Friday, December 31, 2010

Viña Aquitania.

Aquitania is part of the more recent wave of wineries to hit Maipo Valley. Completed in 1993, this winery is the brainchild of Bruno Prats (of Cos d’Estournel fame) and Paul Pontallier (technical director of Chateau Margaux) along with Felipe do Solminihac (of Cousiño Macul down the street). In 2000 Ghislain de Montgolfier of Bollinger was added to the lofty list of partners.

The history of the winery goes something like this: the original three partners wanted to invest in vineyard land in Chile since the early 1980s. They had a desire to make Bordeaux-style Cabernets, focused on structure rather than fruit. After much searching, they found a plot of land close to the Cousiño Macul estate. After ripping up most of the plum and walnut trees and the berries growing on the 25 hectare plot, they planted (what else?) 20 hectares of Cabernet, 2.5 hectares of Merlot, and 2.5 hectares of Carmenere. Stainless steel tanks, the first in the Alto Maipo region, were imported here from Spain and still stand proud in the winery, used to this day in vinification (along with newer models, of course).

Unfortunately the climate was not suited to Merlot: this vineyard is located in Maipo Alto, the coldest area in the Maipo region. Cold air washes down the nearby mountains at night and delays the ripening of the Merlot until mid-May or even June. Because of this, the partners decided to graft Syrah onto the Merlot and Carmenere. Aquitania attempts to stay true to its original Bordeaux inspiration, but with Cabernet-Syrah blends.

From the Alto Maipo vineyards, you can see the city of Santiago and its layer of haze. This unfortunate result of the city's expansion forces producers in this area to rinse and dry their grapes after harvesting them to remove particulate pollution. Though this is a concern, it has not thus far been reflected in the quality of the wines. Aquitania also owns vineyard land in Malleco Valley where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are produced.

This producer’s wines were all rated far above average by those in our party. We left the winery with full hands, including a bottle of the 1999 Paul Bruno. Here are the wines we tried with Eduardo de Solminihac (to purchase any of these, contact Eduardo or visit Sherry-Lehmann's website):

2010 Aquitania Rosé Cabernet Sauvignon

Dark salmon in color. By the aromas you’d expect this 85% Cabernet, 15% Syrah rosé to be sweet: ripe red fruits, cotton candy, even a little cherry Jolly Rancher! But the surprise for me was the refreshingly spicy, dry, long finish. A great wine for a hot Chilean summer day. We bought multiple bottles.

2009 Aquitania Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon

20% new French oak gives a nice cinnamon and vanilla spice to this one. Plums and blackberries form the backdrop. I liked it for drinking now, but some may prefer a bit more complexity that would result from 2-3 years more aging in the bottle. Again, 85% Cabernet and 15% Syrah. And again multiple bottles came with us.

2003 Lazuli Cabernet Sauvignon

The dark brick color shows the slight aging. A meatiness and spiciness add interesting notes to the dark cherry fruit of this wine. There is definitely a concentration on structure here. Half of the grapes for the Lazuli were sourced, and half came from the vineyards in front of the winery.

1999 Paul Bruno

This Cabernet is perfect for pasta! It is rich and spicy, and seemingly reminiscent of… sausage! Strange but amazingly good. It made us hungry. And we took a bottle home, made some pasta with chorizo, and paired it up perfectly for dinner.

2008 Sol de Sol Pinot Noir

The 2008 was only the second harvest of Pinot Noir. The vineyards are located in Malleco Valley, a mostly experimental viticultural area in the far south of Chile. Volcanic soils there have shallow layers of clay over impermeable rock. A strange region, but this wine was phenomenal. This is a floral, elegant Burgundy-style Pinot filled with sweet cherries and a potent earthiness. Excellent acidity and a long finish tie everything together nicely. Absolutely delicious.

2008 Sol de Sol Chardonnay

See the above description for a bit about Malleco Valley. This creamy, yeasty Chardonnay is a mouthfilling masterpiece. Lemon meringue and peach syrup ooze over the tongue. Over time more peaches emerge. And of course we could not pass up the opportunity to buy many bottles. This is a stunning wine.

All the wines from Aquitania were quite good. It was actually difficult to decide which and how many bottles to buy. I’m very happy to have visited.

For more information or to set up a visit, check out Aquitania’s website or email Eduardo de Solminihac at

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An introduction to Alto Maipo.

Maipo is Chile’s oldest wine region. Its proximity to the city of Santiago has benefits and detriments. Originally, it encouraged the pioneers of the fine wine industry to plant here. Today Santiago is a vast metropolis of around 5 million residents who are beginning to engulf Maipo and turn it into suburban sprawl, bringing the pollution of the city along with them. Winemakers must develop ways of dealing with the pollution, such as rinsing and drying the grapes after harvest and before crushing. Nevertheless the wines made here are of very high quality and demonstrate the proud history of Chilean wine.

