15 Dec 2011

Return of the Jedi (Maipo Valley, Chile - Day Four)

And thus through the error of circumstance I returned to Santiago two nights earlier than I originally intended. Whilst I wasn’t too thrilled about having to come back and suffer the trials and tribulations of driving in Santiago, I knew that I could get a few visits to wineries whilst there. As mentioned in my last post, I got the opportunity to meet Julio Bouchon Jnr. and his winemaker for a tasting of the J. Bouchon wines in their Santiago offices, and was also treated to a lovely dinner with my official Chilean host, Jaime Rosello. Jaime was again instrumental in me getting appointments for my final day in Chile, back again in the Maipo Valley. Over dinner I filled him in on the experiences I had further South whilst in the Colchagua, Curico, Maule and Cachapoal regions. At El Bacco where we ate, they also had Neyen by the glass, so I got to try the 2005 vintage, which interestingly tasted younger than the 2006. I will forever be indebted to Don Jaime for all of his generosity, time and connections for making my first trip to Chile so memorable.

Perez Cruz in Alto Maipo, one of the newest wineries I visited in Chile, opened in 2002 with the first vintage release in 2003. The family who own the business are one of the wealthiest in Chile, and established the winery as a memorial to their father who passed away in the late 1980s, leaving the 11 children very wealthy. Thanks to their significant holdings in other industries, they have plenty of cash to invest into the wine business. The ultra-modern winery is very high-tech and well planned, but has already become too small for their fast-growing business. After less than ten years they have reached capacity, and have planted new vineyards on the estate (which will bear fruit to be used next vintage), and are completing a new cellar that will hold 500 barrels adjacent to the winery. The Alto (Upper) Maipo area is very close to the Andes so is slightly cooler than the valley floor. The main thing that I liked about Perez Cruz was they are operating in the Regional Model, whereby they are focussing only on the varieties that perform well in the immediate area. For Maipo this is undoubtedly reds, particularly Bordeaux varieties.

They only produce seven wines, all red, using only five varieties (currently). Naturally as it is the Maipo Valley, the most dominant variety is cabernet sauvignon, particularly as the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 80% of their production. The wines they produce are definitely in the ultra-premium category, with no wine retailing for less than US$10. The Limited Edition range has three wines, all single variety; a syrah, a carmenere and a cot (the original French name for malbec). The LE Carmenere 2010 I tried was one of the most balanced wines I have tasted in Chile, finding a true harmony of fruit, tannin, alcohol and complexity. The nose had a cocoa and violets aroma, with nice herb & spice elements, complimented by great length and concentration of red currants and dust on the palate. As it was the first release, my host Maria Jose wanted my thoughts on the Chaski Petit Verdot 2008, which I was happy to share. An inky black colour gives way to an intensely perfumed blackcurrant, spice and tomato leaf aromas. The nose is luxuriously inviting, powerful yet complex. The palate on the other hand was very dark and concentrated, with very little complexity. Slightly hot, you can see how it contributes to the Bordeaux blend. On it’s own it is exactly what many consumers want, but will never be a great wine.

Less than 2km down the road on a very indistinct road, with no sign, was Antiyal. Two missed turns meant it took 30 minutes when it should have taken 10. I was greeted by Pablo the operational winemaker, who introduced me to the history and philosophy of the business. Antiyal was established by the king of biodynamic viticulture in Chile: Alvaro Espinosa. Consulting to numerous wineries across the country including Emiliana, he previously worked for Concha y Toro. After spending a year at Ceago in Mendocino (click here to read about my visit there), he returned to Chile to introduce biodynamic practices. Establishing Antiyal (which in the native Mapuche means son of the sun) in 1990 to be completely biodynamic, it is a meticulously planned estate. Almond trees separate most of the blocks, weeds are allowed to grow naturally, a vegetable garden, animal pens and natural flora and fauna are encouraged. Understanding the nature of the climate and the soils, only cabernet sauvignon, carmenere, syrah, and petit verdot were planted on the estate. These along with fruit from their other organic vineyards make up two of the three wines. Walking around the estate and actually seeing the many elements of biodynamic viticulture in practice was amazing, and I learnt a lot just observing and feeling the difference.

