The Renaissance Hotel in Santiago, where we started our Chilean journey.
Sunday 7th January: Chile was on holiday- it is summertime there, and we arrived on a very sleepy Sunday morning to find no rooms were ready, so 3 hours by the pool was the order of the day, until lunch called and we walked to the nearby Alto las Condes shopping mall with Carolina Rivera, our accomplished guide from Wines of Chile.
from left to right, with Pisco Sours at Margo Gourmet: Ronan Sayburn MS, Laure Patry, Carolina Rivera, Martin Lam, Guillaume Mahaut, James Devereux.
Supper followed soon after, and although much of the nightlife is closed on Sundays, we found a very good, modern wine bar in the centre of town- Bocanariz & Co., where we were able to start on what became something of a theme for the week- lesser known grape varieties such as pais. Bouchon Pais review
Huasa de Pilen Alto Pais
Monday 8th January: A walk to the offices of Wines of Chile, where we were shown some well presented statistics on the state of Chilean wines in their export markets: their 2018 strategy for the UK market is to concentrate on premium wines- £10 to £25 retail, which I think is a very sound direction.
We then set off for the coastal Casablanca Valley, 80km north west of Santiago. Planted in the 1980s, Casablanca was the first ‘cool climate’ sub region of modern Chilean viticulture, and has made and kept its reputation for high quality wines- chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir in particular. Pioneers like Thierry Villard, whose son Charlie continues the family line- and Veramonte, now owned by Gonzalez Byass, have established the region as an area increasing interest.
Way back in the 1990s we listed Veramonte Primus, a Bordeaux blend, at Ransome’s Dock, as well as several wines from Thierry Villard.
Veramonte is to the east of the valley, at the highest, and hence warmest part of the valley, just before it is closed by the transverse mountain range.
The drought conditions in Chile over the last year have lead to severe depletion of stored water resources, such as this reservoir at Veramonte, currently only about a quarter full. Irrigation is essential for much of the Chilean viticulture, either the old style flood irrigation, which is now seen to be wasteful of water, or modern drip systems, which although costly to install, save thousands of gallons of water a year. There is some dry farming, in areas like Maule, and experiments in the far north with fog catching are proving quite successful to in providing a more sustainable source of water for agriculture.
Veramonte have 3 different tiers of wines Ritual, made with Casablanca fruit, Primus, with Colchagua and Maipo fruit, and Neyen from Apalta.
Next we headed west a few kilometres back down the valley, to Emiliana Organic Vineyards, sister to their Las Robles biodynamic Estate in Colchagua Valley, which I visited in 2006. We were hosted here by gifted Spanish winemaker Noelia Orts, who under the guidance of the celebrated Alvaro Espinoza, makes wines at both estates. The Casablanca estate is just as impressive as Las Robles in the way it embraces nature.
We tasted wines from the Novas and Signos d’Origen ranges, as well as a carignan from the dynamic new VIGNO group, an impressive ‘no sulphur’ wine-Salvaje- 97% syrah with 3% roussanne, available in the UK from Vintage Roots, and Abel and Cole, a zesty sparkling wine under the Emiliana label, as well as one of my favourite Espinoza wines-Coyam- and finally the flagship Gê from their bio-dynamic Colchagua vineyards.
Emiliana is a most convincing example of how winemaking can be developed in an integrated way for the 21st century- sustainable/ecological, ethical and socially responsible, whilst never losing site of the fact that it is good wine that sells and brings people back for more. We should thank the late José Guilisasti, one of the founders of Emiliana, for his vision and commitment to this project. We had a good al fresco aperitif with Noelia and the estate hens and chicks before returning to Santiago.
Tuesday 9th January: south to the Maipo [Alto] Valley, home to Carmen, the oldest commercial winery in Chile, founded in 1850. Last time I was here in 2006, it was to visit their organic Nativa project, which is now located elsewhere. This had been started by Alvaro Espinoza, before he joined Emiliana as their consultant. Today however, we met young head winemaker Emily Faulconer, who had been in London last autumn as part of a group of young winemakers from Chile presenting Semillon to us for the first time. Carmen is part of the Santa Rita group, and sits happily with one foot in tradition and one in the [re]discovery of what makes Chile unique in the world of wine: In 1994 the Carmenere grape was identified at Carmen as being alive and well- previously it was often called Merlot, and many thought it extinct in Chile until this rediscovery, and in 1996 Carmen was the first to bottle and sell it as such. With the Nativa project in 1994, Carmen also shone a light on organic production which has been adopted by many since. Now in the 21st century, Emily Faulconer is making wines in the Carmen DO range like the Semillon Quijada #1 2016 from Colchagua, La Ramada Moscatel 2015 and the Melozal el Bajo Portugais Bleu 2016, both from Maule, as well as being responsible for the icon Gold Reserve and Gran Reserva Carmen wines from Maipo and Apalta.
Leaving Maipo, we journeyed on south for an hour, into the heart of the Colchagua Valley, and staying on the flat plain, we stopped at Casa Silva for lunch next to their polo field on the Angostora Estate, followed by a tasting in their historic winery.
Incidentally, in the mid 19th century, the Angostora winery had as its owner a certain French winemaker, Emile Bouchon, whose grandson Julio Snr. later moved to Maulé to found the J. Bouchon winery – of which more later.
Casa Silva were one of the pioneers of Sauvignon Gris in Chile, and it was from here that the cuttings came for Casa Marin in San Antonio Valley.