The first to plant noble varietals in Maipo was Don Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta, a baron of mining and agriculture. On one of his many visits to Europe he was struck by an intense desire to become a winemaker. After studying techniques in viticulture and viniculture in Bordeaux he brought French clones back to Chile and planted them on his land in Talagante, creating Ochagavia Wines in 1851. It is believed these vines are the only clones of grapes prior to phylloxera in the world. In 1856 Matías Cousiño, a rich industrial entrepreneur, founded Cousiño Macul (though wheat, barley, and vinifera grapes had been growing on the land since Hacienda Macul was granted to Juan Jufre, a conquistador, by the Spanish king in 1564). Matías’ son Luis traveled to France to bring back Bordeaux clones in 1860, inspired by his father’s vision. As the valley slowly filled with French grapes, other estates opened: Viña Carmen (technically founded in 1850 but used Pais until the Bordeaux grapes were brought over), Santa Rita in 1880, Concha y Toro in 1883. The decline in the wine industry throughout the mid-1900s and subsequent boom since the 1980s caused vineyard land to contract and expand throughout the last century; now the Maipo Valley region consists of more than 26,000 acres of vineyards.

Maipo is subdivided into three regions: Alto, Central, and Pacific. Though all three regions produce fine wines, the oldest and most recognized for high quality is Alto Maipo which will be focused on here. Central Maipo borders the Maipo river and thus has alluvial soils; good reds grow here. Pacific Maipo runs southwest of the city of Santiago and backs up against the Coastal Range. Few vineyards are found here even though it is separated from the San Antonio/Leyda region only by a political boundary.

Alto Maipo rises up into the foothills of the Andes, reaching an altitude of 800 meters. Soils tend to be loamy clay down to 50 centimeters, and sandy loam, gravel, and rocks below. Cooling winds keep the grapes free of botrytis. Large temperature differentials between day and night encourage excellent ripening. Drought can be a problem at times (rainfall averages 300 mm per year but can be much less), but drip irrigation is set up in most of the vineyards to combat the occasional dry spell. No vineyard pests are a problem, except the occasional red spider mite. Cabernet Sauvignon is the star here but all Bordeaux varietals reach their fame alongside it. The wines tend to have superb structure and elegance characteristic of old world reds and can age well.

Viña Errázuriz.

After a fascinating visit with Mauro von Siebenthal, we headed 200 meters down the road to his inspiration, Viña Errázuriz. This giant in the Chilean wine industry consumes a good chunk of Panquehue with its beautifully manicured vineyards and gardens, majestic visitors’ center, and mesmerizing but functional biodynamically engineered cellar. This winery was founded in 1870 by Don Maximiano Errázuriz, who was the first to move north from the then established Maipo region.

Don Maximiano brought Cabernet and Merlot from Bordeaux, and later Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and planted 300 hectares in the Panquehue region after recognizing its potential for fine wine production. The deep soil of sand, loam, and clay over large stones on the valley floor and the colluvial stony soil on the hillsides provide excellent locations for low yield vines; the large temperature differential of 40 degrees Fahrenheit from day to night preserves acidity in the grapes and helps to develop complex aromatics and flavors. Rainfall is typically around 250 mm per year, but the water table rises quite high in the valley to offer good hydration for deep roots. There are not many pests or diseases to worry about, except for two: a recent invasion of avocado trees has brought with it a certain destructive nematode forcing the grafting of some vines on rootstock, and a small red spider mite that attacks the leaves sometimes results in a chemical treatment for the vines.

a view of the winery from the hillside.

The Errázuriz estate has been family-owned since its inception (Mondavi partners with Eduardo Chadwick, the 6th generation owner of Errázuriz, for Seña but Chadwick is the sole proprietor of the Panquehue estate). The total current landholdings are around 2500 hectares throughout the regions of Chile. Techniques are constantly fine-tuned at the estate: vine vigor is monitored by satellite imagery, special organic fertilizers such as chicken guano are used, and heavy green harvesting is often employed. Harvest is done at about 25 Brix for optimal ripeness. Now the farming is done organically and biodynamically where possible, and at the Aconcagua estate a completely biodynamic winery was commissioned to be built from a design by Samuel Claro, the leading sustainable and biodynamic architect in Chile, with consultation from Guillermo Hevia. Only a visit to this remarkable structure can allow one to appreciate the incredible use of natural water and air flow, gravity, and a fluid, streamlined design to benefit wine production.

Walking around the vineyards, cooling down in the fabulous winery, and relaxing in the garden with our flights of Errázuriz wines, it was difficult to relate to the small von Siebenthal winery down the road. However the overly touristy presentation and repeated flaunting of the Errázuriz family’s name and connections by our host made us long for the simple wooden table, glass of deliciously unique wine, and personalized stories offered by the former. And when a bill was given to us for the tour that was originally offered by our host with no mention of cost, we were completely nonplussed. Errázuriz is a beautifully pristine estate that perhaps once had character, but now seems to be a Disneyland of a winery.

Now on to the wines. The two top wines of the estate are Seña, developed with Mondavi, and Maximiliano, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet, and Cabernet Franc considered to be the flagship wine. And maybe next time we will taste these, if we come with large pockets ready to empty them. I suppose they are quite rich and powerful, but I cannot say. We did, however, try a mystery “Chardonnay” (according to the guide) which was actually the Estate Sauvignon Blanc… I did not correct him. Here are the wines we tried:

2007 Wild Ferment Chardonnay

Grapes for this wine are grown in Casablanca. After full malolactic fermentation, this Chardonnay is aged for 10 months in used French oak. It is a deep gold in color, with lots of butter and toast on the nose mixed with slight tropical fruit richness. It is quite mouthfilling. Probably best for chicken dishes or pasta with a cream-based sauce. We liked it so much we bought a bottle.

2009 Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

A plumy, high-alcohol Cabernet with very concentrated dark berry fruit and excellent structure.

