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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Sit Down With Francisco Baettig...

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 7, 2006 10:57am ET

I sat down the other day with Francisco Baettig, head winemaker at Chile’s Viña Errázuriz winery, located in the Aconcagua Valley. Baettig, 36, took over the reins there in mid-2003, and the 2004 vintage is the first under his direct control.

Viña Errázuriz's wines have been solid for years, but the winery has yet to break into the consistent 90+-point range that Concha y Toro, Viña Montes and Casa Lapostolle have been in this decade. Baettig is looking to change that.

He has more than 1,000 acres of vines to work with, and some of them are top flight – for example, the bowl of vineyards around the winery itself offers some terrific Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The winery is owned by Eduardo Chadwick, who also has full control over Viña Seña now that his joint venture with Mondavi has ended and owns Viña Caliterra and his own Viñedo Chadwick label.

Baetting is planning to emphasize Errázuriz’s Max Reserva line, which retails for around $20. I think he’s on the right track. In my opinion, the $15 to $20 level is Chile’s for the taking; I don’t find anything from California or France that is consistently solid at that price point, and Australia seems to be diverging--expensive, small-production wines amid an ocean of $8 wine. Other areas, such as New Zealand and South Africa, aren’t really capable of producing a large number of 25,000- to 50,000-case wines at the $15 to $20 price point. If Chilean producers choose to focus on this band, I think they can really overdeliver, as land and labor costs remain low.

It’s taking time. While it seems Chile has been around forever, Baettig points out that the country's modern-day wine industry has really only existed for about 15 years. During that time, the country’s top wineries have shifted their vineyard base from quantity-geared sites on the valley floor to lower-yielding, quality-oriented sites on hillsides. Many of these new vineyards are still young and are only now starting to show what they can produce.

The bowl of vineyards around the Errazuriz winery produces some top-flight grapes.
Errázuriz has also had issues with Brettanomyces, and Baettig is working to control it. The spoilage yeast lends an overt aroma of cracked green peppercorn or a barnyard smell to wines, and depending on your threshold for it, it can be a real turn-off. As standard operating procedure, Baettig now tests every lot of wine – more than 100 – with a culture that only takes three days to yield a result. Baettig thinks too many winemakers test for brett only if they sense a problem developing in a particular lot of wine, and the more common test takes 10 days to yield a result. If you’ve waited until you think there’s a problem, and then take another 10 days before addressing it in a particular lot of wine, by then it’s too late.

I tasted a few of the Max Reserva wines from the ’04 vintage just being released now, and they show richer fruit and more polished textures, but they still keep their Chilean profile, with nice loamy hints and plush tannins. In addition, I tasted the ’03 and ’04 vintages of the Don Maximiano Founder's Reserve, Errázuriz’s top wine. Baettig is picking later than his predecessor (resulting in the greater sense of polish to the wine) and is also adding in a dash of other grapes (Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah), to complement the Cabernet. The ’04 is a noticeable step up from the ’03.

So far, so good for Baettig’s tenure. It’s not easy instituting changes at a winery that’s been around for a while. Plus, any changes you make in the vineyard or winery aren't seen by the consumer for at least 2 or 3 years. Patience and commitment are needed when it comes to making quality wines.

What have you thought of any Viña Errázuriz wines you’ve had? And what do you think of Chile’s potential overall? What’s your "go-to" wine in the $15 to $20 range?

Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 7, 2006 2:49pm ET
excellent point to talk about james ..errazuriz is one of my top wines today on my wine list and yesterday i just opened a don maximilliano 2000 and it was mind blowing !!!!firm tannins ,elegance, complexe palete of aromas with the typical character of chiliean wines .I am today handling 50 chilian labels and defenitly , vintage after vintage , wines get better and better .For example , los vascos le dix ,since 1999 change of oenologue , the quality is going better and better .One of my favorite beiing Odfjell vineyards aliara or armador carmenere ,both great wines under 20Usd .I just hope that chile is not going on the same way of australia with formated wines .Uruguay , in the Las Violetas area is making some great stuff particularly chardonnays .And mexico , at Chateau Camou is also making a great Merlot and Zinfandel .Today , worldwide , quality is affordable .On a 180 wines wine list i Have only 20 wines up 150 Usd .For prestige.James great thanks to talk about chiliean gems
Brad Coelho
New York City —  August 7, 2006 4:11pm ET
I think Chile is a gold mine that has been slower to evolve than us thirsty consumers would have liked. To my knowledge, it is one of the only areas left in the world to be untouched by phylloxera, w/ ungrafted vines of Carmenere and Cabernet that are decades to centuries old. With an occasion El Nino exception, Chile's climate is goregously tropical and consistently dry. The hearty reds from the Colchagua valley have a beautiful underlying commonality of Chilean loam that comes through uniquely and consistently in their flavor profiles. The producers you mentioned have been able to craft portfolios that are balanced from top to bottom. The Montes Alpha Syrah, Marques Casa Concha label, Cuvee Alexander Merlot and Los Vascos Cabernet consistently perform w/ excellent price tags to match. It seems that Errazuriz's change in personnel is a perfect catalyst to put them in a similar class w/ the forementioned Chilean producers.Mondavi, Mouton Rothschild, and Paul Hobbs are just a couple high profile producers that have obviously jumped on Chile's potential (cheap land, cheap labor and freedom in wine-making are all pluses as well) and have had fantastic success in relatively short periods of time. There's plenty of sweet spots to be found (Puente Alto is a great example) and who knows if this country's potential will ever be reached? Expensive and innaccessible vineyard land in Napa, Bordeaux, Bolgerhi and Australia will undoubtedly push more and more wine talent to South America, which should expedite the progression to more appropriate site selections and more quality bottlings. If Chile's problem was in the soils or the climate, than I don't think much interest nor excitement should be generated from the country. Thankfully the current Chilean dilemmas are mostly related to the wine making and high yields; and these problems can be fixed. Top flight, quality minded producers have already showed us this and hopefully more will follow their lead.
Hector Almeida
NY —  August 7, 2006 4:20pm ET
Hi JamesErrazuriz is great, and has been so for a long time. Even the most basic Cabernet has always been good. I hope they don't change that much, my sense is that some of the Chilean wines that the press raves about (i.e, Montes and perhaps also Lapostolle) have left a lot of the Chilean soul behind. They seem to be striving for the polished-alcoholic style that wins Parker points. Sorry to disagree a bit... In fact, I would pick a simple Antiguas Reservas from Macul over a Montes Alpha anytime. I also like De Martino, Valette Fontaine, and Santa Rita.The previous commentator was right, Uruguay also rocks! I wish we could find more Uruguayan wines here in the US.
James Molesworth
August 7, 2006 4:29pm ET
Hector: I like the de Martino wines quite a bit too - very consistent house style. Santa Rita does a good job with their top wines, but I find the basic wines lacking. Valette Fontaine is unfortunately, no more ¿ the partners split and the wines are no longer in production...

