthfeel. We want food-friendly wines.’ Admirable. www.harasdepirque.com
‘We’re making good wine in Chile, but in the next 20 years, we’ll be making great wine.’ Resident French winemaker Arnaud Hereu doesn’t mince his words, and it’s refreshing to hear. So how exactly will Chile make that step up? ‘Making fruity wines isn’t difficult here. We need more. So we’re moving into the hills, going down south, using more precision viticulture and low yields. All of this makes the fruit far more interesting for great wine.’ Owned by a Norwegian shipping magnate, Odfjell is a recent though impressive addition to the Maipo scene. The winery specialises in reds but not just from Maipo – the excellent old-vine Carignan from Maule is one example. Malbec and Syrah are also showing great promise, and a new experiment has seen steep hillsides near the winery planted with free-standing Cabernet Franc. The winery’s four brands are Rojo, Armador, Orza
Written by Peter Richards