2009 Estate Sangiovese

This is the only Sangiovese I encountered throughout all of Chile. Definitely a new world style, with bright jammy strawberries and spicy oak. The tannins are a little strong. This wine probably could use 2-3 more years in the bottle.

2008 Estate Carménère

Lots of leather, damp earth, and wet leaves dominate the nose. Herbaceous notes of rosemary and thyme integrated with red fruits make a very interesting wine. Its medium tannins and very high acidity made me wish I had some lamb or a rare steak!

2009 Reserva Shiraz

I couldn’t get over the hard tannins in this wine. It is very young yet, so its floral and fruity flavors were only hints. I’d like to try this one in a few more years.

2007 Carménère Kai

This was one of my favorite wines in Chile! Soft vanilla and sweet oak mingled with strawberries, herbs, and baking spices… delicious!

Overall the wines were quite good, and the winery is beautiful, but this was not my favorite visit. However I would definitely recommend a visit if one wanted a more touristic experience with a professional tour guide.

For further information or to set up a visit, visit the website here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Viña von Siebenthal.

Mauro von Siebenthal is one of the few small producers in Panquehue. Literally a few hundred meters from the front door of his inspiration, the huge Errázuriz estate, von Siebenthal is making amazing Bordeaux-inspired wines that consistently win medals and score high points with many judges. In fact, his wine is among my favorite of all I’ve tasted in Chile.

Meeting Mr. von Siebenthal is quite an experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone. He is a fascinating, cheerful, gracious man who can talk about history and wine for hours and keep his audience riveted. At least that’s what happened with us. We were in fact late to our next appointment but chose to stay longer just to listen to more of his stories and explanations!

Mauro has been an appreciator of wines since he was 17 years old. A Swiss native, he developed a dream of making wine at a young age. After serving as a lawyer for 25 years in Switzerland he started to look for vineyard land in the EU; however, his desire to plant new varietals was not an easy one to satisfy in the old world. So he decided to look toward the new.

Mauro began tasting Chilean wines in Switzerland. One of his favorites was an Errázurriz hailing from Panquehue. Simultaneously a friend sent him some pictures of Aconcagua telling him how beautiful it was. Quoting Paulo Coelho, Mr. von Siebenthal said, “You know, when you want something, all the universe conspires to achieve it. This is what happened with me.” Errázurriz was the only vineyard in the region at the time, and the locals were not the most welcoming of newcomers, but Mauro came nevertheless in 1997 and spent quite a large sum planting his Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Carmenere vines.

A view of Panquehue

According to von Siebenthal, no one in the area cared much for fine wine production in the late 1990’s (the folks at Errázuriz would disagree, but I’m not sure which side is closer to the truth…). Mauro found that the terroir was perfectly suited to the Carmenere grape due to the complex, unusual soil: there are no stones for 2 meters and then big gravelly rocks below. Carmenere, he says, loves deep, cool soil. And Robert Parker apparently agrees, as he gave the von Siebenthal Carmenere 97 points.

Von Siebenthal’s vines are farmed and harvested by hand. A tractor sits idly on the property; this is apparently only used to spray sulfites when needed. As in most Chilean vineyards you will find no trace of rootstock here. With an average of 320 days of sunlight per year, fresh water from the Andes, and little risk of diseases or botrytis, Mauro refers to his land as a paradise for vinegrowing.

The cellar is nothing fancy, just a functional operation. “It’s not an Armani store. It’s a winery. I prefer to have a low-profile winery and make fantastic wines,” he says. These wines typically ferment for 2 weeks following a cold maceration. An additional maceration occurs after the fermentation. The wines then spend 10 to 24 months in French oak, with the soft, elegant Taransaud barrels reserved for the best wines (always for the Carmenere).

We tried the 2005 Montelig

This 40% Cabernet, 30% Petit Verdot, 30% Carmenere blend’s name is derived from “mountains and light,” two things Panquehue has in plenty. It sees 24 months in new French oak followed by 2 years in the bottle. Hues of rich garnet and deep purple are visible. Black pepper and concentrated berry fruit with a hint of leather form a friendly assault on the nose. Dense red fruit and berries are backed by slightly harsh tannins: this wine still needs a few years in the bottle. “This is an expression of Panquehue,” Mauro explains. “Mature but not over-mature fruits, soft tannins, a lot of structure.” For Parker fans, this one consistently scores 93-94 points.

For information or to visit Mr. von Siebenthal, check out the website or email María Soledad Latorre at

Thursday, December 23, 2010

An introduction to Panquehue, Chile.

The Aconcagua wine region encompasses both Casablanca Valley and Aconcagua Valley. It is the latter that is the subject here. Aconcagua Valley is named for the 22,841-foot mountain peak that towers in the distance, the second largest peak in the world. It is split between a hot, dry interior region 80 kilometers from Santiago and a more moderate coastal area. In the interior lies a commune that has been making very high quality Bordeaux-inspired wines for 140 years, and is continuously gaining international recognition: Panquehue.

Panquehue was first planted with wine grapes in the 1870s by Don Maximiano Errázurriz, a member of the very influential Basque family that arrived in Chile in the 1750’s and has produced four Chilean presidents, two Archbishops of Santiago, and numerous other significant writers and businessmen. Don Maximiano saw potential in the region for Bordeaux blends after having spent a year in Europe and enjoying Bordeaux’s finest.
Maximiano sent for the finest French clones and planted them here. (French varietals were preferred to Spanish varietals due to the bad blood between the Chileans and the Spanish after independence was gained. Chileans wanted nothing to do with anything Spanish. Thus the people turned toward other varietals, of which the best known and most readily available were the Bordeaux grapes. Now some Italian grapes are being grown with great success as well.) The success of his namesake winery has paved the way for Panquehue’s burgeoning wine industry.

