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A ripe age for Chilean wine.

FOR CENTURIES, POETS and painters have watched and recorded the sea from the hills overlooking the Chilean port of valparaiso. Today this romantic city is bursting with the pressures of growth. Containers of copper goods, fresh fruit, timber and wine, made from some of the world's finest grapes, are stacked high awaiting shipment to all corners of the globe.

The Chilean wine industry developed in the 1860's under the influence of the local aristocracy Basque/French landed families of Chile, whose fortunes were built on mining coal and metals, wintered in Paris and brought Bordelais winemakers back with them on their return. Parks were designed by French landscape architects, creating tranquil estates surrounded by vineyards of cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, the staples of red and white Bordeaux wines.

But by the end of the century, most vineyards in Bordeaux, and the rest of Europe has been devastated by a plant louse known as phylloxera. It had been imported to France on North American vines, and quickly ravaged the roots of Europe vineyards. To combat the louse, vineyards around the world were planted on resistant, native North American rootstock, with vines grafted on top. Chile, remote and protected from phylloxera infestation by the narrow confines of the Andes to the East, the Pacific Ocean to the West and by a vast desert in the North, is the only wine region today where the original vine clones of nineteenth century Bordeaux still prosper on vitis vinifera roostock, without the need for granting.

That piece of trivia amounts to tremendous cost savings in propagating vines and planting new vineyards. In North America, the savings would be abour $2 on each $3 nursery grafted plant, or about $5000 a hectare. And because the vines are from the old Bordeaux clones, they produce grapes with a slightly different flavor than what is found elsewhere in the world. Ungrafted vines, a consistently benign climate, proximity to cooling ocean breezes, relatively inexpensive land, and vigorous agriculture all have combined to focus international attention on Chilean wine.

Foreign investment in the Chilean wine buinsess is now driving the pace of change to an unprecedented level. On a recent trip to taste and explore the potential of Chile's wine industry, the work of four leaders stood out. The wines of these producers have undergone revolutionary change in each vintage tasted since 1987, and each of them promises even greater development during the next five years.

The pace of this change shows a willingness to create wines from Chilean soil for the world market, rather than holding fast to a traditional or national taste. Although Chile has a large middle class which could afford premium wines, consumer tastes here have not yet caught up with the revolution in viticulture. More and more wine sold locally is marketed in tetra-packs, little aluminum and plastic boxes--glass bottles here represent one quarter of the cost of most wine on supermarket shelves. The highest quality wine is mostly produced for export, since there is limited demand for it in Chile.

The first leg of this exploration of Chile's wine leaders began along the Aconcagua River. Flying into Santiago, the great peak to the northeast is Aconcagua, which sends its ice melt through a gigantic gorge to the Pacific Ocean. The river valley of the same name is an agricultural center, ringed by the coastal range to the west and the Andes to the east. Panquehue is a tiny settlement in the valley. The name of this village incorporates the Mapuche Indian word for place, "hue", which appears at the end of town names throughout Chile with the regularity of-ville or -ton in North America.

Errazuriz Panquehue is an old estate of the town. The family name, Errazuriz, is Basque; the young proprietor, Eduardo Chadwick Claro, adds a British element to the Basque/Spanish/Mapuche melange. Now Chadwick is working with Agustin Huneeus, of California's Franciscan Estate Selections, and his German backers, the Eckes family, all of whom greeted us on our arrival: an international conference in the Aconcagua Valley.

A native of Chile himself, Huneeus offered a unique perspective on the developments in Chile. "Wine culture dropped off during a generation of political problems, and has not been quality oriented until recently," Huneeus began as we descended to the aging cellars where slats of old casks were stacked and bound, replaced by new oak barriques from France and Kentucky. "Prior to the last five years, wood had not been imported into Chile for 50 or 60 years. Now we're seeing a new approach to wine. We're stopping irrigation three or four months before the harvest; the wood situation is improving; and we're incorporating temperature controlled stainless steel for white wine production at our new facility in Curico. In the next several harvests, when the vineyards have been changed by new management practices, there will be a major changes in the wines. What we've learned to do in the Napa Valley over a long period of time, we're incorporating here in four years."

The Don Maximiano Vineyard, surrounding the small white adobe winery, is the source for Errazuriz Panquehue's premium bottling of cabernet. The joint venture with Franciscans also involves the development of a new brand, Caliterra, named for calicanto, a mixture of lime, egg white and straw which, along with bricks, forms the adobe walls of the aging cellars in Chile. Caliterra's grapes come from sources around Santiago and further south, in the valleys of Curico and Lontue.

For chardonnay, Huneeus predicts that once the initial rush to bring inexpensive chardonnay to the market has passed, the leaders in Chile will start looking far south. A better climate for chardonnay may be found in Mulchen, a cooler region now dry farmed in mission grapes. "Chardonnay has no tradition in Chile," Huneeus explained. "Chile was exclusively developed by the Bordelais. We are not yet oriented as to where chardonnay will grow best. I am one hundred percent sure that there are undiscovered regions of Chile, that twenty years from now, we will have a completely different Ampelographic map. After all, the old families here established their vineyards on the basis of where they could go for the weekend."

