Ruevalparaiso: The revolution in Chile´s wine industry


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The revolution in Chile´s wine industry

BuyLine Panelist Fred Tasker writes a weekly wine column for The Miami Herald that is syndicated by Knight Ridder, Inc. In the website Winenews, he describes the revolution taking place in Chile's wine industry :

With the soaring Andes as the backdrop, a far-reaching revolution is taking place in Chile's wine industry. And a handful of statuesque reds lead the way.
A dozen years ago, when Chile cast off the shackles of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship and embraced a stable, democratic government, the country had already earned a reputation for fruity and ripe, if sometimes oxidized, red wines at friendly prices. With a supporting cast of $5 and $10 Merlots and Cabs gaining notoriety and winning medals, Chilean wine soared in popularity in international markets, becoming the third-largest source of U.S. wine imports in 1998 with 5.3 million 12-bottle cases, according to the Department of Commerce.
As Chile's free market economy gained momentum, outside money, expertise and equipment began to pour into its wine industry. Local growers increasingly adopted international wine standards, and Chile's red wines took a quantum leap in quality. And price.
Chile's established players are making top-flight reds - among them Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Concha y Toro Don Melchor, Santa Rita Casa Real and Cousiño-Macul Finis Terrae - but the excitement these days is being generated by the country's newest hybrids.
Today more than half a dozen powerful, complex reds, crafted with state-of-the-art methods made possible by huge cash infusions from both home and abroad, are entering the U.S. market at $20 to $60 per bottle. The money to finance the rapid modernization is coming from some very formidable players. Some of the new wines were born of powerful partnerships between Chile's wine giants and prestigious foreign wineries: Almaviva, by Viña Concha y Toro and Château Mouton-Rothschild; Seña, by Viña Errazuriz and Robert Mondavi Winery. Others are local endeavors: Montes Alpha 'M' by Montes, a brand formed in 1988 by four Chilean wine veterans; Zavala, by Viña Tarapaca, a winery founded half a century ago by Arturo Zavala. Together, or in competition, the local and international wine players are seeking to propel Chilean winemaking into the 21st century. It manifests itself in several ways.
First, premium vineyards are now sited in cooler areas with poorer soils to stress the vines and achieve longer hang-time and more concentrated flavors. Growers who once generously irrigated with Andes snowmelt - unwittingly watering down their wines - have learned to curb the vine's water supply to further concentrate flavors. Aggressive pruning reduces yields and magnifies flavors.

French chilean Partnership
Casa Lapostolle, south of Santiago, epitomizes the influences of outside experts. The Marnier-Lapostolle family, which owns Château de Sancerre in the Loire Valley, and makes the famous Grand Marnier liqueur, sent daughter Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle to Chile in the mid-1990s with $12 million to build an ultramodern winery in the middle of a very traditional, old grape-growing area. She settled on Chile's Colchagua wine subregion, forming a partnership with the Chilean Rabat family, which had run a family winery there since 1927, buying acres of vines already planted, some of which today are more than 100 years old. For expert help, she turned to Michel Rolland, owner of Château Le Bon Pasteur in Bordeaux's Pomerol region and consulting winemaker to wineries from France to Argentina.
To the fabulous old vines, Rolland applied modern methods - offering to pay growers the equivalent of six tons per acre if they thin their crops to deliver only four. And the new winery provided temperature-controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks and expensive French oak barrels for aging.
"We provide the equipment, the money and the expertise," Marnier-Lapostolle explains.

Designation of Origin system
Chile's Montes Winery typifies local efforts. Aurelio Montes, winemaker and partner, says Pinochet's departure opened Chile's wine industry to international ideas and outside money - and competition - prompting local growers to reevaluate their traditional methods.
And when the Chilean government in 1995 adopted the Designation of Origin system, Montes says it spurred new efforts by Chile's growers to identify the plots of land - the micro-terroirs - most suited for growing each variety.
"One of the major discoveries is the Apalta microclimate," Montes said at a recent media tasting in New York. "The infertile soil is thick sand and requires mechanical irrigation, which facilitates total control over growth. The southwest orientation means plants are not overexposed to too many hours of sunlight."
In the Apalta Valley, Montes found ideal conditions for growing cabernet sauvignon, merlot, carmenère, syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot - some of which find their way into his ultrapremium, flagship Montes Alpha 'M.'
"The resulting wines can be full-bodied, filled with sweet, ripe tannins with loads of ripe fruit that is both elegant and appealing," he says.

an impressive series of small victories
Chile's winemaking techniques also are undergoing a revolution. Ancient redwood aging vats are being chopped into kindling, replaced by smaller, top-quality French and American oak barrels. Computerized stainless steel fermenting tanks are providing the temperature control to preserve the intense, natural fruitiness of Chile's grapes. And when Casa Lapostolle began shipping its wines in refrigerated containers for the long trip across the equator to the United States, it prompted other Chilean wineries to start following suit.
Those vintners who mounted the offensive have been rewarded with an impressive series of small victories, prompting them to declare that Chile can produce wines as good as any in the world. And that, yes, indeed, they are capable of turning out a Chilean version of a grand cru.
Michael Mondavi, president of California's Robert Mondavi Winery, has partnered with Eduardo Chadwick of Chile's Viña Errazuriz to produce a $55 red table wine called Seña that is now in its second vintage. "I would very proudly put the 1996 Seña in the company of any wine in the world," Mondavi says.
David Williams, a New York investor who has joined with Chilean vineyard owner Ricardo Peña and veteran Chilean Winemaker Ignacio Recabarren in making the new Domus Aurea wine, goes even further. "It's absolutely there now. We don't try to imitate the Bordeaux style or the California style. We allow the wine to express what we think is the Chilean equivalent of a grand cru." Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, of Casa Lapostolle, also is optimistic. "There will be a premier cru from Chile," she says, "as high as the quality of Burgundy, Bordeaux or California."

third-generation Chilean of French descent
By next year, another ultrapremium Chilean wine will enter the U.S. market. In the Andean foothills near Santiago, Paul Pontallier, director of Château Margaux, and Bruno Prats, retired proprietor of Château Cos d'Estournel, are developing a 48-acre vineyard in an old apricot and walnut orchard; they call it Viña Aquitania. With Winemaker Felix de Solminihac, a third-generation Chilean of French descent, they are growing cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carmenère, and plan to plant petit verdot and syrah. The new wine will be called Domaine Paul Bruno.
Pontallier is not as effusive as some of his peers. "The problem is to know how far you can go," he says. "So far, it's possible to make good wine in Chile; eventually very good wine. But not yet a great wine."
There is a price to pay for all of these quality advancements. While Chile retains its economic advantages over California - lower land costs and cheaper labor - these factors must be balanced against the substantial costs of modernizing and escalating transportation costs. California's cult Cabs are now retailing at $75 to $100 per bottle and more. It was only a matter of time before some of Chile's elite reds would move in the same direction, which raises the question: Will wine aficionados pay up to $60 for wines from Chile?
It's a challenge, but a necessary one, Mondavi says. "It's easy to sell a $60 Bordeaux, or even a $150 one," he says. "But people ask, 'How can you do it from Chile?'" Mondavi says Seña's $55 price tag reflects, in part, the extra costs of making a truly fine wine, even in low-cost Chile. "You're far more selective in the vineyards, you prune more, get less of a crop. You pay the crew a premium to select only the very best, ripest, grape bunches." But it's also a matter of image, he says. "If you price a wine too low, people think it's not very good."

The complete article here.

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