Errazuriz Winery, Panquehue

Panquehue’s location and soil give it a unique advantage for wine production. The cool Pacific breeze due to the Humboldt Current reaches the valley giving it a Mediterranean climate with warm summers and cool winters. This allows a long ripening season. The wind begins late in the morning and picks up force throughout the day, so botrytis is rarely a problem. A good temperature variation of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit between day and night allows grapes to keep their acidity while ripening well.

The soil profile is particularly distinct: a layer of loamy clay with a good lime concentration and excellent drainage goes to 70 centimeters in depth, followed by a 50 centimeter thick layer of the same, but more compacted, all atop loamy clay mixed with rocks down to 2 meters. The water table here rises to about 10 meters. This adds up to the fact that water is not a problem, especially as the fresh Andes snowmelt can be captured efficiently.
This region has been dominated by the Errázuriz estate for more than 100 years. As the company expanded it produced more jobs, employing many of the locals. An attitude of conservatism exists here that makes it rather difficult for newcomers to build successful businesses, though some attempt anyway, and occasionally with huge success.
Panquehue is capable of producing wines with great concentration and complexity. The unusual soil is a perfect haven for the roots of Carmenere, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot; the rocky hillsides are suited well to Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Overall these wines may be the richest, chewiest, most intense wines of Chile.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Amayna Winery.

A few days ago I received an email from Hugo Desenzani of Amayna Winery inviting me to have a lunch with a few others at the winery. At this point I was very unfamiliar with Leyda Valley and jumped at the chance to experience it for myself. So after a long misguided adventure from Concón without a GPS, I arrived ready to take in Leyda.

After a rather intense tasting session with Hugo and the winemaker Francisco Sanhueza, we walked a little through the vines to the vineyard house for a lunch of local traditional foods: machas a la parmesana, congrio (aka conger eel) and potatoes, avocados, corn, and salad. All paired nicely with Amayna’s wines. A great experience all in all, but especially so due to the vast amount of information I was able to glean regarding the appellation Leyda Valley and the Amayna Winery itself.

Amayna’s vines were planted from 1999 onward. José Antonio Garcés Silva founded the winery when only a few were interested in the area. He was attempting to create a different styke than the typical new world Chilean whites pouring into the export markets at the time. He detected the area’s potential to vinify minerally wines with ripe aromas of tropical fruits, flowers, and stone fruits; this opportunity to have fantastic aromatics with high acidity offered him exactly what he sought. His focus on whites eventually broadened to include Pinot Noir and Syrah as well, with the Syrah being the most recent newcomer.

Amayna produces five different wines totaling 15,000 cases. Though they own 170 hectares, only 30-35 hectares are usually selected to produce wines. The rest of the grapes are sold off to other producers. This allows Amayna to produce with the best grapes available on the property each vintage. Bunch selection one day prior to the harvest is followed by berry selection during the harvest to include only the fruit in the most optimal condition. This great care pays off with complex, interesting wines very expressive of the unique Leyda terroir.

Here are the wines we tried:

2009 Amayna Sauvignon Blanc

Light straw in color. Tropical fruits and stone fruits virtually explode out of the glass, with the typical grassiness of a Sauvignon Blanc a little underplayed. According to the winemaker, the pyrazine (what gives Sauvignon its characteristic aroma) levels are reduced naturally by harvesting a little later than usual. A full mouthfeel is highlighted by a slight saltiness detectable under the acidity and long, lemony finish.

Some technical notes: This wine undergoes a reductive vinification for 10-15 days, followed by an oxidative treatment via unprotected racking to open up the wine a little. This is to achieve a goal of balance between oxidative and reductive flavors and aromas. Inoculation occurs with a yeast that is selected for alcohol tolerance; sometimes a blend of different yeast strains is used for flavor profiles and aromatics. The grapes are harvested in April and March.

2008 Amayna Chardonnay

This Chardonnay was rated the best of the new world by Decanter Magazine, and consistently receives 90+ points from Wine Spectator. Interesting minerality can be detected on the nose, as well as a slightly caramel note. No malolactic fermentation is used, but oak aging and battonage is. The resultant smooth, toasty, creamy taste with a smattering of toffee is delicious. A blend of 25% new, 40% one-year, and 30% two-year French oak adds the complex toast without overpowering. Only Taransaud is used for its sweetness and elegance.

2007 Amayna Barrel-Fermented Sauvignon Blanc

Only 500 cases of this wine are produced each vintage. The grapes used are the same French clone 242 as are used for the regular Sauvignon Blanc. Aged an additional 1 year in 60% new, 40% old French oak, this wine exhibits little fruitiness, being primarily dominated by buttery and toasty aromas and flavors. Its rich yellow-gold color and depth of flavor make it a very interesting wine indeed.

2008 Amayna Pinot Noir

A mixture of different clones with slightly different ripening times are used in this wine to add complexity. A light herbal scent sets the stage for aromas of black pepper and ripe red cherries. In the mouth, this wine is rich and spicy with, again, the characteristic minerally touch. Cold maceration is employed here with very little pigeage resulting in a red garnet color.