As we followed Chadwick outside through the vine rows, the wiry thirty-one-year-old pointed out how thick the vegetation was so early in the growing season. "We cut out yields tremendously in one year, and made a much more concentrated wine." The North American partner took the lead, explaining, "The key here is vigor. Like California, we have over-vigorous agriculture. Replanting more densely will take twenty years to have an effect; cutting down on water will have an immediate impact."

By lowering the yield and controlling the vigor of the vines, the flavor of the grapes is richer and more concentrated. Processing this intensely flavored fruit in new stainless steel tanks, and aging it in carefully selected imported oak barrels has a dramatic effect on the finished wine. Normally, the use of new technology and equipment results in a standard, well-made wine. However, because of Chile's superior viticulture, the changes in production are having a much more significant impact, much like the compression of coal into diamonds.

Errazuriz Panquehue only produces 80,000 cases a year, making it a very different model from Concha y Toro, the largest wine producer in Chile, with headquarters south of Santiago in Pirque, on the Maipo River. Here, Rafael Guilisasti, from another important Basque family in Chile's wine industry, has staked his own claim to leadership in the future of quality wine exports. This is no small feat, since in Chile, fathers rarely pass control to their sons until they die. Rafael clearly has the benediction of his father and the power within Concha y Toro, enabling him to move this giant company forward on the frontline of quality, a trick few old line California firms have been able to accomplish.

In early 1990, Rafael introduced his new Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1987 Don Melchor is the first "new" cabernet export markets will see from Chile. It does not have the smooth richness and concentration of its younger brother, the 1988, but it has some of the finesse and quality of fruit that we will soon come to associate with this country's premium bottlings. The wine is selected in the winery after fermentation, from fruit grown in the firm's best cabernet vineyard, across the Maipo River in Puente Alto. Tasted alongside Concha y Toro's Marques de Casa Concha, a wine from the same vineyard, it is clear that careful selection can make a marked difference in the finished wine. The Don Melchor is aged in French oak, while the less expensive Marques de Casa Concha is stored in rauli, a native hardwood used pervasively in the Chilean wine industry.

In 1989, Puente Alto was the last cabernet vineyard to be harvested in Chile, and the intensity and ripeness shows in the wine. Rafael is not as forthcoming as some of the other innovators about how Concha y toro may be changing their viticultural techniques, but there is a clear progression in density of flavor from the 1987 through the 1989. All three vintages are worthy of attention. At $11-12 in the U.S. Concha y Toro has released their new red at a lower price and over a year earlier than their neighbor to the south, Santa Rita. The strategy is a clear indication of who's in charge. At Concha y Toro, Rafael gathers his winemakers and enologist Goetz von Gersdorff around him like Napoleon and his generals. Goetz has latitude to experiment, delighting in cool climate research with whites from Casa-blanca by the sea and Mulchen to the south, but clearly Rafael's vision is driving the company forward.

Santa Rita, in Buin, is also a giant in terms of production, and, like Concha y Toro, most of its production is in less expensive wine for the domestic market. Its ownership is controlled by Ricardo Claro, one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrualists in the country. But the real force at Santa Rita had until recently been winemaker Ignacio Recabarren, whose personal strength is like an electric current. His goal has been to produce wines at the highest international levels of quality.

Lithe as a predatory feline, Recabarren had been guarding his experimental, top of the line '87 cabernet from early release into the market. His recent departure from Santa Rita has provided the opportunity for Klaus Schroeder Baasch to take over as enologist, and, as of this writing, the special reserve wine from Santa Rita has yet to be released.

Before leaving, Recabarren had planned extensively for the future of viticulture at Santa Rita. Cabernet vineyards have been reconfigured, the vines trained low to the ground on a double guyot trellis. According to Recabarren, "In the last three years, we have been planting vineyards at 4000-6000 vines per hectare to get greater concentration in the wine. There is a difference in the wine if you have the same yield, 4-5 tons per hectare, when there are 3000 vines per hectare as opposed to 6000 vines. We're cutting down our yields, even as we increase the density of our vines." This recalls Huneeus' remarks about vigor. Denser plantings force the vines to compete with each other, leaving less opportunity to grow excessive vegetation. Competitive plants tend to focus energy in reproduction, i.e., the grape.

Santa Rota's secret weapon is an unnamed reserve wine from 1987. Recabarren explained that the wine was selected in the vineyard. "I selected by the vines, the grapes that have the exact combination of pH, total acidity, and degree of sugar on that day. Then I took the wine through extended skin contact for 50 days; then into barriques for 550 days."

