A Toast to Winemaking in Chile
The following post was written by Alison.
As part of my role at a medium-sized wine and spirits agency, I occasionally get the opportunity to meet with winemakers who come from all over the world to visit our market and teach us about their wines. One of my favourite aspects of these meetings is seeing the passion of each winemaker as they tell their story. Recently a few people from my company were invited to Chile to visit a number of wineries and witness this passion for winemaking firsthand. It was a trip I will never forget for the rest of my career.
Being my first time to Chile, I was excited to experience the busting metropolis of Santiago, one of South America's leading economic cities and a place that nearly 40% of Chileans call home. After less than twenty-four hours, I had a full appreciation for the vibrant and worldly capital city. It was full of energy, exquisite cuisine, outstanding wine and big-hearted locals. We stayed in the El Golf neighbourhood, an upper scale area where contemporary urban art is interspersed among international hotels, embassies and beautiful buildings designed by renowned Chilean architects.
Our first vineyard stop was at Viña Perez Cruz, a family-owned boutique winery located 45km southeast of Santiago in the foothills of The Andes. Specializing exclusively in estate-bottled reds, their wines are produced and bottled on-site in a state-of-the-art winery enabling them to make wines that are a true reflection of their unique surroundings in the Maipo Valley. The Andes provide cool mornings with hot afternoons and have porous and rocky soils low in nutrients. These strenuous growing conditions put the vines under stress, forcing them to work harder to produce grapes, and result in complex, elegant wines.
During our Perez Cruz tasting, French-trained winemaker German Lyon explained to us how he utilizes each unique microclimate on the property to create wines that are shaped by precision and place. His talents as a winemaker were illustrated in the consistent house style of the entire Perez Cruz portfolio which showcased herbal notes complemented with dark fruits, extremely well-balanced acidity and soft, silky tannins.
Following the tasting, we were invited to a barbecue lunch held in their original barrel cellar. The chef from the renowned Cuerovaca barbeque house in Santiago guided us through four courses of different beef cuts to which German had specifically paired with Perez Cruz wines. It was a remarkable gastronomic experience and a chance to experience the true capacity of the wines when paired with each course of beef.
The Chilean wine industry was born upon the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the middle of the sixteenth century when missionaries brought vines to produce wine for religious ceremonies. By the nineteenth century, immigration from France introduced vine grafts of well-known French varietals and increased Chilean wine exports worldwide. The quality of the wines soon garnered attention and saw Chile claim its first international gold medal at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. This winning wine was Santa Carolina’s Reserva de Familia Cabernet Sauvignon, one of my all-time favourite Chilean wines.
Santa Carolina was started in 1875 by Chilean diplomat Luis Pereira and today is part of Carolina Wine Brands, an umbrella group that operates their emblematic brand in addition to Viña Casablanca, Ochagavía and Antares in Chile, and Finca el Origen in Argentina. We spent the remainder of our time in Chile visiting a few of these properties.
Viña Casablanca is a boutique winery located in the Casablanca valley, a unique cool climate region nestled between the Andes and Coastal Mountain ranges. Situated just 18 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean, fog rolls in each night from the coast blanketing the vineyard until mid-morning when the sea breeze clears it away. With the same average daily temperatures as the Marlborough region in New Zealand, Viña Casablanca specializes in crisp sauvignon blancs.
Winemaker Gonzalo Bertelsen walked us through the vineyard along the base of the slopes of their El Cerro (hillside) project which began eight years ago for the production of ultra-premium syrah. The slope gradient ranges between 30% to 70% and is so steep in some areas the vineyard workers have to tend to the vines using crampons. Later that afternoon we tasted the full lineup of Viña Casablanca’s wines including the ultra-premium ‘Pinot del Cerro’ pinot noir which had a strikingly beautiful floral nose and an elegant, silky finish.
The following day we visited one of the main facilities for Santa Carolina in the Rapel Valley and toured their new winery equipped with storage capacity for over 9 million liters of wine. We met with winemakers Alejandro Wedeles and Andres Caballero who took us on a tour of the surrounding vineyards and showed us their research and innovation project, the Bloque Herencia (Heritage Block) which launched in 2010. This project is focused on the reclamation of early varietals brought over from France that were first planted at Santa Carolina and other producers.
Several varietals brought to Chile from France no longer exist in Europe as they were destroyed by a devastating parasite that wiped out most of the vineyards in the mid-nineteenth century. Because European immigrants brought vine grafts to Chile prior to this outbreak, they are the only large-scale producer of wine that has never been affected by the disease. Thus, they hold a rare DNA predating this virus and preserve a piece of the world's winemaking history. Acting as a genetic preserve, the Bloque Herencia gives Santa Carolina access to single clonal selections for their fields. This allows them to study each varietal's potential and determine the feasibility of increasing the genetic variety giving more diversity to Chilean wine. It is an undertaking not only to preserve the winemaking heritage at Santa Carolina, but also to innovate and diversify their offering.
The original Santa Carolina winery was built 6km south of Santiago and is now engulfed in the heart of the city as a National Monument. Built at the time of the winery's inception, the beautiful colonial building sits on top of magnificent underground cellars designed by French Architect Emile Doyère and constructed using a technique that binds bricks with egg whites and lime. In 2010, a devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile and seriously damaged the winery, yet the underground cellar remained miraculously intact. Still in use today, the winery holds daily heritage tours open to the public which include a brief visit to the cellar where premium red wines are aged. As a capstone to the trip, we were treated to a spectacular dinner in this historic cellar. After a few final toasts, we enjoyed an exquisite meal paired with some of their rare reserve wines and I chuckled, thinking to myself that Ben will sure have his hands full trying to top this.