Keep in mind, that the Antiyal wines are super-premium, a category which constitutes less than 1% of Chilean wine. The Kuyen (Mapuche word for moon) is a syrah led blend, followed by cabernet sauvignon, carmenere and petit verdot. The 2009 vintage had a fascinating strawberries and cream fruit character, complimented by almond oil and intense earthy currants. The palate is full and intense, very dark and tight, but with great freshness. It is by no means heavy or hot, just full. The Antiyal 2009 blend consists of almost the opposite of the Kuyen; carmenere 42%, cabernet sauvignon 32%, and syrah 26%). It has a much dustier aroma, with cilantro, cumin and cassis. The brightness of the black fruit on the palate was powerful, yet the finesse of the velvety tannins and viscosity allowed the wine to glide across the palate. The front palate was undeniably new-world, possibly due to its youth, whilst the back palate had a distinctly old-world leather and earth complexity. For $90 you can’t really be disappointed with this wine. They have also started to produce a 100% biodynamic carmenere coming off the estate, but it sells out so quickly there was nothing to taste!

The final visit for the day (and for Chile), was to the ultimate icon winery of Chile; Almaviva. You may remember my first visit in the Napa Valley was to Opus One, a joint-venture project between (then) Robert Mondavi , the largest wine business in North America, and the Rothschild family of Bordeaux (click here if you've forgotten). Well, back in 1997 they made a similar partnership with the largest wine business in South America, Concha y Toro. In both cases the goal was to create the ultimate expression of terroir, and a true icon wine for the continent, using the experience and expertise from Bordeaux. Naturally in both cases the wine is based on the Bordeaux method (a blend of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties), as is the winery, modelled after the famous Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Use of the finest equipment and techniques, coupled with exquisite assemblage is the consistent theme; however the wines are quite different. The Almaviva winery makes only one wine each year, not unlike Opus One, Neyen and Clos Apalta.

As the winemaker for the ultimate expression of Chilean wine, I was quite honoured to have the opportunity to have a private tour and tasting with Michel Friou. Originally from Nantes, France and studying at Montpelier, Michel gained experience with Chilean Bordeaux blends at Casa Lapostolle for many years, as well as experience in working for a French-owned winery outside of France. Whilst the Almaviva winery is not as impressive as the Clos Apalta from an architectural perspective (few wineries would be), it is just as functional and a lot less ostentatious. The practices employed are obviously premium in nature, so I won’t bother you with all the details as you’ve probably heard it before. One of the interesting things Michel has started to do since starting in 2007 was to pull back on the oak, no longer using 100% new barrels. There has also been come significant investment in the vineyard since he started, combining irrigation systems and planting merlot to add to the blend.

The tasting comprised three vintages of the Almaviva, all from recognised vintages, and from half-bottles. The first was the 2005 (not made by Michel), the 2007 (not vinified but blended by Michel as he started mid-vintage), and the 2009 (100% Michel). It was interesting to see the evolution of the wine since he has started, as the 100% new oak had a pronounced influence on the 2005 and 2007 compared to the 2009. The 2005 vintage was starting to show some new-world aged characters, dried cranberries and dark carob on the nose. It had good balance apart from a hollow mid-palate, good earthy tarry length, but the oak was very prominent. The 2007 was a much tighter and more brooding wine, very intense fruit and oak tannins dominating. The fruit expression seemed to be quite closed for its youth, but underneath the oak you could see the classic cassis and leather characters. The 2007 seemed the most ripe. The 2009 to finish with, was one of the most delicious wines I have ever tasted, and in discussion with Michel he agreed that a delicious wine at release will be a delicious wine with age (providing it is stored well). It was exceptionally well balanced, great harmony between well handled oak, perfectly ripened fruit, and adequate alcohol. It had freshness of fruit and approachability, yet it was far from a simple wine, a difficult balance to achieve. Velvety and luscious, with great length, a wine that truly deserves aging as it will most definitely improve. Feel free to drink it now though!

Click here to see more photos from the Maipo Valley Day Four

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