Reminding myself why I’m doing this (Maipo Valley, Chile – Day Three)

Frustrations and difficulties continued on the roads of Santiago, resulting in me being almost an hour late for my only appointment for the day. It reflects poorly on myself, and I feel really guilty that I am keeping people waiting. Leaving Santiago should be much easier, but I’m not holding my breath, as the navigator just doesn’t help at all. It’s a little bit funny when you look at my tracking and see that there is a lot of circling and wrong turns, and I’ve covered a lot of ground in one city. The second winery recommended to me by Daniela Penno from Wines of Chile and Argentina was Santa Rita, located in the Alto Jahuel, Buin in the Maipo Valley. The winery was the first to produce registered wines in Chile, and the estate is one of the oldest in the country. It dates back to when land was awarded to wealthy families (usually those making their fortunes in mining), to turn into haciendas. The purpose of the hacienda was to run agriculture and allow workers to live on the property that were provided for by the owners. Thus many estates such as Santa Rita, Santa Carolina and Concha y Toro would have communities living on the estate, complete with schools and churches. An important part of Chile’s history occurred on the estate, when 120 escaping revolutionary soldiers were hidden in the cellars. From here they escaped from the advancing Spanish army across the Andes into Argentina, where they raised another army to return and win freedom for Chile several years later.

Like many wineries in Chile Santa Rita was acquired and developed in the 1980s by wealthy investors, in this case by the Chilean owned Claro Group. This lead to great innovations in the winery and packaging of the wines, and subsequent increases in export of wine to many countries. The winery has preserved many of the historic assets, including the colonial Spanish style house under which the 120 hid, which now houses a retail tasting space and restaurant. A few years ago the owners put the finishing touches on a museum space that would display Pre-Columbian pieces from the owners private collection. And most importantly the French/English style chateau where I enjoyed a tasting with Maria-Cecilia and Matias. Santa Rita are one of the larger wineries in Chile, and there are numerous brands in the portfolio. The tasting given to me by Maria-Cecilia (the winemaker most involved with marketing), consisted of many of the more premium products, but Santa Rita actually has 30% market-share in Chile with their entry-level range. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Getting a bit late Matias and I headed to the restaurant for lunch with some select bottles from the tasting. Although the kitchen had technically closed they managed to whip up a delicious turkey with almond sauce and some fresh vegetables, followed by a really nice flan. A quick tour around the site included a look in the historic cellar where the 120 were hidden, the front of the historic house where we had tasted, and the outside of the museum (by this point it had closed). As Carmen Winery is part of the Santa Rita group and is also right next door, we took an impromptu trip through the vineyards trying to find the historic block where the carmenere was discovered. As previously mentioned, for those who haven’t heard of the carmenere grape, it is the famous ‘lost’ sixth Bordeaux variety. With phylloxera wreaking havoc across Europe at the end of the 19th Century, the vines were being pulled and eventually grafted onto North American rootstocks to resist the aphid. The carmenere vines were not replanted for two main reasons. The first was that it didn’t take well to the rootstocks and would therefore be susceptible phylloxera. The second was that carmenere never performed consistently well in the cool and wet Bordeaux region, rarely contributing much to the blend in volume or quality. And thus they assumed that carmenere was lost to the ether.

What they didn’t realise was that wealthy Chilean families, emulating the Bordeaux model in the mid 1800s, had taken cuttings of all of the Bordeaux varieties back to Chile to establish their own wineries. Categorising of varieties was non-existent, so they assumed that the carmenere was a merlot or cabernet franc, and blended it with all the other grapes to make Chilean red wine. With the push to modernise and improve wine quality in Chile in the 1980s and 1990s, a French ampelographer was invited to examine these odd vines, and he discovered that they were in fact the lost variety carmenere. Whilst there was initial confusion and reluctance to change their methods, many wineries embraced the ‘Chilean’ variety and began marketing and selling single varietal wines. The difference with these wines is that Chile is decidedly warmer and drier than, Bordeaux, and has a very consistent and long growing season. Carmenere has no issues ripening and creating a style of wine that sits between merlot and cabernet sauvignon; full but not heavy, dry but not too tannic. The vines that were discovered were located at Carmen.

Carmen as a brand is targeted at a slightly more premium price, and exports more of its production than Santa Rita does. It’s supposedly the oldest winery in Chile, and also thanks to the discovery of carmenere in their vineyards, Carmen IS carmenere. We happened to bump into the chief cellar hand of the winery who was kind enough to lead us through the winery to try some tank and barrel samples. The wines were very precise clean varietal examples, always exhibiting great quality for the price. The sauvignon blancs continued the trend I had already seen of great quality, the chardonnays were rich and fruity, and the pinot noir was light and structured. The carmenere is where the winery really shines, and you can see the focus and attention with these wines. Interestingly they also had a petite sirah, the vines for which were accidentally imported instead of syrah. They barely make 1,000 cases of this, so don’t expect to see it very often.

After we managed to find the historic site in the vineyard, Matias and I headed up to the top of the vineyard to enjoy the vista. It was a little treacherous driving up on very gravelly roads in a Suzuki dragging on the ground. It was a pretty amazing view from the top, particularly at the time of day, as the photos I took would attest. It was a pretty amazing end to a great day in the Maipo with my hosts, and I can’t thank them enough for their generous hospitality. With luck I’ll have many other experiences whilst I’m in Chile.

Click here to see more photos from the Maipo Valley Day 3.

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