It's always a pleasure to get a sit-down with the dean of Chilean winemakers, Aurelio Montes. He came through the other week as part of his latest U.S. tour, checking on both his California project as well as launching his newest wines from his Argentinean operation, Kaiken.
As for California, Montes was amazed at how late this year's harvest was running. He hadn't even started picking yet as of Oct. 7.
"I've got my fingers crossed there's no rain," he said. "The spring was so wet that the soil was full of water and so yields are a little high. I had the vineyard team do two crop thinnings to get yields down."
If things don't improve dramatically, Montes thinks he may declassify his crop into just the regular Napa bottling and eschew the top cuvée in 2010.
Alex Guarachi, Montes' longtime importer who now has his own eponymous boutique label as well, joined Montes and me. "I import the Chilean wines and am a partner in the Napa project. And then we're competitors at the same time too," Guarachi laughed.
Montes is still feeling the loss of his longtime friend and fellow partner at Viña Montes, Douglas Murray.
"Douglas was the guardian of the spirit at Montes and I was the follower," said Montes with a sad air. "So I guess now I'm the guardian."
Viña Montes is a family affair—Montes' son Aurelio Jr. just spent a month in Burgundy working the harvest before returning to Chile.
"We're really trying to improve Pinot Noir," said Montes "We've brought in new vine material and we're still trying to find the right places."
Montes is always looking to improve. He also sent another member of his winemaking team to work on Chardonnay at California's Flowers winery recently as well.
"People always say Chardonnay is boring, so that's something we need to work on. We really need to bring the complexity of Chardonnay out and improve that," said Montes.
To that end. Montes is continuing to develop his Zapallar project (for background on the Zapallar project, reference my notes from a sit-down in October 2008). He now has 45 hectares of vines in the ground and remains the only one making wine from this cool, coastal area, where water is in very short supply.
Montes plans to debut the project with bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the 2010 vintage, perhaps in the second half of next year. He also has a Sauvignon Blanc that he may debut in either the 2010 or '11 vintage, depending on how he feels (the wine has been blended into the Leyda bottling in the last couple of vintages).
The 2010 Zapallar Sauvignon Blanc shows its cool-climate origins, with a brisk, supergrassy feel, though it isn't too lean or overly angular, showing lots of fresh kiwi and white peach flavors and a superlight, racy finish. There are only 4,000 bottles of the 2010 Zapallar Chardonnay, which is really crunchy and fresh, with lots of honeysuckle and Jonagold apple notes. The floral edge lingers on the minerally, unadorned finish, or a very pure expression of Chardonnay. [Note: I tasted the samples alone, as I prefer to taste without winemakers or owners present during my "sit-downs."]
There are 8,000 bottles of the Zapallar Pinot Noir 2010, which shows light, stylish red cherry and raspberry fruit and a hint of minerality. It's light-bodied but persistent, without the airy quality of some Chilean Pinot, often made from the inconsistent Valdivieso clone.
At full capacity (plantings could go to 60 hectares at most, restrained by the minimal water supply in the area) the Zapallar project could offer 20,000 cases of wine combined between the three varietals, which will probably enter the marketplace at around a $20 price point.
From the cool Zapallar area, Montes also has new things in the works in his home base, the warm Apalta Valley, a small sub-valley located in the Colchagua Valley. There he's gone further up on the rugged, steep granite slopes from where he currently makes his Alpha M and Folly bottlings. After studying the area with Pedro Parra, the terroir hunter, Montes decided to expand his portfolio of Rhône varieties.
Aurelio Montes is now tinkering with a Rhône-style blend in Chile's Colchagua Valley.
"My bet is Grenache, Carignane and Mourvèdre will work. but we'll see," he said.
"We're looking for extremes—cool climate for Sauvignon Blanc as in Zapallar, or the upper slopes of Apalta for Grenache and other Rhône varieties," explained Montes. "In Apalta, the hillsides are 200 meters above the valley floor and slopes are at 30 percent to 40 percent grade. Harvest happens after the Carmenère on the valley floor, which is normally the last grape to be picked in May."
I was actually in this vineyard with Montes, back in March of 2008, when he was planting new vines (you can see a video here). To control vigor, Montes planted at a density of 12,000 vines per hectare; he vinified the Grenache and Carignane for the first time in the 2010 vintage, Mourvèdre had been planted back in 2004 and thus vinified a few times already. All three varieties were planted on the traditional Northern Rhône system, using a pole to support the vine rather than a wired trellis system, and Montes keeps only four bunches per vine.
The Grenache shows really vibrant anise and violet notes, with a silky finish, but is still a little shy on depth. That's where the Carignane will probably help (Montes is planning to make a blend of the three varieties)—it's fleshier, with nice plum, pepper and spice notes. The Mourvèdre shows really nice varietal character, with a solid beam of licorice and notes of plum and lavender, backed by racy tannins.
The blend is slated for release next year along with new Zapallar bottlings. Montes has approximately 5,000 bottles of the wine, which will be comprised of 40 percent of the Mourvèdre and the rest split equally between Carignane and Grenache. I made an approximation of the blend in my glass from the three separate samples, which takes on a perfumy lilac and violet profile, with racy currant and blackberry fruit and the grip of the Mourvèdre really showing on the finish.
There's been a learning curve with the Rhône varieties of course, especially with the Mourvèdre that was copious right away, even on the slopes. "We really had to stress the Mourvèdre back and get yields down and bring them into balance," said Montes.
Samples of the 2009 and '08 Mourvèdre show the results as Montes wrestled the vines into shape, as they both display the grape's lightly taut, currant profile, but neither has the depth and concentration on the finish of the '10 sample.
As if all this work in Chile wasn't enough, Montes struck out in Argentina few years back. Since then, he's developed a solid track record with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec bottlings under his Kaiken label, but with Malbec such a dominant aspect of the Argentine wine business, Montes sees a need for some diversity.
"I'm looking for a way to make Argentina a little wider than just Malbec, and I think the way to do that is with blends," he said.
Montes' latest wines include a Malbec, Bonarda and Petit Verdot blend called Corte (for background on these new wines, you can read my blog notes from a November, 2009 sit-down with Montes) that will retail for $18. The wines show a nice mix of violet, pastis and ripe boysenberry fruit.
In addition, Montes has just launched his new ultrapremium Malbec, labeled Mai (which means "the first" in the Mapuche language). The wine is sourced from a mix of Agrelo, Vistalba and Uco Valley fruit. There are just 1,000 cases made and the retail price will be $84 per bottle. It's a large-scaled wine, dense and compact, with layers of plum peel, mulled blackberry and cassis framed by espresso bean on the long, muscular finish. In the Montes style, it's not shy about its toast either, but has the density of fruit for balance. [Note: Official reviews of both, based on blind tastings, will appear in the near future.]
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