2008 Amayna Syrah

First, a note: there is none of this wine left. And the 2009 is all but sold out as well, even though it is not yet in the bottle. That being said, if you see a bottle in your local shop, grab it and give it a try...
Syrah vines were planted at the estate in 2002 and 2003 as a project to expand. The 3rd vintage was the first to be bottled. After 2005, yield adjustment was done by pruning down to 6-8 bunches per vine to perfect the grapes.

Bracing tannins show that this wine is not yet ready. A few more years in the bottle will do it well. Flowery scents of violets and roses come through along with berries and red fruits. This will be delicious in 3-5 years.

To contact Amayna for visits or to inquire about purchasing wines, email Hugo at or visit the website:

An introduction to Leyda Valley, Chile.

Leyda is a fairly new wine region (founded in 1997) located about an hour west and a little south of Santiago. It is technically a sub-region of the San Antonio region. The great potential for winemaking here was recognized by Pablo Morandé before he founded Casablanca Valley, but was not utilized: this region was extremely dry prior to man-made irrigation.

The nearby Maipo river drains into the Pacific just 8 kilometers from Leyda, but the soils in the area were under drought conditions until water was brought from the river via pipelines. This was a very costly project involving four wealthy founders. Once soil and climate studies were complete and irrigation was in place Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay were planted. Experimentation with trellising systems and vine density are still underway. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Syrah, and Sauvignon Vert have joined the original varieties, with more perhaps to come.

Soil in Leyda is extremely poor in organic matter. The soil of its rolling, gentle hills is fairly homogenous due to the lack of water presence. There is a slight variation throughout the region, but in general a layer of loamy clay about 20 cm thick lies atop a 35-cm layer of 45% clay, 55% granite. Below extends granite and a laminar structure of calcium carbonate (limestone). This profile provides excellent drainage.

Leyda’s climate is mild. A long, cool growing season allows production of cool-climate grapes for refreshing wines with a snap of acidity. The dominant climate-related factor here for grape growing is the cool ocean breeze off the Pacific due to the Humboldt Current. Starting around 10am, this breeze is crucial in temperature moderation and brings a freshness to the air throughout the day while keeping the grape bunches dry and free of botrytis. Some say the wines of Leyda owe their characteristic minerality and “saltiness” to this light wind… others claim the ferrous clays in the soil give rise to these qualities. Interestingly, the same saltiness or minerality can be found in the wines up the Pacific coast in Ensenada, Baja California.

Leyda began with only 4 producers; now many more have come to the region and have planted a total of 2000 hectares with grapes. Vineyards tend to be planted with respect to the elements, as each varietal has specific requirements for sunlight exposure to achieve good ripening. For example, Syrah in this region is typically planted facing north in the higher altitudes. An interesting fact: many producers claim where there is cactus, Syrah will flourish. This is put into practice in Leyda.

Wines from Leyda tend to have a very ripe fruitiness while maintaining good acidity. Minerality is strong here. The region is great for whites… Pinot Noir and Syrah are doing well, but reds have yet to be planted in earnest. Leyda is certainly an area to watch. If you see any wines from Leyda in your local wine shop definitely give them a try. There aren’t many producers yet, but the elegance and delicacy of the wines will certainly make an impression in the future.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


After stopping at Veramonte, getting quite lost on backcountry roads infested with potholes, shooing betles the size of silver dollars out of the open windows of our car, and wandering down a dirt road, we happened upon Emiliana. Of course, there is a much easier approach straight from Highway 68 (a large sign points directly to the front entrance, which makes a much better initial impression). This was quite a lucky chance encounter: Emiliana is the only certified 100% organic vineyard in all of Chile and is partially biodynamic as well.

I asked the extremely knowledgeable man who helped us whether he thinks there is a noticeable difference in the vineyards due to organic and biodynamic practices. His answer: “well, look around. Look at the vineyards. What do you think?” The vineyards are beautifully healthy, with vibrant yellow, orange, and pink flowers acting as cover crops between the rows of vines. Alpacas and peacocks greeted us with stares as we pulled into the lot. The visitors’ center is elegant and welcoming, with a large outdoor table as well as ample indoor seating from which to enjoy your tasting flights. Chocolate and cheese tastings should not be missed here… everything is delicious, organic, locally produced, and paired with precision to the wines.

Here’s a little background on Emiliana: the company was founded in 1986 under the name Bodegas y Viñedos Santa Emiliana. During the next decade Santa Emiliana developed vineyards in Casablanca, Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, and Bío- Bío. In 1998 The company initiated a project to create a fully organic web of vineyards across Chile with biodynamic practices stressed. This project gave rise to the Emiliana Orgánico brand, which is now supported by over 3800 acres of organically farmed land. Emiliana is now the organic part of Concha y Toro, distinguished from the Santa Emiliana wines by their organic standing.

The Casablanca vineyards are dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Soils of sand and sandy loam layered over gravel are well-drained, and the valley’s temperature differential between night and day is large, creating the perfect environment for slow ripening and good acidity. These plants are on rootstock due to the presence of nematodes, but no other significant problems plague the vines.

Here are the wines, cheeses, and chocolates we tried:

2009 Novas Sauvignon Blanc

Pale straw yellow in color. Interesting herbal and grassy notes, particularly chives, stand out in the aromas. Hints of grapefruit, lemon, and a slight chili-type presence add to the complexity.

