Last week was a busy one, as I had sit-downs with South Africa’s Miles Mossop as well as Chile’s Marcelo Retamal and Sven Bruchfeld (notes to come).
Marcelo Retamal has quietly become one of Chile’s best winemakers. As winemaker at Chile’s De Martino, he’s been on a real terroir kick, developing wines based on varieties that perform best in certain areas—the winery’s $15 Legado line features a Choapa Valley Syrah and a Limarí Valley Chardonnay that offer a rare combination of value and legitimate complexity. Now, Retamal is turning his attention to some of Chile’s old, overlooked vineyards for his next project.
Retamal plans to release a lineup of single-vineyard wines based on old-vine vineyards mainly in the southern Maule Valley, where there are 500 hectares of old-vine, head-pruned Carignane vines. It’s a vinous treasure that has long been bypassed by Chilean wineries as the grapes from these vines often wound up in indiscriminate blends. That’s changing though, as Chilean vintners scramble for new pockets of vines outside the usual central valley/Cabernet Sauvignon rubric (Bodegas y Viñedos O. Fournier is also working with some of the old vines in Maule). In addition to Carignane, grapes such as Malbec, Carmenère and more can also be found, interplanted in the vineyards.
“When these vineyards were planted, maybe 100 years ago, they weren’t planted with just one variety. They were field blends,” said Retamal. “They are all dry-farmed, low yielding, worked by horse and basically organic [worked organically, but not certified].”
The first wine from the project, the Las Cruces Single Vineyard Old Bush Vines Cachapoal Valley 2006, I rated at 91 points back in the Sept. 30, 2009, issue. At just $30, this blend of Malbec and Carmenère sourced from vines planted in 1957 on decomposed granite soils, produces a broad, ripe wine, with crushed plum, red cherry and raspberry fruit layered with alluring spice, aged tobacco and licorice snap notes. It’s an impressive harbinger of what should come from the rest of the lineup, which is still yet to be released.
“It’s tricky [to work the Las Cruces vineyard] because Malbec can be ready when the Carmenère is still green,” said Retamal. “So what we do is pick the Malbec when it is dry, just before it gets overripe or shriveled, so that the Carmenère is ripe too.”
Among the bottlings still to be released, there are 800 cases of the debut 2007 El León vineyard, a spot that features blue clay and is planted mainly to Carignane with about 10 percent from a mix of other red grapes, including Malbec and Carmenère. The La Aguada vineyard is closer to the coast and features curved terraces of granite soils planted to about two-thirds Carignane and the rest to Malbec and Cinsault. There are 1,000 cases of the debut 2008 La Aguada in the works.
The Limavida vineyard is 60 percent Malbec, with a mix of primarily red Bordeaux varieties, as well as one grape Retamal still hasn’t identified.
“The bunches are very big and the color is light, but it has good acidity. On it’s own [the unidentified grapes were vinified separately] it’s not much, but it really adds nice brightness to the blend,” he said. There will be 1,000 cases of the debut 2007 Limavida bottling.
In addition to the Maule vineyards, Retamal is also expanding the winery’s vineyard base in Elquí, a cool, coastal area that is rapidly being developed by other wineries. But while most wineries are planting vineyards nearer to the coast, Retamal is going in the opposite direction, further inland and higher in elevation as you move toward the Andes. The Elquí vineyard is at 2,000 meters, making it the highest elevation vineyard in Chile according to Retamal. Named Altos Los Torres, the vineyard was initially planted to seven red varieties—the standard red Bordeaux varieties along with Syrah and Carmenère.
The La Aguada vineyard, with its curved terraces and old head-pruned vines, is being resurrected for a new bottling by De Martino winery.
"The average high temperature is similar to that of Puente Alto," said Retamal, comparing it to the home of some of Chile’s best Cabernets, including Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor. “So that’s why we planted the Bordeaux varieties. But it gets lots of sun, basically 300 days of cloudless blue sky. So much sun, in fact, that the grapes were getting sunburned. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Carmenère didn’t do well at all—we haven’t figured that out yet. But the Syrah and Petit Verdot have really done nicely. The berries are very small and the skins very thick, so there’s good ripeness but very little juice.”
The resulting wine, made from 83 percent Syrah and the rest Petit Verdot, has only 45 percent free-run juice, the rest press wine, as opposed to a more typical 60 percent of free-run juice, because the berries are so small. But the ripeness is there (it’s 14.5 percent alcohol) as well as acidity (the pH is 3.4). There are 850 cases of the debut 2008 Altos Los Torres waiting in the wings.
“It’s a more linear wine, but it’s very attractive,” said Retamal. “I don’t know how it will evolve though,” he admitted, before adding, “Everyone is running to the coast, but I think heading up into the Andes is just as important. The change in day and night temperatures is very different and, with the elevation, is very dry, and the soils are totally different. It’s another step for Chile.”
As Chilean wineries look to diversify their offerings, Retamal’s new single-vineyard project could be one of the more distinct and important sets of wines to come along since the icon wines of Viña Montes, Casa Lapostolle and Concha y Toro broke Chile’s price and quality barriers starting in the late 1990s.
The Las Cruces bottling is currently in the market; the additional single-vineyard wines will begin to arrive later this year. As always, official reviews, based on blind tastings, will appear as the wines are formally released into the marketplace.
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David Rodriguez — New York, NY — June 15, 2010 6:59pm ET
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