Friendly Rivals in Apalta, and the Terroir Hunter
Posted: Mar 18, 2008 4:31pm ET
Viña Montes and Casa Lapostolle are neighbors in the prime Apalta sub-valley, located in the larger Colchagua Valley. The two wineries are among the leaders of Chile’s wine industry and they’re friendly rivals.
Both put the finishing touches on their new showpiece winery facilities just in time for the 2005 vintage, which turned out to produce the best wines yet at each estate. Both built gravity-flow facilities as well, but they went about it in different ways.
At Viña Montes, co-owner and head winemaker Aurelio Montes wanted a view of the hillsides of Apalta, so his facility lies down by the river, partially hidden thanks to some clever architecture. A series of lifts get the grapes up to their starting point before they move through the vinification and ageing processes on the lower levels.
At Casa Lapostolle, owner Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle wanted to use the hillside for its natural gravity flow-induced properties, so her winery sits tucked up on the hillside looking down across the valley. The winery’s various levels are built down into the stubborn granite blocks that make up the mountains that form the horseshoe-shaped area of Apalta.
There’s far more to both operations than just eye-candy-filled wineries. Both Montes and Lapostolle are very serious about their work, and they don’t stop trying to improve from year to year.
To that end, both Montes and Marnier-Lapostolle have contracted the services of Pedro Parra, a geologist-turned-vineyard specialist who is helping both of the vintners to fine-tune their vineyards. I’d call him a "terroir hunter."
|The new Lapostolle winery offers a high eye-candy quotient. Don't be fooled though: There's seriously good juice inside.
Armed with his trusty hand pick, Parra took me from calicatta
in the Apalta vineyards owned by both Montes and Lapostolle to see the different soils. From rust-hued granite soils to brown and blonde alluvial fans, Parra is helping Montes and Marnier-Lapostolle to understand why certain spots have always performed well, information they then use when planting new parcels. And both of them are busy planting new parcels.
Montes has put in an additional 40 hectares recently, Marnier-Lapostolle another 15, both mostly on steep slopes. Both have planted more Cabernet and Syrah of course (the main grapes at both wineries) but some new varieties as well such as Mourvèdre, Grenache (see the accompanying video) and Viognier.
“You buy a property and you think it’s even and you think you know what should be planted there,” said Montes. “But then you start working with it and you realize that there are all these little parts.”
Parra is helping to piece together the little parts and some of the early results are amazing. At one spot, we looked at the root structure of some recently planted Syrah vines, which already extended nearly 5 feet down and in all directions. Because they were planted on a fine, granite-based soil, the vines are coming into balance quickly and producing high-quality fruit.
“I could make a Folly-level wine from these grapes already,” said Montes, as he goes on to explain that Cabernet was planted there first, but never performed well.
I was also anxious to see how Montes’ project in Marchihue had developed. Located closer to the coast, due west of Apalta, Marchihue is Montes’ latest pet project, as if his efforts in Apalta didn’t keep him busy enough. On my only other visit here in 2002, there were just reservoirs of water, test holes dug all over and thousands of vine cuttings sitting in the nursery, waiting to be planted. Today there are 400 hectares of vines planted (the property totals 700 hectares) and some of the fruit is good enough to make it into the winery’s Purple Angel bottling. A tasting of Cabernet, Syrah and Carmenère samples from the 2007 vintage, from both the Apalta estate and the Marchihue property offered a dramatic comparison. The Apalta wines show the muscle, power and briary grip of the area, while the Marchihue wines show equal density and concentration, but an entirely different tannin profile: incredibly silky and fine-grained, with a caressing mouthfeel.
Meanwhile, back at Casa Lapostolle, I ended the day with a tasting of both barrel samples of the 2007 and 2006 Clos Apalta components, followed by more than a dozen bottled wines, from the winery’s basic varietal lineup to a vertical of Clos Apalta.
Tasting along with Marnier-Lapostolle and head winemaker Jacques Begarie (who vinified his first vintage at the winery in 2005
). I found the bottled wines to be consistent with their original reviews, some of which were penned by my colleagues before I began covering Chile. The older vintages, such as the 1997 Cuvée Alexandre Merlot or 1996 Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet were still holding, though they had dropped their fruit and were showing more mature notes. They were examples of wines that technically can
age, but clearly provide more pleasure in their youth.
The 1997 Clos Apalta, the debut bottling of the winery’s icon wine, showed a slightly jammy edge to its fruit and, while still outstanding, couldn’t keep pace with the ’01, ’03, ’05 trio.
The ’01 is all polish, with a suave texture and gorgeous fruit. I rated the wine classic upon release, one of the first wines from Chile to break the 95-point barrier, and it hasn’t slowed down one bit. It’s drinking perfectly now and should hold for a few more years. Sure, it could age for 10 or 20 in a cool cellar, but again Marnier-Lapostolle agreed that now was the time to enjoy it for its full spectrum of vibrant fruit and minerality.
The ’03 shows a touch more grip and density, but a shade less harmony than the ’01, and I’d still rate it a notch lower, but barely. The ’05 on the other hand puts it all together, with the seamless integration of the ’01 and the power and density of the ‘03. It’s the best vintage yet for this wine, and both Marnier-Lapostolle and Begarie are justifiably proud.
“It shows how we have improved the wines,” said Marnier-Lapostolle. “Because we know the vineyards, and we know when to pick certain parcels and how to manage them.”
That knowledge base of the vineyards is getting a boost with the recent efforts of Parra, so one can expect even better things from both of these industry standard bearers in the coming years.