Paired with an organic goat cheese infused with chives to complement the herbaceous notes.

2008 Novas Chardonnay

Light gold. Oak and butter pour out of the glass… this is for those who appreciate a big Chard. A nicely intertwined floral, peachy note is exhibited due to the 21% Marsanne and supported with an almost oily texture and richness from 16% Viognier. Could use a touch more acidity to cut through the richness.

Paired with an organic goat cheese infused with olives… the bitterness contrasts the richness of the wine nicely.

2008 Novas Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon

Lots of jammy berries in this one, but a healthy dose of acidity balances them out perfectly. This wine towers over Indomita’s version. A medium finish follows.

Paired with organic goat cheese with oregano and a lemon-infused chocolate. Delicious.

2007 Coyam

“Coyam” can be interpreted as “Chilean oak.” The oak trees completely surround the biodynamic vineyard from which the grapes for Coyam are sourced. This is one of the two 100% biodynamic wines produced by Emiliana. This Bordeaux-inspired blend gets its acidity from Mourvedre, its structure and elegance from Petit Verdot, its exotic fruit and spice from Carmenere, its violet notes from Syrah, its aggressive nature from Cabernet, and its velvety tannin finish from Merlot. I’m not sure if all of that is correct, but I certainly tasted all the aforementioned qualities… this is a VERY complex wine. I liked it so much I took a bottle with me.

Paired with meriquen (a kind of pepper)goat cheese. The spice of the pepper combined with the cinnamon and black pepper of the wine work in harmony.

2008 Reserva Pinot Noir

8 months in new French oak give this Pinot its spicy character. On top of that lie layers of herbs, red cherries, and black pepper. Very expressive.

Paired with chocolate with clove essence. Very powerful and very tasty.

2009 Reserva Cabernet

Again a herbal note is easily detected in this wine. Rich plums, dark berries, and ripe tannins finish it off.

Paired with basil chocolate. The basil brings out the herbal qualities and frames them beautifully.

2008 Winemaker’s Selection Syrah

Aged for 12 months in 80% French and 20% American oak. A powerful Syrah with fewer floral notes than is desirable in my opinion, but voted 5th Best Syrah of the World by Syrah do Mundo.

Paired with oregano-infused chocolate. I felt the chocolate was better than the wine!

To arrange a visit or for more information, visit Emiliana’s website.


This is a very recognizable Chilean producer for Americans. Another giant in Casablanca’s export industry, 95% of the wines are exported, 80% to the US alone. Veramonte’s Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet in particular are excellent sellers throughout the US. The proprietor, Augustine Huneeus, owns Flowers and Quintessa in California as well, where he lives for most of the year. Besides being the force behind Veramonte, he is well-known for his prior role as the CEO who brought Concha y Toro from a small winery to the behemoth it is today. He also contributed heavily to Caliterra (Colchagua Valley) and Errazuriz (in Aconcagua).

Veramonte spans 1100 acres planted in Casablanca. The similarity of the area to Carneros in California was the impetus to plant the region. Though the winery is not certified as organic, many organic and sustainable practices are implemented to keep the vineyards healthy. Four lines of wines are produced: Primus, Ritual, Cruz Andina, and Reserva.


     The tasting room is a friendly and open haven with a long bar where visitors can sample most of the wines produced. No appointments are necessary here. It’s worth an extra few minutes to head up the stairs in the tasting room to the mini museum above, where presses, pumps, and corkscrews from the 1800’s and earlier are on display in front of a beautiful expansive view of the vineyards behind the property.

Here are the wines we tried:

2010 Reserva Sauvignon Blanc

A simple but good Sauvignon Blanc. Light yellow in color, aromas of yellow grapefruit dominate the nose. Crisp and clean grassy notes and citrus make this a pleasant seafood wine or aperitif on a warm day. This is a great value, and for the Wine Spectator fans it scored an 86. Not bad for a wine under $10.

2009 Reserva Chardonnay

Unfortunately, in my opinion, this one is a bit overdone. Butter and oak explode out of the glass with no trace of fruit, save for perhaps a very slight honeydew in the background. The finish is, of course, dominated by oak.

2009 Reserva Pinot Noir

Loads of black pepper! A small hint of black cherry lies underneath the predominant peppery base. This wine should be served slightly chilled.

2009 Reserva Merlot

Though there is only 5% Syrah blended in this wine, it certainly makes its presence known. Pepper and plum fruit are intertwined with violets and berries. A little more Syrah might help!

2010 Rose

This Syrah rose is filled with ripe red fruit, completely dry, and reasonably complex. Very interesting and delicious.

2008 Ritual Pinot Noir

Ritual is produced with a little extra attention. The grapes are harvested very early in the morning by hand. The juice is fermented with wild yeast to present as natural of a product as possible. It has a deep, rich, heady nose of oak and concentrated cherries, and the finish is very long. A very well-balanced wine, with a seriousness I'm not used to from Veramonte. Apparently Wine Spectator agrees, giving Ritual a 90 point score.

2008 Primus

Aged 14 months in oak, 1 year in the bottle. An aroma of dusty pepper was quite distinct, followed by a blue and black fruit mix. Great acidity and very mouthfilling.

To arrange visits or for more information, visit Veramonte's website.

Viña Indomita.

