A Sit Down with Viu Manent's Grant Phelps

Jul 7, 2009

Most people have caught on to Malbec from Argentina—it’s one of the hottest categories in the market these days. But Malbec from Chile? That’s another story. I sat down recently with Grant Phelps, winemaker at Chile's Viu Manent to talk about the grape’s potential in Chile.

While Malbec has found a home in the higher-altitude vineyards of Mendoza and elsewhere in Argentina, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère have taken the lead in Chile. But it’s not as if the Chileans didn’t try. There was a decent amount of Malbec in Chile as recently as a generation ago, but as the industry was setting itself up for exports, Malbec didn’t have much cachet. During the 1990s, most wineries grubbed it up in favor of more blue-chip varieties that consumers in export markets were already familiar with. Most wineries except Viu Manent, that is.

Located in the western end of the Colchagua Valley, Viu Manent is Chile’s Malbec standard-bearer. The winery’s prized San Carlos vineyard, which was purchased back in 1960, came with records showing that Malbec was planted on the spot as far back as the late 1800s.

Phelps is hoping the vineyard’s old vines and sedimentary clay soils can produce something unique. Trying to make a benchmark wine with Malbec though? And add in that Phelps is a New Zealand transplant (he started at Viu Manent in 2003) and it might seem like an odd combination.

But while he worked in his native New Zealand, Phelps spent some time at Villa Maria, which Phelps claims has the oldest Malbec vines in that country. Now, with a few vintages at Viu Manent under his belt, he’s getting familiar with the differences between the two.

"It’s a totally different tannin for Malbec in Colchagua and the wines come into their prime sooner," said Phelps. "New Zealand Malbecs have more acidity and take longer to come around."

The winery’s top Malbec bottling is the Viu 1, a 1,000-case lot produced from 80-year-old vines in the San Carlos vineyard. The wine, which typically has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added in, receives a hefty two-year élevage in new oak barrels. I rated the previous vintages (’99, ’01, ’03) a steady 89 points, solid, but often held back by their rather muscular toast-driven style. The recently released ’06 is the best version yet, earning an outstanding grade when I reviewed it in the June 15 issue of Wine Spectator.

Phelps admits to having toned it down a bit as he’s gotten a handle on his fruit sources at Viu Manent.

“I think I may have overdone it a little in ’03,” he noted.

Now, he’s picking earlier (for lower alcohol and fresher acidity) and doing less aggressive pump-overs now than he did earlier on (to avoid overly muscular tannins). It's a shift in style as Phelps tries to capture more vivacious fruit flavors and minerality rather than just power.

The 2007 vintage of Viu 1 is bottled and scheduled for release early next year. It shows a delicious mix of raspberry, black cherry and blueberry fruit and, though there is still some toast to be absorbed, the wine shows a nice juicy, briary backdrop.

A barrel sample of the 2008 old-vine Malbec from San Carlos that’s likely destined for Viu 1 down the road shows intense, sappy, kirschlike fruit with well-embedded acidity and excellent drive.

When taken together, these three recent vintages indicate Phelps is finding success with his new tact, letting the grapes do their thing without trying to pull too much out of them.

There’s nothing wrong with powerful wines of course. I just find that the best "power" wines also show precision, balance and freshness. That’s what separates very good wines from outstanding ones.

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