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Friendly Rivals in Apalta, and the Terroir Hunter

Photo by: David Yellen

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 to 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.

Geronimo Dotel
dominicanrepublic —  March 18, 2008 7:45pm ET
Dear James,I have been longing to hear your comments about the Clos Apalta cuvee 2005 for I got a bottle last December and certainly I think it is another good vintage for Chile.I would like to know non blind,How many points do you give this wine?Besides,I tried the Concha y Toro¿s Don Melchor 2005 at a private tasting last year and thought was excellent as well.It is still too young at this stage but with a long life ahead,but approachable.I also would like to ask you ,Have you heard of a wine named KAY by Errazurriz,it is made mainly from Carmenere with some inclusion of Shiraz,I got a bottle of the 2005.Another question ,is there any difference between The De Martino Single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon And the De Martino Family bottlings?I Do not find the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in America!Congratulations on the Hunt for The white Chateauneuf Du Pape article!I enjoyed reading it with pleasure.Sincerely,Geronimo Dotel
James Molesworth
March 18, 2008 8:01pm ET
Geronimo: Sorry, but I don't give scores to wines tasted non-blind. You'll have to wait for the reviews on the '05 Clos Apalta and Don Melchor wines.

You can find my reviews on the Kai Carmenere from Errazuriz and all the other wines I've tasted by searching the on-line database.

The De Martino Reserva de Familia is their top selection. The single vineyard wines are a relatively new line that highlights particular terroirs. The Chardonnay from Limari and Syrah from Choapa are really good.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  March 18, 2008 10:15pm ET
Interesting James that you won't give non-blind scores, and yet Suckling can't resist giving a score (albeit qualified as non-blind) to save his life. That prompted me to ask him on one blog if he ever separates the score from the tasting, so that he can just enjoy it for what it is -- not what score he thought it rated. So how about it? When you're drinking casually, do you formulate scores in your brain even if you don't verbalize them or write them in the blog? I can see how easily that would become habit given your job, but I think I would drive myself crazy trying to assign a score to every freakin' wine I tasted along the way. What say you? Thanks. - Jim
James Molesworth
March 18, 2008 10:52pm ET
Jim: Yes, a score pops into my head for every wine I taste. It's not that big a deal when you do it all the time. Outside of our formal blind tastings however, I'm not going to give scores on unreleased wines from my regions...
Sam Chen
The Golden State —  March 18, 2008 11:16pm ET
James,I couldn't agree with you more on the 2005 Clos Apaltas. I tasted it at a trade tasting ealy this year and indeed it is a very special wine. I also enjoyed their 2005 Borobo, which I thought was an interesting blend of Syrah, Pinot Noir, Carmenere, Cabernet and Merlot.
Maximiliano Morales
Santiago, Chile —  April 6, 2008 12:38pm ET
I think Chilean wine industry needs to understand -they are doing in it slowly- to search for cool climates for reds and also explore the south of Chile. In this search of new areas, I think Pedro Parra is leading this new tendency of teaching the investors, wine owners and winemakers to look for the soil, its origin and complexity. Also think that established wineries are learning to search in their big extensions of lands and wineries the best of each area to produce certain wines with special characteristics after a terroir study. Chile needs to create a new identity, a new turn on their vision of wine quality.Max Morales

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