We did not have much of a plan in Casablanca. We just chose an exit off Highway 68 and drove. Viña Indomita is not difficult to find; it is actually difficult to miss. Its formidable structure perches upon a vantage point overlooking the entire valley. The gleaming white edifice with vineyards traipsing down from its foundation is certainly a sight to behold. Founded in 2001 and owned by Bethia Holdings, a company originally rooted in purebred racehorses, this winery makes 95% of its wines for export.

No one greeted us as we entered the visitors’ area despite the presence of three representatives sitting behind desks with laptops. The tasting and cheese plate, though artfully presented, were quite expensive. The wines were about average, nothing spectacular. Perhaps some of the money geared toward an aesthetically pleasing appearance could be better used for responsive staff! The sommelier who helped us was mildly informative but spoke to us in a very elementary manner… not exactly what we had come for… but the place is beautiful and worth a visit anyhow.

Here are the wines we tried:

2008 Duette Premium Chardonnay

Yellow-gold color. Aromas of vanilla and oak are very pronounced, with a backdrop of tropical fruit and canned peaches. This Chardonnay had good acidity and a generous mouthfeel, but a bit of an overwhelming bitterness from oak tannins. Needs a while to soften up!

2008 Duette Premium Pinot Noir

Aged in French oak for 10 months. Deep color, garnet red. A first impression gave a nose of dark cherries, pepper, earth and mushrooms, and a slightly unpleasant sweatiness. With a salad topped with balsalmic vinegar, however, the wine worked beautifully. The sweaty aroma dissipated within a few minutes and left behind rich peppery cherries. It is recommended by the sommelier on hand at the winery to serve this 14.5% alcohol Pinot cold.

2008 Duette Premium Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere

This is a 55/45 blend, aged for 18 months in French oak. Its deep purple color was vibrant even in the dim lights of the tasting room. Aromatics of coffee, cinnamon, black pepper, and chocolate emerge due to the French oak; subtle green pepper from the Cabernet and jammy red and blue fruit from the Carmenere are framed. This wine’s long finish was impressive, but overall the wine was a solid average.

To arrange a visit or for more information, visit Indomita's website.

Friday, December 17, 2010

An introduction to Casablanca Valley, Chile.

For many exploring the Chilean wine regions, Casablanca will be a first stop. Its proximity to Santiago and simple layout are quite attractive to those just arriving to the country. Though it is dominated by large commercial producers and has a history of barely 30 years there are many curious things about this valley, and many purport that it is the birthplace of international recognition of Chilean wines.

Although I have sold and tasted many Chilean wines from Casablanca, I was unfamiliar with its history and unique geography. So here’s a little I have learned from various sources throughout my time in Casablanca:

morning fog in an undeveloped part of the valley

Casablanca valley’s vineyards are extremely young. Vines were first planted in the 1980’s after the Leyda valley, further south, was examined and found suitable for viticulture but with no water supply. Casablanca is close to the Pacific but sheltered from its moderating influences by the Coastal range that blocks some of the ocean air. This results in cool conditions with large day-to-night temperature variations and occasional frosts. Morning fog in addition to the climate favors slow ripening in the region. Harvest occurs in late February to May.
a view of Casablanca from Indomita

Before irrigation Casablanca was a desert valley. In the 1970’s, the large Concha y Toro winery hired Pablo Morandé to find a suitable place for groundbreaking whites to be produced. Though he initially favored Leyda, lack of easy irrigation turned his eyes toward Casablanca Valley. The valley reminded him of regions in California, even down to the types of natural flora and fauna - long, tough grasses; brittle, dry shrubs; rabbits and game birds. Concha y Toro pulled out of the project but Morandé stayed and began farming 20 hectares with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Within the next decade over 4,000 hectares were planted, and Morandé was named "King of Casablanca" by Wine & Spirits Magazine and "Professional of the Year" by the Chilean Wine Corporation. Casablanca was awarded the status of DO in 1995. Now the valley is planted with around 2000 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc, 2300 hectares of Chardonnay, 700 hectares of Pinot Noir, and 100 hectares of Syrah.

The soils of Casablanca are variable, but are typically a sandy loam on top of clay, sand, and gravel. Though phylloxera has not made it to the region (and some argue could not survive in the area) the valley does have an issue with nematodes, thus requiring the vines to be planted on tolerant rootstock. Casablanca is the only region in Chile that demands rootstock. Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay thrive here; most of the other red grapes contributing to wines produced by Casablanca wineries are grown in other DOs such as Colchagua.

Wineries in Casablanca tend to be relatively easy to visit. The valley only spans approximately 24 kilometers with the Highway 68 running straight through. The wineries are located along the 68 or along the wine route near the city of Casablanca. Most accept visits without reservations, but if you'd like a more personal tour reservations are highly recommended. Everything is closed for a 3-day period in December from the 7th to the 9th. This is the religious festival of Lo Vásquez, during which more than one million people make the pilgrimage from Valparaíso and Santiago to the Vásquez temple located just west of Casablanca Valley. Alcohol is not permitted to be sold or even shown during this time… they even cover all the wine in the tasting room with sheets!

The church of Lo Vasquez, the endpoint of the Chilean pilgrimage.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A few of Chile's wine regions.

