Carmenère

The Remarkable Red Of Viña Vik

14 February 2015
Viña Vik

Viña Vik

I have had the fortune to explore numerous wine regions around the world, but never have I stayed in a hotel quite like Viña Vik. This new property gleams from its hilltop perch like an alien space base, its spiraling titanium roof a beacon above the vineyards. And what vineyards!

Millahue ValleyThey grow in the valley and up the sides of the low mountains surrounding the hotel on all sides, until finally they give way to groves of acacia. A small lake covers much of the rest of the valley floor, where flocks of waterfowl gather. It is a sublime landscape. Every view from the hotel is a vineyard view.

On the map in my World Atlas of Wine, Viña Vik looks to be just a stone’s throw from one of my favorite Chilean wineries, Casa Lapostolle. But Viña Vik is on the edge of the Cachapoal Valley, and Casa Lapostolle is in the Colchagua Valley. I was disappointed to learn that despite their proximity as the crow flies, it takes well over an hour to drive between them, skirting a high ridge. Fortunately, confining myself to the Viña Vik property didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.

I toured the vineyards with Miguel, a young gentleman who “used to hate wine.” It seems working at Viña Vik has changed all that — his passion for wine became quite clear as he showed me the 950-some acres of vineyards and led me through a tasting. He pointed out where Cabernet  was planted, where Merlot, and the hillsides of slower-ripening Carmenère, Chile’s signature variety. “All the vines are grafted onto American rootstocks,” he explained, “because of the phylloxera.”

Carmenère Grapes

Carmenère Grapes

Confused, I replied, “But there is no phylloxera in Chile.” Chile is one of the few wine-growing countries in the world as yet unaffected by the destructive aphid-like pests.

“American rootstocks give you better grapes,” he quickly responded. He gestured towards the panorama of grape vines before us. “These are the only vineyards in Chile growing on American rootstocks.”

The quality of American versus European rootstocks is up for debate, but the care with which Viña Vik selected its rootstocks is indisputable. In the strikingly contemporary winery — water flows all around the boulders scattered about its roof, keeping the barrel room cool and humidified — he showed me several maps of the valley. Agronomists had carefully tested the soil composition at regular intervals, and Viña Vik determined which of seven different American rootstocks best matched the soil in each parcel of land. Though a certain section of the valley may be all Cabernet, for example, those vines aren’t necessarily growing on the same type of rootstock.

Viña Vik's WineryMiguel guided me through an absolutely fascinating private tasting in the barrel room. The winery currently produces only one wine, but Miguel didn’t restrict the tasting to that one red blend. First, we tried some of its component parts, including a big, tough and well-structured 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon; a round, decadent and much softer 2013 Merlot; and a complex and earthy 2013 Carmenère with a finish redolent of mesquite smoke and spice. (Syrah also goes into the mix.)

Tasting these components helped me identify their contributions to the final blend. The 2010 Vik had an enticing aroma of dark, almost jammy fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay the bottle down for another couple of years. The finish went on and on.

Viña Vik Varietals

Bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère that go into Vik’s blend

I found this wine for sale here in the U.S., retailing for $150 at Sotheby’s Wine. Yet the Viña Vik hotel pours the wine freely as its house red! Each lunch and dinner, decanters of the stuff would appear, and waitstaff would fill our glasses as often as we liked. It was always served too warm, alas, but even so — what a treat! It worked especially well with a dish of Wagyu beef slow-cooked for 24 hours and served with a rich potato purée.

I’ll never forget my stay at Viña Vik. Because of the wine, yes, but also because of the 4.8-magnitude earthquake which startled this Midwesterner out of bed one morning. It lasted all of six or seven seconds, but that was enough to have me springing out of the sheets and diving, naked, under the desk.

Viña Vik's red blendAnd there was the afternoon an odd smoggy haze filled the valley and drifted over the hotel. I later learned that it was no smog. At dinner, a couple related how they had been hiking and encountered a helicopter manned by heavily armed guards. Instead of walking the other direction, they approached and asked for the time. The guards, it turned out, were the Chilean equivalent of DEA agents. They had discovered an illegal field of marijuana on public land adjacent to the hotel’s property and were setting it on fire. That was the smoggy haze — a great cloud of pot smoke! No wonder the Wagyu beef tasted so good that night…

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Exploring The Terroir Of Chile

12 December 2014

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard CarmenereSingle-vineyard wines are nothing new. Burgundy has perhaps the most famous examples, and in recent years, vintners in the U.S. have also started marketing vineyard-designated bottlings. But it’s still relatively rare to see single-vineyard wines from anywhere in South America, which has a shorter history of high-quality winemaking.

Vinous excellence is certainly no stranger to South America now, however, as illustrated by this recent tasting, and this one, and this one. It makes sense that ambitious winemakers would now want to take things a step further and start delving into the subtleties of terroir.

