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stirring the lees with james molesworth

A Sit Down with Michel Friou of Chile's Viña Almaviva

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 22, 2008 10:27am ET

While he may not be a household name, Michel Friou might be the envy of his winemaking peers in Chile. Why?

Well, first off, he’s the head winemaker at Viña Almaviva, the Rothschild-Concha y Toro joint venture. That means he gets to work in a well-appointed winery while sourcing fruit from the Puente Alto vineyard, one of the top spots in Chile for producing Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds (both Concha y Toro's Don Melchor and Viñedo Chadwick are produced from this area).

Friou also spent eight vintages at Casa Lapostolle (he left in 2004), and helped create that winery’s top Clos Apalta bottling from old Carmenère vines in the Apalta subvalley of Colchagua.

That means that Friou has been able to work with what are arguably Chile’s top two terroirs, Apalta and Puente Alto. And at just 42, he’s still got a lot of vintages ahead of him.

In between those two plum positions, Friou worked on the volume Escudo Rojo line for Baron Philippe de Rothschild in Chile, from 2004 through 2007. But to be honest, I thought Friou’s talents might have gotten lost among the 200,000-plus cases produced there, so I was happy to see him get the Almaviva gig in late 2007 after winemaker Tod Mostero departed.

Friou, who’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, doesn’t make any grand pronouncements concerning changes at Almaviva under his tenure. Instead, he has the benefit of a great site combined with 20 hectares of newer, higher-density plantings that are now coming on line (bringing the vineyard’s total to 60 hectares). Rather than making any changes in the winemaking, Friou is focusing on details in the vineyards, where he’s picking smaller and smaller lots within vineyard parcels so that each ensuing lot comes into the winery at optimal ripeness.

“In the past, it was typical to harvest an entire block, though some grapes might be less ripe than others. They would average out in the tank,” said Friou. “The wine could be good, but now with more detailed picking, the purity of the fruit is more consistent,” he said. The harvest at Almaviva can now stretch out over a four-week period, well into May (the equivalent of November in the northern hemisphere).

As for the change from Colchagua’s Apalta to Maipo’s Puente Alto, Friou admits he’s still getting used to it, as the drier, cooler Puente Alto area provides for different challenges in grapegrowing.

“It’s been difficult to understand why things work well in Puente Alto,” he said. “We know lots of things, but we also have a lot to learn.”

The 2006 Viña Almaviva is about to be released and there were 12,500 cases produced of the blend, which is made up of the typical two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, one-quarter Carmenère and a bit of Cabernet Franc, along with a drop of Merlot for the first time, “for just a touch of roundness,” said Friou.

An official review of the wine based on a blind tasting will appear in the future. In the meantime, Friou is quietly going about his work, helping to make one of Chile’s top red wines a little better. Lucky guy.

Mark Antonio
Tokyo —  October 22, 2008 11:59pm ET
James, so you didn't taste the Almaviva 2006 while you were there? If you did, any hints as to it's quality compared with previous (excellent) vintages?
James Molesworth
October 23, 2008 8:11am ET
Mark: The meeting actually took place at my office (that's where all the meetings in my "Sit Down" series take place). I never taste wines "informally" with a winemaker in this setting - all tasting is done as per the WS tasting procedures that you can find detailed on the website. I have my samples and will taste the wine in a blind flight with other Chilean reds soon...

In general '06 was a cooler vintage, and not nearly as strong as the superb '05 harvest. The reds show more finesse and less concentration than the '05s...
Rick Kirgan
Mexico —  October 25, 2008 1:06am ET
James, I enjoy reading what you write about Chile's vinos and producers. I lived in Mexico for 15 years and found that Chilean wine sold there offered better value than anything else on the shelves, especially Chile's higher-end wines like Concha y Toro's Don Melchor, which I try to load up on every year when it hits the shelves. I was surprised and a little bummed to see that the release price for the 2005 vintage was almost 50% more than that of the great 2003 Don Melchor. I know that the dollar has not been particularly strong against foreign currencies, but that price increase seems a little excessive to me, especially since C&T produced 18000 cases of the 2005, more (I believe) than ever before. Having said that, I think that the wine is probably worth $69, but if the upward pricing trend continues with future vintages, I am afraid I will have to look to other emerging regions to get my value fix. Your thoughts?Rick Kirgan in Chicago
James Molesworth
October 25, 2008 8:51am ET
Rick: The Don Melchor was a great buy for many years, as consumers wouldn¿t pay a premium for a Chilean wine, regardless of its quality. Now the wine¿s price is steadily creeping up, along with the other top wines from Chile, as consumers learn how good the wines are and become familiar with its place of origin.

However, while the front line suggested retail price is $69, you're likely to find it for less if you shop around.

I don't begrudge a winery for trying to get what it can for its product, though the three-tier distribution system doesn't exactly help here. In the end, there is a point where the wine will go from being a terrific value in a crowded market to being just another high-priced Cabernet that sits on retail shelves. The marketplace (consumer) will determine what that point is...

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