I sat down last week to chat with Ana-Maria Cumsille, winemaker at Chile’s Viña Altaïr.
The winery has undergone some changes since its creation in 2001 and subsequent debut wines from the 2002 vintage. First and foremost, the Luksic family (owners of Chile’s large Viña San Pedro winery) has bought out their former partners, the owners of Château Dassault in the Bordeaux appellation of St.-Emilion. Though it shares the same owner with San Pedro, Viña Altaïr will operate independently from the rest of the group (where Marco Puyo is trying to effect some quality changes). The 2007 vintage is the first under the sole control of the Luksic family.
I liked the debut 2002 vintage here, though I found a little too much oak influence on the wines for them to rate outstanding at the time. Cumsille agreed with that assessment, noting that she was forced to use 100 percent new oak in the first year as the winery hadn’t built up a library of barrels to use a blend of new and used oak, a common problem among start-up wineries.
While the 2003 vintage, a warmer year, should’ve produced a richer, denser wine, I found them a touch more herbal than their 2002 cousins. Then with the 2004s, I thought the wines took a noticeable step backward, showing even more herbaceous notes and astringency than both the 2002s and the 2003s, particularly the lower-priced Sideral cuvée.
Viña Altaïr’s vineyard is located in the upper reaches of the eastern end of the Cachapoal Valley. It’s a very cool spot, with both minimum and average temperatures that are far cooler than neighboring Maipo or Colchagua. The warmest temperatures in the area, however, are equal to those from the two better-known valleys, and that wide diurnal swing (the difference between day and night temperatures) is what Cumsille considers special about the vineyard.
“We get lower pH [higher acidity] with more acidity. I never have to adjust with tartaric acid,” said Cumsille. “The tannins are finer and more elegant as well, but very ripe. But the alcohol is the same as reds from other places like Colchagua—getting ripeness is not a problem—you just don’t feel the alcohol.”
Beginning in the 2005 vintage, Cumsille has instituted some changes in the vinification that should show up in the resulting wines. She’s using only natural yeasts for fermentation and has dropped yields as well, from 1.3 kilograms per plant to a maximum of just 1 kilogram for the top wine and from 1.6 to 1.5 kilos per plant for the Sideral parcels (Cumsille talks in kilos per plant since the various parcels that make up the 177-acre vineyard are planted with widely differing densities). Cumsille also began bleeding the vats of juice (called saignée in French) to concentrate the remaining wine. It's a sometimes tricky technique, since you concentrate everything in the vat, both the good and bad elements.
The Sideral cuvée, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère blend, is the more accessible of the winery’s two cuvées. It’s fermented in stainless steel and aged for a shorter period of time than the top wine. Starting with the 2005 vintage, it sees an equal mix of new, second- and third-fill barrels during its malolactic fermentation and subsequent élevage, which should help it assimilate its oak better than in previous vintages. Sideral is not meant as a second wine to the top cuvée, but rather a “totally different wine, with a different personality,” according to Cumsille, who uses a small dose of fruit purchased from the Colchagua Valley in addition to the Cachapoal estate fruit to help set it apart stylistically from the top cuvée. The top wine is fermented in oak vats and gets a healthy dose of Syrah (the 2005 contains 12 percent) along with the main Cabernet Sauvignon component and a dash of Carmenère, before it is aged in 100 percent new oak barrels for 15 to 18 months.
With the significantly cooler microclimate of the vineyard, attaining ripeness is the key for these wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère ripen late even in warmer spots, so being patient with extended hang time, which runs the risk of running into end-of-season rains, is critical. But when ripeness is achieved, the moderating effects of the vineyard's overall cooler temperatures (resulting in heightened acidity) should still result in a more elegantly styled wine, as opposed to the richer, more powerful versions fashioned in Colchagua and Maipo (which is exactly what Cumsille wants to avoid making in the first place).
I tasted through barrel samples of the 2008 vintage, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah planted on the property’s differing alluvial and volcanic soils. They showed sappy intensity to their black fruit flavors, but long, fine-grained tannins and a nicely buried minerality. The bottled ‘05s, set to be released later this year, show significant improvement, and are in line with the quality of the debut 2002s. The Sideral shows nice polish, with fleshy texture and a suave cocoa powder note along with black currant, fig, coffee and loam notes. The top wine flirts with outstanding in quality, displaying a core of black currant and warm fig flavors layered with cigar box, aged tobacco, plum sauce reduction, loam and coffee—gone from both wines are the overt green notes that hampered the 2004s. (As always, official reviews based on blind tastings will appear in the near future.)
Despite the early hiccups, there’s enough clear potential in Altaïr’s vineyards (and enough clear passion in the charming Cumsille) to keep an eye on this project. As I’ve said before, the wine business is a marathon, not a sprint.
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