The initial aromatic impression of this 1987 is of beeswax, the seductive quality in certain young classified growths of Bordeaux' Medoc. The tightly structured wine gives every indication it should age well, though no one has the experience to know how a Chilean wine made under these processes will develop over time. Rodrigo Buzeta, Santa Rita's export manager, estimated that the wine will sell for $17 (U.S.) upon release. Anyone willing to risk fashion for taste will likely find in this wine all the elements of a fine and powerful Bordeaux, without the price of hype.

Which leads to the final destination of this Chilean excursion, further south and west toward the sea, in the tiny village of Peralillo. There Jorge Eyzaguirre and his wife Maria Ignacia Echenique own a vineyard of 2000 hectares, in which they recently sold a 50% interest to Eric Rothschild of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.

Jorge Eyzaguirre related the story of his deal with Lafite over breakfast. Another powerful Basque in the Chilean wine business, Eyzaguirre is solidly built, with a square face and deep-set eyes that lit up as he talked of his first break at VinExpo '87 in Bordeaux.

"On the last day of the fair, the newspaper of Bordeaux published an article comparing our wines with the Medoc of '82. We received a lot of people from the great wineries that day. They came to our stand because of the article, and I found that there was an interest in France to help me with out wines here.

"When I got back, I sent the article to a friend in London who worked with Rothchild. I asked him if Eric would have any interest. Two months later, he called and wanted to visit in December. He said, 'Eric has the papers and he did not say no.'

"He came with a video-recorder, and spent the whole day with the camera. After the visit, I received a letter from Eric, who said he thought we could do business 'one way or another.'"

After visits from enologists, tastings of other Chilean wines, and their assessment that Los Vascos could be No. 1 in Chile, Eric Rotchild came to Los Vascos in September of 1988.

"We had a serious meeting. 'Well, Jorge,' he said, 'all the information is good. But I must be able to live with my partner. I must know how he thinks, how he lives, because I want to make a 200 year deal, not a 90 day deal.' We signed in November."

The winery started on the sixth of January and was ready to harvest the reds in March. The 1989 harvest was different in two major ways--new crushing machinery leading to temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, and a new way of picking the grapes. Gilbert Rokvam, Rothschild's enologist, spent two months overseeing the harvest and winemaking. In the past, because there was not sufficient capacity to take in all the wine at once, Eyzaguirre's cabernet harvest lasted forty days. In 1989, the cabernet was picked selectively, according to the ripeness of the grapes, over a period of fifteen days. "In 1988, we started with high acidity and finished with low. In 1989, the acidity was the same."

The wine was then aged in barriques from the cellars of Lafite and Cos d'Estournel. Rokvam believes that Chilean fruit cannot take too much new oak, so at Los Vadcos they are experimenting with wood of various ages. As we approached the winery, old casks of rauli which Jorge hopes to sell to another winery were lined up outside the building to make room for the new barriques coming in from Bordeaux. Entering the winery, in the middle of this sleepy valley, the frenetic activity of construction had slowed to a calmer pace.

Tasting cabernets with Eyzaguirre, the family resemblance of all the vintages is apparent. Although the radical changes brought in by Lafite have dramatically increased the quality of the '89 vintage when compared to earlier bottlings, there remains a distinctive character in all the Los Vascos Cabernets. This is the taste of the soil in Caneten, the specific and consistent flavor that defines a chateau bottled wine.

Eyzaguirre explained that only Los Vascos and Cousino Macul have the potential to create completely estate bottled wines in Chile. Cousino Macul's estate is in Santiago itself. While the industry changed radically in the late '80s, the estate was governed under the conservative patriarchy of Don Arturo. Most Chileans agree that the potential for greatness exists at Caousino, and the wines have individuality and elegance. During 1990, with a new, gentle pneumatic press installed, Cousino's white wines have dramatically improved. Young Arturo, the export manager, and his father Carlos Cousino are now implementing their own program to keep pace with the developments in Chile.

At Los Vascos, Eyzaguirre has handed over complete wine-making control to Lafite, and is confident in the outcome. After years of building a small empire in this valley, he seems to view the joint venture as his greatest accomplishment rather than any admission that he could not make it on his own. Certainly, this is how it is perceived by many of his competitors. On the day of our visit, as we returned to the house past vineyard workers in huaso hats and donkey carts stirring the road dust, we were greeted by the team from Panquehue--Chadwick, Huneeus and their German friends. They had come to inspect the winery and vineyards, to see for themselves how the vines were being retrained, the density of planting, the million liters of stainless steel, and, of course, Eyzaguirre's famed rose garden.

Shaking hands all around, there was a sense of comraderie among vineyard owners. Jorge raised a glass to toast the future. With a new level of quality wines in bottles and cellars, it's only a matter of time before we begin to think of Chile in a new light. Great wines have a way of changing our perspective.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine, an independent consumer publication based in San Francisco. He recently returned from a visit to Santiago, Chile.
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Author:Greene, Joshua
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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