“Modern Chilean winemaking has its roots in French traditions and grapes that were brought to the country in the 19th century,” said Wine Spectator senior editor Kim Marcus as he introduced his Wine Experience seminar featuring four of the South American country’s greatest wineries.
Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère lead the way in Chile, a country so geographically isolated—bracketed by the Pacific Ocean, Andes mountains, Atacama desert and Patagonia—that it’s free of phylloxera, making it a uniquely attractive region for winemakers.
France’s Marnier-Lapostolle family, best known for the orange-flavored Cognac liqueur Grand Marnier, founded Chile’s Casa Lapostolle winery in 1994. The family’s top Chilean brand, Clos Apalta, is a Carmenère-based blend of Bordeaux grapes that has regularly earned classic ratings; the 2005 vintage was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2008. “Chile has unique conditions that allow us to produce amazing wines,” Marnier Chile CEO Charles de Bournet, representing the seventh generation of the Marnier-Lapostolles, explained while sharing the rich, refined 2015 Clos Apalta Colchagua Valley (95 points, $140), the base for which is “a hidden treasure” vineyard of 100-year-old own-rooted Carmenère and Cabernet.
Another of Chile’s top wineries with French roots is Viña Almaviva, a partnership between Chilean wine giant Concha y Toro and Bordeaux first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild that was founded in 1997. France-born Almaviva winemaker Michel Friou brought the elegant, powerful and structured 2016 vintage (95, $130) of Puente Alto, a Cabernet-based blend of Bordeaux grapes that has also received frequent classic ratings. “Almaviva was created under the French château concept,” he said, “which includes unique terroir, winery and team, all dedicated exclusively to the production of one wine.”
Marcus next introduced “industry leader, pioneer [and] visionary” Aurelio Montes, who takes a trip down memory lane with his Viña Montes Alpha M Colchagua Valley 2015 (95, $100). The Cabernet-based blend’s flavors of blackberry, raisins, cassis, chocolate and vanilla evoke memories of the baking done by his English mother, Florence, when he was a child in Santiago. “I started a search for a place with a terroir to plant different varieties and to express these flavors that are so alluring,” Montes said of his choice to make his home base in the Colchagua Valley’s Apalta region.
Winemaker Sebastián Labbé wrapped up the tasting with a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, the rich, robust and intensely powerful Viña Santa Rita Maipo Valley Casa Real 2014 (94, $90). Labbé, cited the Casa Real vineyard’s decades-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, many of which date to the 1970s, as the wine’s inspiration: “Since the ’80s there was a dream of producing a single-vineyard wine of the most important variety we have.”