Marcelo Papa

POSTED ON 01/04/2008

At 41, though he could be 10 years younger, Marcelo Papa runs one of the world’s biggest and arguably one of its best value brands, Concha y Toro’s three million case Casillero del Diablo. Marcelo is one of the new generation of Chilean winemakers whose enthusiasm, drive and experience of the wine world beyond the Andes has provided Chile with an invaluable human resource to add to its unique natural conditions for wine production. Success hasn’t gone to his head, far from it. At a relatively young age for one of the country’s top winemakers, Marcelo has found his niche in life and when he smiles, which he does frequently, it’s the smile of a man who is happy with his lot. Make that his Winemaker’s Lot 500 Malbec and 401 Syrah.

Born in Santiago in 1967 to Chilean parents, Marcelo derives his Italian name from his grandparents, the Papas from Ancona and Alba, the Mamas from near Modena and the Marche. His parents weren’t great drinkers but his father always had a bottle of the local white wine on the table which he diluted with equal measures of soda water from the soda siphon. As a boy, Marcelo enjoyed time spent on his grandparents’ farm in the pine-clad hills of the coastal ranges near Capitán Pastene, a southern Chilean immigrant town. Coinciding with the early 1980s boom in the production and export of Chilean fruits, studying agronomy at university in Santiago was a natural choice. Wine though was off the radar for most because the industry was in crisis. Not Marcelo. After a trainee stint at Cousiño Macul, he became one of only five in a class of 60 to plump for winemaking.

It proved to be a far-sighted decision because the wine industry was just starting to get back on its feet at the time he was graduating. Finding himself inundated with job offers, he took a job at Santa Emiliana, a sub-brand of Concha y Toro, in Colchagua. Soon after a number of American wine companies, notably Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson, started prospecting in Chile. Marcelo was contacted by KJ’s Randy Ullom, who was keen to make a trial batch from Emiliana’s grapes. It was Marcelo’s lack of English that propelled him to think of California. Concha’s Raffael Guilisasti encouraged him and he spent a short time in California visiting wineries before taking a job with Kendall-Jackson, working two harvests a year, one in California, the other at KJ’s Viña Calina in Chile.

This ‘life-changing experience’ taught him some basic but crucial winemaking and vineyard management techniques, notably tasting the grapes before picking, harvesting for full ripeness and learning how to use and clean barrels to avoid potential problems of brettanomyces. In 1998, Marcelo met his wife, Gloria, on an arranged blind date. Kendall Jackson wanted him to take charge of a new winery they were planning for Cauquenes in Maule’s south west, but Marcelo thought that Gloria, an accomplished painter and food writer, would divorce him if he tried to take her to the sticks. After a call to Raffael Guilisasti, he was back at Concha y Toro, and almost immediately in charge first of Casillero del Diablo, and subsequently, the upmarket Marques de Casa Concha brand.

Over the past decade, Marcelo has presided over a wholesale modernization at Concha y Toro. In place of the old method of vinifying all vineyard blocks together and declassifying, each winemaker has been allocated his own vineyard blocks and barrel programme. Marques de Casa Concha is all estate-grown, Casillero coming from a third estate vineyards with most of the rest from the 60 – 70 growers, from Limarí to Itata, with whom Marcelo works. From 400,000 cases of the usual suspects (cabernet, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon) a decade ago, Casillero del Diablo’s three million cases today have been extended to include a viognier, pinot noir, shiraz, carmenère, malbec, gewürztraminer, riesling, shiraz rosé and, latterly, a sparkling blanc de blancs chardonnay from Limarí.

Limarí is Marcelo’s new baby. For long aware of the potential of its Pacific-cooled climate and red clay and calcium soils, he tried to push this northerly region for some time, but came up against a company blinded at the time by Casablanca’s cool climate potential. ‘Concha is like an elephant’ he says. ‘To move it, you have to push hard’. After several chardonnay trials, Concha finally became convinced of Limarí’s potential, buying Francisco de Aguirre, and, latterly, three large farms now planted to 150 hectares of chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir, sauvignon and viognier.

In 2005, the Chilean Wine Guide made Marcelo Papa their Winemaker of the Year for his outstanding contribution to combining quality with quantity. He’s under no illusions that his job is done. ‘We’re not a mature industry’, he suggests, ‘we’re just a bit clearer than we were 20 years ago where to grow different grape varieties’. He seems in equal measure surprised, happy and grateful to find himself as one of a distinguished team of Chilean winemakers at the Concha y Toro helm, including Ignacio Recabarren, Enrique Tirado and Adolfo Hurtado. ‘A great group of people’, he says. And they in turn are probably not surprised, but grateful rather, to be working with a man of Marcelo’s charm and talent.

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