I will be traveling in Chile for the next month, exploring the wine regions of Aconcagua, Casablanca, Maipo, Leyda, and Colchagua. Here is a little overview of Chile as a wine producer in general:

Chile's wine regions (

Chile’s current wine production mainly comes from an approximately 900-mile region between 31.5 and 38 degrees latitude. The country, being elongated, contains many different climates, allowing a wide variety of grapes to be grown. Its isolation due to the Atacama desert in the north, the Andes mountains to the east, Antarctica to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west protects the vineyards from many internationally feared pests and diseases, so no rootstock is necessary in general. Irrigation is usually needed but easily accomplished in many regions with fresh runoff from melting snow in the Andes. Northern regions focus mainly on Pisco production but are beginning to dabble in fine wines; the southernmost areas are the coldest, and tend to be best for high-acid wines. Chile’s vineyards are often said to have similar potential to California.

Don Silvestre Ochagavia (

Chile has had a wine industry since the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors planted Pais and Garnacha Tintorera (aka Alicante Bouchet), examples of which can still be found as decor in some fine wine vineyards such as MontGras. Simple wines, mostly made for the church, were produced by the Jesuits for hundreds of years. It wasn't until the 1800s that fine wine grapes were brought to the country by influential figures like Don Silvestre Ochagavía Echazarreta, who brought the first wave of vines from Bordeaux and planted them in the Maipo region in 1851 and founded Viña Ochagavía. Don Maximiano Errázuriz did the same in the Panquehue region in Aconcagua, where he established Viña Errázuriz. The growing wine industry led to investments in the railway system; California wood was brought to Chile for construction purposes, and with it came (hidden away in the bark) poppy seeds. Evidence of this is strewn about through most of the Chilean wine regions: California poppies grow wild like weeds in the vineyards, on the sides of roads and highways, and in fields.

Estates such as Cousiño Macul and Viña Errázuriz continued to produce fine wines throughout the 1800s and 1900s. But it wasn't until the 1980s that Chile gained international recognition as a purveyor of some of the world's finest wines. Foreign investment in Colchagua, Casablanca, and Maipo led to vast improvements in winemaking and viticultural technology, and wineries like Pablo Morandé's Viña Morandé and Aquitania sprang up. These ventures came about after the socialist government of the 1960s and 70s forced a land reform that required large estates to split their holdings, leading to huge losses for some of the biggest landowners. In the 1980s, as a result, Pinochet’s encouragement of foreign investment led the Mondavis, the Rothschilds, Miguel Torres, and many others to give Chilean agriculture a boost by buying land or shares in vineyards. Now their influence can be seen in much of the industry.

French grapes dominate the Chilean wine scene. Red Bordeaux blends are most popular in Maipo, Aconcagua, and Colchagua; Pinots, Chardonnays, and Sauvignon Blancs (some blended with Semillon in true Bordeaux fashion) take the lead in Casablanca and Leyda. It is no coincidence that the industry favors the French varietals: In 1810, Chile's desire to disconnect from Spain after gaining its independence opened the floodgates to French immigration. Many wealthy Chilean landowners vacationed in France. During their stays, they became particularly enchanted with the structure and elegance found in Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and developed a desire to mimic these great wines at home. Chilean winemakers became understudies in the French regions and brought back winemaking techniques and clones. These clones were thriving in the period prior to World War II, but a huge tax levied on the wine industry mixed with an unfavorable change of social attitude toward alcohol consumption during and after the war formed a disastrous situation for the industry. Few new plantings were made, and Chilean winemakers continued to work mainly with only the French grapes they already had growing in the vineyards. Now other varietals such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel can be found throughout Chile, but Chilean winemakers tend to be most comfortable with those their country knows how to produce so well.

The varietal most commonly associated with Chile is Bordeaux’s missing grape, Carménère. How this came to be is an interesting story. Carménère once represented a significant percentage of Bordeaux vineyards. Chilean growers imported large quantities of it along with the Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The vine’s similarity to Merlot and some mixed up tags eventually resulted in some Carménère being mistaken for a clone of Merlot (called “Merlot Peumal” after a valley near Santiago) and vinified as such.

When the phylloxera epidemic hit Bordeaux the Carménère vines were decimated. For the next few decades the grape was assumed to be completely extinct. Eventually some was discovered in France but not replanted widely: Carménère is particularly to coulure, making it difficult to grow in cool, wet areas. In the meantime Chile was pumping out Merlot with intriguing characteristics; in 1994 the notable difference between Chilean Merlot and other Merlots prompted an investigation by Prof. Jean-Michel Boursiquot of Montpellier. Bourisquot determined that Chile’s “Merlot Peumal” was in fact Carménère. Now Carménère is inextricably linked to Chile and grows primarily in Maipo, Aconcagua, and Coalchagua.

The quality of Chilean wines was put to the test on January 23, 2004, the day of the Berlin Tasting. Sixteen wines were tasted blind by a panel of 36 of Europe’s wine industry elite at Berlin’s Ritz Carlton Hotel. Six of these wines were Chilean, six French, and four Italian. Among the French entries were the Bordeaux behemoths Margaux, Lafite, and Latour, and featured in the Italian lineup were Guado al Tasso, Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia. Vina Errázuriz contributed some of its finest to the faceoff. And the results? The top two wines came from Errázuriz: the 2000 Viñedo Chadwick and the 2001 Seña. Third place went to the 2000 Chateau Lafite. It was a landslide victory. Since the Berlin Tasting interest in Chile has been piqued, and at the current moment wine regions are being discovered left and right throughout the country. Chile's wines are now reaching new levels of international acclaim. The next few decades should be a very exciting chapter for Chile’s wines and producers.