As for Montes and Casa Lapostolle, they've certainly been among the most popular Chilean wines in recent years - but do you think that's a function of a more commercial style, or just better quality? Those two wineries have put a lot of hard work into their vineyards and wineries, and both are very site-specific when it comes to their $15 and up wines...
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 7, 2006 6:41pm ET
again james good question :quality or commercial?unfortunatly ,we see a bit of a massive fruit style wines now from chile and i believe is to stop or copy the aussi style to make big bucks.In my opinion , Lapostolle , besides clos apalta, and montes alpha are not representatives of the chilliean style.I rather go to los Boldos or again odfjell vineyard where carmenere is king .I really hope that beiing under the focus now , chillieans winemaker are not going to do a formated wine
Hector Almeida
NY —  August 8, 2006 12:45am ET
Hi James and AnacletoI agree with everything you said, Santa Rita'a basic wines used to be better. Regarding Montes and Lapostolle, I think they are clearly shooting for a more commercial style (but I still have to try Clos Apalta). There is no question that the wines are very well made. But I guess it would be hard(er) to single them out in a blind tasting with similar wines from California and Australia. I have never tried, though...Thanks for letting me know about Valette Fontaine. I will certainly savor my two last bottles of Memorias 2000. This wine is still drinking great, if anyone can find it.
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  August 8, 2006 11:41am ET
I have been drinking Chilean wine for over ten years now and what is now the "Max Reserva" has been a "go to" wine in my house over that period. Over the last few years though, there has been more "Casa Concha" then "Max Res" as I found to be more complex and flavorful wine. I did not like the 2003 Max as I found it had a really chalky finish. I am pleased to say that with the 2004 vintage though, things have swung back in the Max Reserve favour and I really fine the 2004 better then the last 4-5 vintages. Congratulations to Francisco and Errazuriz for not standing still on an already succesfull path. As they say: "you may be on the right path but if you are not moving forward, you will get run over! Marc Robillard
Maximiliano Morales
Santiago, Chile —  August 8, 2006 1:09pm ET
I think Errazuriz Winery picked a great place to focused; Aconcagua Valley, north of Santiago where small amounts of rain compared to Colchagua or Maule. Few wineries are located there like Von Siebenthal with great carmenere.Great marketing strategies like "Berlin Tasting" guided by Eduardo Chadwick (Owner of Errazuriz) and also consistancy in is wines have been the strenghts of him to place his wines in the top of line in so few years.Chile like Brad Coelho says is a gem, and Chile as fifth wine exporter have grow slow but steadly in time that give the country more power and security in the market.I also think that new areas like Elqui in particular have a great consistancy these past years thanks to Falernia for example that have proved with great wines their excellent Syrah from cold areas. They got a prize of better Syrah of Chile last year and this year again surprised the judges of a chilean tasting event.Max Morales
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 8, 2006 2:55pm ET
thanks maximilliano for the updates ,i lately fell in love with the montgras syrah antu ninquen . A great wine under 15 usd .Syrah beiing my favorite grape , i am more a fan of hermitage wines or any wine from the rhone valley .I recently discover the chilliean syrah and this montgras is a nice complement of any syrah cellar .Keep updates guys, specialy the ones from chile.Great thanks from france where the 2006 vintage sounds a remake of 2003 with temperatures close to 100 farenheit (40 celscius ) and still no rain .Strangely is SNOWING in the Alps !!!!!Again the wine maker`s skills are going to be determinant of the quality of the wines .
Maximiliano Morales
Santiago, Chile —  August 8, 2006 8:54pm ET
As many people say, Chile is paradise for grape growers. Unfortunately, one of the biggest weaknesses of chilean grape growers is that they have planted vines in flat areas, with deep soils where is very easy to grow any type of grapes. The weather in general is easy, so average chilean wines is good but not "superb" like some examples like special terroirs specially selected by some vineyards like Falernia (Elqui Valley), Angelo Corbo (Maipo), Matetic (San Antonio).An extra comment is De Martino, winery that found syrah grapes in the Choapa Valley, that belongs to the coquimbo region, the same area of elqui and limari valley. Choapa is a special terroir that Marcelo Retamal (Winemaker) and his team found after travelling around this area looking for the best grapes. Right south of Choapa is Aconcagua where Errazuriz is. Other examples are grapes from James Pryor (Syrah Organic Grapes from Limari) that sells to well known organic wineries from central chile.When Chile puts effort on finding the great terroirs....you get superb wines.Try to imagine if somebody else grow grapes over 1000 meters like Cavas del Valle in the Elqui Valley, another example..you get special and great Syrah Wines...Max Morales
Reto Caviezel
Zurich, CH —  August 11, 2006 10:56am ET
Hi JamesGreat topic. In my opinion Chilean and South African wines are best when it comes to great quality for a great price. In terms of quantity Chile certainly has the lead over SA, but as a customer this is not a disadvantage - I can get those great SA wines here in Switzerland without a problem. In the range between $10-20 I think Errazuriz is very strong. Already the Cabernet Sauvignon Estate delivers, simply an enjoyable wine. The Max Reserva Cabernet is a noticeable step up in complexity and a great food wine. Yesterday I tasted the 2004 vintage and it convinced me - a must buy in that price range! My favourite Errazurz is the Don Maximiano, though. And that's also the reason why overall I would rate Errazuriz higher than Montes because Montes is great in the range to $20 but then there's a big (price) gap to the Alpha M line. Errazuriz covers it all and excels in all price ranges. Which I think is not only admirable, but also proves that they take their customers serious.Montes: I must say that I love Montes for the Alpha Cabernet and Syrah which in my opinion are as good as Errazuriz's Max Reserva line if not slightly better. I wouldn't say these wines lack character and are too much mainstream. Recently I've been a bit disappointed by Casa Lapostolle, though. I found the 2003 vintage (Cab) too alcoholic and lacked the elegance that I had found and liked about the Cuvee Alexandre wines.

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