When I first met Marco Puyo, it was several years ago, while he was still working at Los Vascos. At the time, he was part of a growing generation of young winemakers who seemed destined to help shape the Chilean wine industry in the coming years. Several of them, including Marcelo Papa and Enrique Tirado, have done just that.
Puyo, 41, didn’t get a chance to make a deep impression at Los Vascos, though the wines did show an uptick in quality while he was there. After just a few harvests, he was wooed away, intrigued by the opportunity afforded at Viña San Pedro.
Viña San Pedro is Chile’s second-largest winery, with an annual production of around 4 million cases. It ranks behind only Concha y Toro in size. But Viña San Pedro has long been in need of a qualitative overhaul—both its volume brands and high-end lineup have lagged way behind the leaders of Chile’s wine industry.
I sat down with Puyo last week to get caught up on his efforts.
“Yes, it’s a big company, and a traditional one,” said Puyo. “But they have the resources to make investments. Plus, I like the responsibility, along with that bit of risk,” he added, explaining his decision to take on such a huge task.
Among his first changes at Viña San Pedro, Puyo revamped the internal structure of the winemaking team, appointing individual winemakers in charge of specific lines (previously one person was in charge of all production), following the model used by Concha y Toro, which has a team of winemakers, each in charge of an individual brand line.
Puyo took over the control of the premium wines himself (Castillo de Molina, 1865 and Cabo de Hornos), with an aim at improving quality, while also adding a few new projects. Step one was to take a fresh look at the vineyard sources that were going into the top wines, which historically had come almost entirely from the company’s oldest vines in Curicó. But with 6,600-plus acres of vines at his disposal, Puyo went about searching for the best parcels in the company’s vast holdings. Viña San Pedro expanded is vineyards in 1997, and so Puyo sought to pull out the best of these parcels, now 10 years old, which were being blended indiscriminately into the company’s volume brands (Gato Negro and 35 Sur).
Prior to 2003, the Cabo de Hornos bottling, the winery's top wine, was entirely Cabernet Sauvignon. There was no 2004 released, as quality was not up to Puyo’s standards (a tough pill for the executive side of the company to swallow, according to Puyo). Beginning with the 2005, the wine now contains Syrah from Cachapoal (from vineyards located near Viña Altaïr), Malbec from Maule and Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo. There is no longer any Curicó fruit in it at all, not even the old vineyard. That’s a striking and sudden change for a company that had plodded along for so long.
“When they asked me why I wasn’t using the old vineyard in Curicó anymore, I said, ‘well, not every old vineyard produces the best wines,'” said Puyo of how he defended his decision to the corporate side of the company. “If you want to make the best wine possible in every year, and every year is different, then you need to use different vineyards from time to time.”
The proof is in the bottle: A barrel sample of the 2007 Cabo de Hornos shows creamy, supple texture, excellent length, and pure cassis and black cherry fruit. It’s clearly a big step up from previous incarnations and shows potentially outstanding quality.
As for Puyo’s new projects, one is a high-end Carmenère blended with a drop of Petit Verdot, sourced from vineyards in Maule and projected to be at the same price point as the Cabo de Hornos (around $40). A barrel sample of the 2007 version (the wine is not yet named) shows grilled herb, tobacco and black cherry notes along with a note of roasted earth on the finish. It’s less polished than the Cabernet, but isn’t marred by Carmenère’s sometimes-overt green quality either, and shows potentially very good quality.
In addition, Puyo has started sourcing fruit from the Elquí Valley, located over 300 miles north of Santiago (Elquí is even further north than the viticultural outpost of Limarí, which I visited back in March). Here, with very cool temperatures and limestone-dominated soils similar to Limarí, Puyo is making Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.
A tank sample of the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Elquí Valley, which will be bottled under the Castillo de Molina label, offers crystal-clear mineral, sea salt and citrus peel notes, with a long, mouthwatering chive- and thyme-filled finish. If Viña San Pedro can follow through on Puyo’s estimated $12 per bottle retail price point, it’s a steal.
The Syrah is even more impressive. A barrel sample of the 2007 Syrah Elquí Valley (not yet named) offers strikingly pure kirsch and violet notes with a racy, fresh palate and a long, superminerally finish. It’s a unique combination of warm climate-styled fruit with cool-climate minerality and is easily the best of the three new high-end reds.
As if this wasn’t enough, Puyo is also retooling the 1865 line (which retails for around $20) by adding a Leyda Valley-sourced Sauvignon Blanc, as he joins the rapidly growing trend among Chilean wineries to source white varieties from cooler, coastal vineyard areas. A tank sample of the 2008, which will be bottled unfiltered, shows pure sweet pea, chive flower and mineral notes, with a more caressing feel and depth than the bracing Elquí Valley bottling.
When I first heard that Puyo was moving to Viña San Pedro, I was skeptical, figuring it would be nearly impossible to turn the company around. I thought that Puyo would either get swallowed up by the company and disappear, or wind up moving on to another winery soon enough.
There’s still a long way to go for Puyo at Viña San Pedro. The volume brands of Gato Negro and 35 Sur need a major shot in the arm, and Puyo’s new wines from 2007 and 2008 aren’t yet in the market. But there is clearly a light at the end of the tunnel now. Here’s hoping Puyo can reach it.
Maximiliano Morales — Santiago, Chile — July 15, 2008 5:17pm ET
James Scoptur — WI — July 17, 2008 4:45pm ET
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