Old Faithful - Chile Cabernet Sauvignon

POSTED ON 01/10/2008

Your starter for 10: the vineyard areas of Bordeaux and Chile are similar numbers in size but who grows more cabernet sauvignon? Strange to relate, it’s Chile, whose plantings of 40,790 hectares stand head and shoulders above Bordeaux’ 26,750. Although the Chilean drumroll seems to be crescendoing for carmenère, syrah and pinot noir and the talk is of new varieties and new valleys to north, west and south, cabernet sauvignon outguns carmenère by six to one, syrah 12 to one and pinot noir 30 to one. Like a world-weary adult brother watching his attention-seeking younger siblings hogging the limelight, cabernet sauvignon is still the grape variety on which Chile hangs its hat both at home and abroad. If Chile had to go into battle with just one variety, as Eduardo Chadwick did when Viñedo Chadwick and his cabernet blend Seña saw off Margaux, Lafite and Sassicaia at the famous blind tasting in Berlin in 2004, it would be unquestionably be cabernet sauvignon.

There can be little doubt in the minds of all but the most doubting of Thomases that cabernet sauvignon and Chile are made for each other. Just as Angelo Gaja sighed with relief at the prospect of an easy life growing cabernet in Bolgheri, so Miguel Torres must have grinned broadly when he found his Shangri-la in Chile’s ‘viticultural paradise’ back in 1978. In this slim cayenne pepper sliver of land, the conditions for cabernet sauvignon are about as ideal as any self-respecting cabernet could wish for: constant sunshine, well-drained, stony-clay alluvial soils, a long, trouble-free ripening period, mountain snow water, no phylloxera and air conditioning from the Pacific in the west and the Andes in the east. Producers may be beginning to experiment with imported cabernet clones but most Chilean cabernet is still confidently based on ‘massal’ selections in the vineyard.

If all this is beginning to sound like a perfect school report, it would be to ignore the broad spectrum of quality levels of which cabernet is capable, viz. from Margaux to Morrisons claret. The Panglossian view that cabernet can grow anywhere in Chile is likely to cause trouble in paradise. As Bruno Prats says: ‘It’s easy in Chile to get ripe cabernet sauvignon with yields of 15 tons per hectare but real quality calls for much lower yields of 5 to 6 tons per hectare’. And according to Joanna Yeomans at Loma Larga in Casablanca which concentrates on syrah, cabernet franc and malbec,‘the most important characteristic for a location to be suitable for cabernet sauvignon is for the fruit to reach its phenolic maturity and this according to our experience does not occur in cool climates’. A glimpse at the new valleys shows relatively little cabernet planted in Elqui and Limarí and none in Casablanca, San Antonio or Bío-Bío. Equally, the challenge, and not just in warmer areas, is to keep the alcohol levels down.

Cabernet can produce good value wines but is Chile capable of shaking cabernet from its comfort zone to make exciting wine? While there are a number of parcels of exceptional old vine cabernet still in the ground, the lion’s share of Chilean cabernet sauvignon still comes from relatively young vines. As Concha y Toro’s Ignacio Recabarren points out, ‘it’s no use thinking you can make Château Bordeaux from young vines in two to four years. Cabernet’s full potential will not be realised without patience and the use of specifically Chilean-style blends of cabernet with syrah and carmenère’. What the more canny producers such as Neyen and Altaïr are up to is aiming to blend their proven old vine cabernet sauvignons with new plantations of cabernet based on modern ideas of where it should be located in terms of soil and exposition, at what density it should be planted and how trellised, oriented and irrigated.

A feature of cabernet in Chile is the presence of the overseas eminence grise: among others Michel Rolland at Casa Lapostolle, Patrick Valette (Neyen), Pascal Chatonnet (Altaïr), Bruno Prats and Paul Pontallier (Aquitania), Michel Friou (Almaviva), Jacques Boissenot (Concha y Toro), Renzo Cotarella (Haras de Pirque) and Christian le Sommer, Château Latour’s former cellarmaster (Carmen / Los Vascos). There’s a European view, summed up by Bruno Prats, that ‘in Europe the major effect of a great terroir is the natural control of the water supply to the vine. As it does not rain in Chile, this control can be mastered through irrigation’. Yet, as Christian Le Sommer acknowledges: ‘Terroir for cabernet is about the soil, the climate, the environment and the age of the vines. Chilean viticulture was established in flat areas and so the not the best terroirs and it’s only in the last 15 – 20 years that people have moved to the poorer soils of the hillsides with better exposition and lower yields’. This more open-minded approach accepts the true potential of Chile’s cabernet.

The roots of cabernet sauvignon penetrate as deeply into Chile’s past as its soil. The Upper Maipo contains the greatest number of classic cabernet ‘terroirs’. Here, cooling Andean winds, gravelly soils and the moderating influence of the Maipo River are significant in Puente Alto on the northern bank of the Maipo (Don Melchor, Almaviva, Viñedo Chadwick), the Pirque basin to the south (Haras de Pirque, El Principal), the western side of the Andes (Carmen Gold Reserve, Casa Real, Perez Cruz), and Huelquen (Antiyal). While the Upper Maipo is generally acknowledged to the best or one of the best locations for cabernet for the cooling convection of the Andes, there can be a tendency to green characters or overconcentration when the balance between sugars and tannins is out of kilter. Some feel that Maipo green characters are part of the terroir but there is a growing tendency to distinguish between underripe, pyrozine-derived greenness and the minty, bay-leaf character ascribed by Christian le Sommer and others to the presence of eucalyptus in or close to the vineyard.

Panquehue in Aconcagua produces Seña and Don Maximiano and it’s interesting to note that since Errazuriz cut down the eucalyptus around the vineyard, the overtly minty characters of Don Max have been toned right down. At Totihue in Cachapoal’s east, Altaïr’s Anna Maria Cumsille believes Cachapoal, with its relatively cool climate and soils of volcanic and alluvial origin that allow the roots to penetrate, has great potential. According to Patrick Valette, who’s very keen on this up-and-coming cool area, the cabernet needs blending here, because although ‘wines of more delicacy and finesse than the wines of the Maipo, they sometimes lack ‘volume’. In the warmer Colchagua Valley, the Apalta sub-appellation is home to Clos Apalta, Montes Alpha M and Neyen. Christian le Sommer is a firm believer in Colchagua ‘terroir’ based on the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean which with its afternoon breezes create less extreme conditions and better acidity than in most locations within Chile. Santa Rita’s Andres Ilabaca neatly sums up the differences: ‘Maipo is more elegant and Apalta is more New World’.

The experience brought by overseas consultants, working with Chilean winemakers and viticulturalists, has undoubtedly helped in the quest for location and high quality. Some, like Bruno Prats, still believe that ‘the future of Chile is still in mass production of good, inexpensive cabs’. Others are more optimistic that great cabernet can be made by harnessing vineyard management techniques from vine density, trellising, row orientation and controlling water stress to pruning, leaf plucking, green harvesting and picking at the right time. ‘Cabernet is a variety that blends well, offers exceptional aromatic diversity and Chile possesses all the terroirs, all the climatic conditions, all the necessary balancing factors for the production of some of the best cabernet sauvignon in the world’, says Patrick Valette. Alvaro Espinoza, one of Chile’s best-known winemakers, agrees that ‘Chile can make great cabernet’, adding a cautionary note ‘we still have to work the vineyard to relate the yield to the climatic and soil conditions. The real challenge for a winemaker is to get both elegance and power together and for that we need time’. The clock is ticking.

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