Some wines are lucky, starting out with a bang as they hit qualitative heights right out of the gate, never looking back. Other wines take time before they become great, perhaps increasing their complexity and quality as vineyards mature.
At Chile’s MontGras, the winery’s flagship Ninquén bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the lucky ones, earning a 92-point review for its debut 2000 vintage when I reviewed it back in 2003.
I visited the vineyard back in 2002 and was impressed. The wine was named for the hill on which the vineyards were developed, a craggy, saddle-backed piece of granite and clay that juts up from the flat, fertile floor of the western end of the Colchagua Valley. The low-yielding site sits alone, like an island, amidst the acres and acres of verdant valley floor crops. MontGras owner Hernán Gras was one of the vintners who were heading for the hills in the late 1990s, helping to lead the revolution of Chile’s vineyard base from high-yielding valley floor sites, to more difficult-to-farm and lower-yielding hillside sites. The project wasn’t easy—planting vines on the tough hillsides (which were virgin soils) and installing drip irrigation up the mountainside. But the gamble that started in 1998 paid off with that 2000 bottling, as winemaker Santiago Margozzini (who at the time worked with consultant Paul Hobbs) scored early. It looked like the wine was well on its way to becoming one of Chile’s best.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. After starting with a bang, the wine’s quality then slid slowly, inexorably downward. Ensuing vintages dropped down the quality scale like a stone, bottoming out in 2003 with a lean, rustic wine that earned only 80 points when I reviewed it. It was a head scratcher for me. I knew the vineyards had potential and the people behind the project were first-rate winemakers. What could be wrong? I sat down here at my office today with Margozzini to get the latest on the Ninquén project.
“After the debut, we just couldn’t get back to the same level,” said Margozzini, 43. “The plants were stressed and we weren’t getting the same texture in the wines. We though it was the vinification, but we couldn’t figure it out. Then, by 2005, we thought maybe there was something wrong with the vineyard instead.”
“Then we realized we had uneven soils, and since we were trying to be basically 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, we were getting very inconsistent results.”
So, to help figure out their soils, the team at MontGras brought in Pedro Parra, the terroir hunter, in 2006. Parra is a geologist who has made a name for himself in recent years working with wineries in Chile and Argentina to help identify a vineyard’s varying soils and then map out from there the best varieties to plant.
The Ninquén vineyards in Chile's Colchagua Valley perplexed MontGras' Santiago Margozzini, until now.
“Pedro began digging holes and almost right way we saw how variable the site was. Just 100 yards apart we had spots that were ideal for Cabernet and others that weren’t. In fact, they were really bad spots for Cabernet,” said Margozzini.
The particularly difficult spots were those in the bottom of the saddle, where drainage was at its worst and heavy clay soil had eroded down from the hillsides, forming a dense layer over the granite beneath. Consequently, the vine's root systems couldn’t penetrate down to the minerals and nutrients buried deep below the clay, growing weakly and horizontally instead, basically gasping for the irrigation that was being provided.
“In the beginning [when we started the vineyard] we saw more consistencies—we weren’t looking for the inconsistencies. Pedro takes a very fine-tuned approach and finds the inconsistencies. Then you can fix things from there,” said Margozzini.
To fix those spots, Margozzini began deep plowing between the rows to break up the heavy clay and added compost to aerate the clay layer and make it easier for the vine roots to head downward toward the granite. It took just a year to see marked improvement in the root systems, and then the fruit quality.
Parra’s work mapping out the Ninquén vineyards is almost done. In addition to finding the problem with the underperforming Cabernet parcels, spots that looked ideal for Syrah have been planted. All the parcels with varying soils are now harvested and vinified separately at Viña Ninquén (the wine got its own winery and new labeling starting with the 2005 vintage).
“We used to do things based on vine vigor or other factors,” said Margozzini. “Now we do it by soil type."
The result is a 2006 bottling that is nearly two-thirds Syrah with the rest Cabernet Sauvignon, the first time the wine isn’t 95-plus percent Cabernet. There were 1,665 cases produced and the wine is being released to the U.S. market now. [Note: as always, a formal review of the wine, based on samples tasted blind, will appear in the near future.]
Of course, the million-dollar question is why was the first vintage so successful if that wine included all the fruit from the parcels that soon began to under perform?
“We had another specialist come in and explain that one,” said Margozzini, who had been puzzled by the very same question. “The young vines in their first year took everything they could from that clay layer—all the nutrients they could find. Then from there, with the soil sapped but nowhere for the roots to go, they started to stress and struggle.”
“We’re in the middle of what I call the terroir revolution in Chile now,” said Margozzini. “First we had the technological revolution during the '90s, where we went from making wines that I can’t believe people actually drank, to buying all the stainless steel tanks and things the winery needs to make clean wines. Now we’re focusing on the vineyards and looking at them in ways we never did before. And now finally, we are understanding the mountain.”
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — November 9, 2009 9:57pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — November 10, 2009 9:24am ET
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