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.

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