In January I was invited on a tour of Chile, taking in the sights, smells and tastes of this wonderful region through the eyes of Concha y Toro, the country’s biggest wine producer. While visiting several of Concha y Toro’s biggest brands, from Don Melchor and Terrunyo to Vina Maipo and Cono Sur, we also found the time to visit some of the country’s smaller producers, not owned by Concha y Toro, to get a wider perspective on the Chilean wine industry. These included Matetic, Casa Marin and De Martino. Here, I round up few photographic highlights, tracing our journey from Santiago to the San Antonio Valley, south to Santa Cruz through the Maipo Valley, and onto Talca in the Maule Valley, where Concha y Toro is ramping up its efforts to support Chilean wine producers at its brand new Research and Innovation Centre.
Arriving at Matetic Vineyards in Chile’s San Antonio Valley after a 14 hour flight to Santiago via Paris, our first taste of Chilean cuisine came in the form of these utterly delicious ceviche spoons, which helped brighten up an uncharacteristically cloudy day.
Antonio Bunster, export manager at Matetic Vineyards shows us the winery’s biodynamic bunker, filled with all manner of weird and wonderful winemaking aids from cow skulls to preserved gall bladders.
“If you kill a cow you will have the head and internal organs so you can use those”, explained Bunster. “At the end we have a very diversity in terms of microbiology – bacteria and fungi – that will help you to balance your compost. We try to key a very down to earth approach to biodynamics. For us, Biodynamics is, in a humble way, about trying to work alongside nature, not against it, and to be very mindful of the successes we have in the vineyard.”
The rather menacing cow skulls on display in Matetic’s tiny biodynamic shed.
Moving on to Casa Marin, closer to the Pacific Ocean, Felipe Marin demonstrates the estate’s soil composition, which has a high proportion of marine deposits contributing to an increased level of salinity in their wines. Felipe also revealed that the producer is to release Chile’s “first sparkling Riesling”, making use of its ability to grow aromatic white varieties due to their proximity to the sea and cooler climate.
Meeting Charlie was a particular highlight of our visit to the Casa Marin winery, as were its artfully decorated barrels.
By day two of our Chilean adventure the sun had thankfully decided to shine, reaching a toasty 30 degrees in time for our arrival at Concha y Toro’s stately casona in the Maipo Valley. Here, we enjoyed a lunch with Concha’s marketing manager of fine wines, Isabel Guilisasti, who shared her believe that Chile’s lack of identity as a country is hampering producers efforts to raise the profile of its wines in international markets.
The depths of the Casillero del Diablo cellar, where the devil himself is said to haunt. This at least was the rumour that they company’s founder, Don Melchor, started in the late nineteenth century to deter thieves from breaking into his cellar and stealing his wine.
Enrique Tirado, winemaker at Don Melchor, gave us a masterclass in blending demonstrating exactly how one vintage of Don Melchor is made. Its 127 hectares are subdivided into 142 plots, then grouped into seven resulting parcels, each offering distinct characteristics to the final blend. The final blend is made from these parcels, with Tirado blind tasting some 160 wines before determining the final blend, making Don Melchor essentially a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon blends – as well as a touch of Cabernet Franc and sprinkling of Petit Verdot.
In the afternoon winemaker Ignacio Recabarren hosted a tasting of Carmenere, the flagship variety of Concha y Toro’s Terrunyo brand. Giving us a taste of the freshly bottled 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Recabarren also outlined his efforts to move toward a lighter style of Terrunyo Carmenere, since the 2013 vintage, that is “fresher and elegant with less oak and alcohol”.
Moving on, we travelled to the Almaviva winery – a joint project founded in 1997 between Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Concha y Toro. Made from a blend of classic Bordeaux varieties, in which Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, the unique Franco-Chilean wine has carved a comfortable niched, particularly in Asia where volumes has increased by 50% in the past year, according to winemaker and Frenchman Michel Friou. “For us the fact that we are French for being of course its an important factor [in Asia] as we are recognised as a fine Bordeaux blend producer outside of Bordeaux, but of course the wine is made in Chile”, said Friou.
A nod to its classical European roots, Almaviva’s statuesque wine god overlooks the winery’s barrel room, keeping watch on its sleeping Cabernet.
Day three saw db take in breakfast at Vina Maipo, which proved to be an uplifting experience. High above its vines, we tucked into pastries and fruit juices while surveying the vast vineyard and Maipo River (to the right). The view was truly breathtaking. Vina Maipo’s winemaker Max Weinlaub, is currently working on showing the “softer side of Syrah”, creating lower alcohol, fruitier wines with less oak – a trend that continues to gather pace in Chile.
While we munched our breakfast, Vina Maipo’s staff were hard at work preparing the vineyard for harvest, with one savvy operator covering the seat of his motorcycle with shrubbery to keep it from becoming too hot in the midday sun.
Then it was onto De Martino – a 100% organic boutique winery, headed up by Sebastien De Martino. Since 2010, the winery has been working toward producing wines with a lower alcohol content, less oak and more freshness, including a 100% Cinsault made in 200-year-old amphora without sulphur and with wild yeast.
“In 2010 we looked at ourselves in the mirror and said let’s do this”, said De Martino. “Since then we have been looking at new projects. There are some other projects we are working on but now we are focusing on Itata because we think it is home to great cultural and historical vineyards there that have been neglected.”
De Martino first started using amphora in 2010, sourcing the giant pots, that range from 250 to 1800 litres in size, by digging them up at sites throughout Chile and shipping others in from Georgia. All are at least 200 years old with De Martino fermenting and ageing his wines in the amphora, also known as tinajas. So far, only Cinsault and Muscat, grown in the southern region of Itata, have been given the clay pot treatment, with Paìs another contender. Since the 2015 vintage De Martino has not used any sulphur in the production of its wines.
“We are going back to the roots of how wines were first made in Chile”, said De Martino. “In this specific region of Itata the amphora was what the first vignerons used. It’s a region we are trying to push here. It is our origins of wine in Chile.”
Day four and it was on to Concha y Toro’s brand new research centre in the Maule Valley, which opened for business just one year ago. Here, viticulturists, chemical engineers and agronomists are working on research projects with the aim of helping Chilean winemakers to improve the quality of their wines and support the future growth of the industry. While built and managed by Concha y Toro, the facility is open to the wider Chilean wine industry, and boasts an experimental winery, tasting room and nursery vineyard.
One of the centre’s major focuses is on the Chilean grape variety País, with its scientists working to improve its prospects by experimenting with different winemaking methods that it hopes will help producers to better present the variety to its markets. A sparkling rosé Pais and Beaujolais-style País produced using carbonic maceration were just two options put forward to create a trademark style for the grape.
What better way to round off our our journey through Chile than with a visit to Cono Sur in Chimbarongo, arguably one of Chile’s most beautiful wine estates.
At Cono Sur it’s all about pedal power, which is absolutely the best way to discover the scenic beauty of its vineyards which are overlooked by the majestic Andes mountains.
A sight to behold. Ben Smith, head of communications at Concha y Toro, was particularly pleased to see Cono Sur’s famed avocado cake appear from the kitchen. Its creator, head chef Nellie, created the masterpiece by layering roast chicken, carrot and sweetcorn between pancaked before smothering the lot with avocado. A one-off culinary experience not to be missed.
No visit to Cono Sur would be complete without taking a gander at its geese, which are let loose in the vines to help clean up pests.
Incredible scenes in Santiago, as a juggling unicyclist entertains drivers at a red light.
As my Chilean adventure came to an end there was just time to soak in the city’s stunning landscape from the top of the W Hotel in Santiago.