The word “terroir” refers to all the factors affecting a certain patch of land, be it soil composition, exposure to light or wind, elevation, rainfall, etc. Wines lose their sense of terroir in direct proportion to the size of the geographical area from which their grapes were harvested. A Sonoma Coast wine will have, in theory, more of a sense of terroir than a wine labeled simply “California,” even if the Sonoma Coast wine comes from more than one vineyard.

This concept sounds esoteric, and you may very well be wondering, who cares? And it’s true that a single-vineyard wine does not guarantee quality, nor does a blended wine necessarily suffer in any way. Some of the world’s very best wines are blends. But single-vineyard wines most often come from vineyards that winemakers regard as special. Setting the grapes from this vineyard aside allows them to display all of what makes that particular site great. A single-vineyard wine also connects the taster to the land in a way that a blend, however grand, simply cannot.

Lapostolle Carmenere Gift BoxI was very excited, therefore, to learn about Lapostolle‘s single-vineyard Carmenères and Syrahs. I can’t recall tasting single-vineyard Chilean wines before, and I’d never tried a single-vineyard Carmenère from anywhere. This variety was popular as a blending grape in Bordeaux in the 18th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but it slowly fell out of favor for various reasons, and now it rarely pops up in its homeland. The grape arrived in Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century, where it was mistaken for Merlot until 1994. Now, just 20 years later, Carmenère has become the signature variety of Chile.

The country may be extraordinarily narrow, but the terroir varies as much east to west as north to south because of the effects of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. It was absolutely fascinating, then, to taste single-vineyard Carmenères from Marchigüe, near the Pacific, Apalta, in the middle of the country, and Portezuelo, closer to the mountains (as illustrated by their labels).

Each was a delight. The 2010 Marchigüe smelled of plum jam, and it had dark fruit leavened by bright green peppercorn spice. The 2010 Apalta had a heady, jammy aroma and flavors of ripe dark-red fruit and big but focused white peppercorn spice. The group favorite, however, was the sexy 2010 Portezuelo Carmenère, with its creamy raspberry aromas and big, dusky fruit. Some smokiness and meatiness undergirded the fruit, and despite the ripeness and sultriness of the wine, it maintained impressive focus. Though each wine came from the same grape, the same vintage and the same producer, each had its own distinctive character.

Lapostolle Pirque SyrahI also had the opportunity to try two of the six Syrahs, which come from vineyards running north to south. The 2010 Pirque and the  2010 Las Kuras both came from vineyards relatively close to the Andes, but the Pirque vineyard is in Maipo, and Las Kuras is in the Cachapoal Valley, the wine region immediately to the south. The Las Kuras Syrah smelled of chocolate and violets, and its bright acids and black pepper spice kept its dark fruit well in balance. The Pirque also had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma, but it felt silkier on the tongue and revealed itself more slowly than the Las Kuras. It had a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. It felt sexy and very classy, whereas Las Kuras was more of a “punch in the face — in a good way,” as a fellow taster noted.

Either the half-case of Syrah or the half-case of Carmenère would be an ideal base for a wine-tasting party. It’s great fun to try the wines side-by-side to compare them. The boxes also make a beautiful gift for a wine lover you would like to impress. Each half-case costs $200, and you can purchase them at uncorked.com. The Carmenère box includes two wines from each of three vineyards, and the Syrah box includes six different wines.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more single-vineyard wines like these coming out of South America, and if these thoroughly delicious bottlings are any indication, we’re in for a treat.

Note: These samples were provided free of charge by Terlato Wines.

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The Not Merlot Of Chile

19 October 2013

Historically, Chile has not been especially proficient at identifying its grape varieties. As described in this post, Chile’s Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all until the 1990s. And it wasn’t until 1994 that a French professor discovered that thousands of acres of what was thought to be Merlot was actually another grape entirely. Since Merlot was quite fashionable in the 1990s (and up until the release of the film Sideways), vineyard owners must have been initially dismayed to learn that they in fact had some odd, old Bordeaux variety that no one had ever heard of. But what a propitious discovery it turned out to be.

The vineyards contained not Merlot but Carmenère, which had “virtually died out” in Bordeaux, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, by the time it was discovered in Chile. Though this variety is “rarely acknowledged in the vineyards of Bordeaux today,” notes The Oxford Companion to Wine, it was “widely cultivated in the Médoc in the early 18th century and, with Cabernet Franc, established the reputations of its best properties.” The reason the Bordelais eventually abandoned the variety, the Companion goes on, was because of its “susceptibility to coulure and resultant low yields.”

I think this is a fact that’s important to emphasize: The abandonment of Carmenère in Bordeaux had little or nothing to do with the quality of the wine it produced.

