Apalta is a south-facing valley in the Santa Cruz district of the Colchagua Valley subregion of Rapel, one of Chile's main wine-producing regions, located south of Santiago, the nation's capital. Apalta is quite small, totaling about 7,000 acres, of which only about half are suitable for vines.
Aurelio Montes, winemaker and an owner of the Montes winery, first visited the Apalta Valley in 1972 and determined to plant grapes there someday, a dream that finally came true in 1990. The first release of Montes Alpha M, from the difficult 1996 vintage, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (80 percent), Cabernet Franc and Merlot (10 percent each), aged in new French oak barrels. This lean, elegant wine scored 89 points in Wine Spectator blind tastings. About 850 cases were produced, and the wine was released last year at $54 -- one of the highest prices ever for a Chilean wine.
Nearly 1,700 cases were produced of the 1997 vintage, which is about to be released for $60 per bottle. Reflecting the advantages of a warmer growing season, another year's age in the vines and the added experience in the winery, the new Alpha M is richer and rounder, yet still elegant -- clearly a better wine.
Casa Lapostolle, a Colchagua Valley-based winery founded in 1994, has been turning out Chile's best Merlots under its Cuvee Alexandre label, overseen by Pomerol-based international wine consultant Michel Rolland. This wine, named for owner Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, is produced largely from grapes grown in old, nearly dry-farmed vineyards in the Apalta Valley.
In 1997, Casa Lapostolle decided to enter the high-end game, and now it is about to release the first vintage of Clos Apalta, drawn entirely from a small area of the region's vineyards. "This parcel stood out from the beginning," said Marnier-Lapostolle. "We vinified it apart, and we knew that one day it would deserve to be bottled separately. In 1997, the vintage was superb, so we decided to go ahead."
The 1997 Clos Apalta is a blend of 95 percent Merlot (probably with some Carmenere interplanted) and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, aged one year in new French oak barrels. It has the intense color, lush texture and toasty oak typical of the Cuvee Alexandre Merlot, but with more polish and structure. Production was 2,000 cases, and the wine will sell for $39 per bottle, significantly less than its competition.
"Apalta will be for red wines what Casablanca has been for whites," asserted Montes, referring to the burgeoning new wine region west of Santiago that has been producing some of the country's best Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. "We are still exploring the terroirs of Chile, but this one can be one of the best."
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