They have continued to reach out and develop new terroirs, and in 2006, following their pioneering spirit, the Silva family planted their first vineyards in Futrono, 904 km South of Santiago, between two mountains of the Andes, on a hillside that sloped towards Lake Ranco. This made Casa Silva the first Chilean winery to produce wines from their own vineyards with the Designation of Origin “Austral”, in such a remote southern region.
Our tasting at Casa Silva included the Cool Coast range from the Paradones estate, Reserva and Gran Terroir wines from the vineyards Los Lingues, Lolol and Angostura and finally riesling and pinot noir from the new Austral Lago Ranco vineyards.The winery is also a museum to the previous generations, with old French presses dotted around the property, and a fine collection of working 20 century cars!
Our final visit of the day took us a few miles south west, still in the Colchagua valley, to Apalta, where we climbed up tho the remote La Robleria Vineyard of Viña Ventisquero for a tasting and dinner of wines from their various vineyard sites, encompassing the very far north [Atacama] to Itata in the far south.
The view from the tasting room at sunset was breathtaking, as was the gradient of the vineyards:
Ventisquero is a large concern, owned by Gonzalo Vial, Chile’s largest fresh food producer. They produce several different ranges of wines, including the Grey series, made by Felipe Tosso. Grey refers to the Grey glacier in Patagonia.
The most northerly vineyards in Chile in the Huasco Valley, are where 3 of their wines originate: Grey Sauvignon Blanc, and Tara Red 1 & 2, and Tara White, with fruit from the Nicolasa and Longomilla Vineyards. Annual rainfall here is only 32mm per year!
The wines produced here are unlike anything else produced in Chile at present- the sauvignon blanc is all nettles and herbs, with 12.7% alcohol, quite complex with long lees contact-10 months- before bottling- and is both charming and of great interest. The Tara wines – a chardonnay, a syrah and a pinot noir, are destined to be cult wines. Very small production- 5400 bottles of the chardonnay for example- natural fermentation, no filtration, and for the chardonnay foot treading and whole bunch fermentation leaving a somewhat cloudy appearance. They are also expensive, but well worth seeking out if you want to see a new and exciting expression of the new Chile.
From the south, Itata, comes a delicious crunchy red fruits Queuelat Cinsault 2016, from Maule a Reserva Pais blended with 15% muscatel from Itata, lightly perfumed, redcurrant fruit, ideal chilled for summer drinking. From the La Robleria vineyard a Rhône style blend-Grey GCM 2017– garnacha-carignan-mourvedre- is spicy, perfumed, savoury-sweet and made for drinking young.
Enclave from Maipo Alto is a cabernet blend made by Filipe Tosso and Australian John Duval, [a former Penfolds Grange winemaker]. It is the essence of Maipo: dark plum and blackcurrant fruit, silky tannins with elegance, power and great length.
Heru Pinot Noir 2015 from Tapihue Vineyard in Casablanca is a serious, complex, smoky black cherry and bramble wine made for cellaring in my opinion, and worth the wait.
John Duval also makes two other wines with Tosso for Ventisquero: Vertice, a carmenere/syrah blend, and Pangea, which is 100% syrah. Both use exclusively Apalta grown fruit, and each is very expressive both grape and location. They are polished, complex, pure wines which warrant the higher prices, and again will benefit hugely from 5 to 10 years cellaring.
After a good meal with some of these wines, we returned to the valley floor, and drove to Santa Cruz where we stayed in the charming Plaza Hotel before setting off in the morning for our first appointment at Montes, at their Finca de Apalta winery.
Wednesday 10th January:
We were hosted at Montes by South African winemaker Gavin Taylor, who was previously at Anakena and now makes all the wines here. Montes is the complete package- all the winemaking, tasting, wine tourism, including a beautiful restaurant-Fuegos de Apalta– literally in the vineyards, takes place here, in a very carefully arranged building complex which has been built with great respect for its environment and combines form and function very well. We were told that the feng shui of the building, with its water cascade bringing energy into the centre, was a most important aspect of the building design.
Gavin took us right through the Montes ranges, from the Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc from their Aconcagua coastal Zapallar vineyard to the north of Valparaiso, which also has very good pinot noir. Other Outer Limits wines included a very modern cinsault from Itata, and a carignan-grenache-mourvedre blend from Colchagua.
We continued through the Limited Selection range- an excellent pinot noir from Leyda-Casablanca, a dark, spicy cabernet-carmenere blend brimming with fresh cassis berry flavours from Colchagua, as well as a spicy Montes Twins blend: cabernet-syrah-carmenere and tempranillo.
On to the Icons range, which also featured with our lunch:Alpha M, a Bordeaux blend of great purity and concentration, Folly, which is 100% syrah, dark intense, black lives and spices; Purple Angel– mainly carmenere with a dash of petit verdot, this really shows the potential of carmenerein the right location with sensitive winemaking-dark blueberry fruits and spice, good concentration but not over naked or extracted. Finally Taita 2010, 85% cabernet, 15% winemakers choice ! It’s everything you would expect from an icon wine- 2 maturation years in new French oak barrels, it is toasty, with coffee notes, super intense dark blackcurrant fruit, still very young, and with great poise and balance it will travel well for a decade or more, which at £200 retail is probably a good thing.
Lunch at Francis Mallmans’ new Fuegos de Apalta restaurant concluded our visit, where we were treated to some of the best food of the trip, along with the icon wines previously tasted, all of which benefited from being drunk with good food.
Leaving Apalta, we then headed 100 miles south to the Maule Valley, where we were to visit the J. Bouchon winery at their Mingré Estate in the northern section of valley, for group tasting of VIGNO carignan wines as well as a selection of pais and other varieties, from Bouchon and others.