Even more exciting, the Carmenère “had been preserved in its pure, ungrafted format,” according to Sotheby’s, since the original vines had been imported from France in the 19th century before phylloxera required the grafting of vines onto American rootstocks. At its best, according to the Companion, when yields are limited, Carmenère “has the potential to make some very fine wines, combining some of the charm of Merlot with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea Leon Iriarte at Del Frisco's in Chicago

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea León Iriarte at Del Frisco’s in Chicago

That sounds like a winning combination to me, and so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to dinner with Andrea León Iriarte, the winemaker of Casa Lapostolle (one of Chile’s most critically acclaimed wineries), and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Lapostolle’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines.

Founded by the same family that owns Grand Marnier, Lapostolle grows its fruit organically, and then takes things one step further by employing time-consuming biodynamic practices as well. These practices have tangible effects in the vineyards and in the wines, according to Iriarte, who noted that organic and biodynamic agriculture has made the differences between vintages more distinct.

Just as important, Lapostolle sited its vineyards to take advantage of the most favorable terroir, rather than the most fertile soil (where many of Chile’s vineyards were originally located). The World Atlas of Wine cites one of Lapostolle’s vineyard sites by name, in fact, noting that “the most quality-conscious producers are now actively seeking poorer soils, such as those of Apalta in Colchagua for their best wines.” As described on the Lapostolle website, the shape of the Colchagua Valley also naturally regulates exposure to the sun, which is particularly beneficial in warmer climates.

All that sounds promising, but would the Carmenère varietals and Carmenère-based blends we were trying taste like the ideal that the Companion described above? Or would the wines be what Sotheby’s argues that Carmenère too often becomes, “a one-dimensional parody of overripe blackcurrants”? Let us consult my tasting notes:

2011 Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Carmenère: Though officially a varietal, this wine is technically a blend of 89% Carmenère, 6% Merlot and 5% Syrah, and most of my resources agree that Carmenère indeed benefits from the addition of some blending grapes. I found the aroma of wine-soaked wood enticing, and the flavor did not disappoint: big fruit, round but lively acids, some oak, and a fresh finish — a pleasant parsley-like lift at the end. Paired with some of Del Frisco’s superbly tender beef, the wine tightened up, and more notes of iron and earth came to the fore. An excellent value for about $14, and certainly not the blackcurrant bomb of Sotheby’s fear.

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: The “Song of Apalta” was thus named, according to Iriarte, because of the birds’ nests discovered in the vineyard (the winery itself also takes the form of an abstracted bird’s nest). The 2011 is only the second vintage of this blend of 45% Carmenère, 25% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Syrah. A less-expensive reinterpretation of the flagship Clos Apalta, this wine was originally created for a restaurant, but it proved to be so popular, the winery started making more of it and marketing it more generally. I can see why. It had a nose of dark and dusky fruit, and powerful flavors. After a blast of big, big fruit, a hit of white-pepper spice kicked in followed by some significant but well-balanced tannins. Paired with the beef, the tannins felt more rustic, giving the pairing a rather masculine feel. Another very fine value for about $20 a bottle.

2011 Lapostolle “Cuvée Alexandre” Carmenère: The fruit for this wine, a blend of 85% Carmenère and 15% Syrah, comes entirely from the top-quality Apalta vineyard. And as with all Lapostolle’s wines, the fruit was hand-harvested. The attention to detail makes a difference — this wine had a meaty, red-fruit aroma and notable focus on the palate, with restrained red fruit, green-peppercorn spice and some soft tannins undergirded by a meaty note. Again, it packs a lot of flavor considering its $15 price tag.

2009 Lapostolle “Clos Apalta”: On its website, Lapostolle calls this opaque purple wine a “world-class blend in the Bordeaux tradition,” and indeed, if you are interested in experiencing what the top Bordeaux wines of the 18th century might have tasted like, the Clos Apalta might be getting close. A blend of 78% Carmenère, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot (another Bordeaux variety now rare in its original home), this wine is a worthy splurge, with fruit coming from vines ranging between 60 and 80 years old. I knew from the lusciously rich aroma that I would be in for a treat. Absolutely gorgeous fruit managed to seem at once jammy and focused — no mean feat. The perfectly balanced acids and tannins made the wine feel exceedingly elegant, and undertones of violets and thyme added to its complexity. The finish went on and on — just when I thought it would be over, yet another flavor would reveal itself. As Barrett aptly noted, the Clos Apalta “happily overstays its welcome.” It tasted fantastically rich with the lamb, which brought forth additional notes of dried herbs. It sounds expensive at $70, but if you put this wine side-by-side in a blind tasting with Bordeaux wines costing two or three times as much, my money is on the Clos Apalta.

It seems odd to think that Bordeaux’s reputation as a top wine region is due in no small part, historically speaking, to the former success of its Carmenère-based blends. It seems odd, that is, until you taste wines like Lapostolle’s.

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