Winemaker Talk: Álvaro Espinoza
Álvaro Espinoza, 44, is owner and winemaker of Chile's Antiyal winery, whose Maipo Valley blends of Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have consistently earned outstanding scores (90-94) on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Espinoza also works as a consultant for several other Chilean producers, but one of his more interesting contributions to the Chilean wine industry is that he was one of the first winemakers there to bottle a Carmenère. The Carmenère grape had long been misidentified as Merlot by Chilean producers, and therefore resulted in inconsistent versions--many of which showed an aggressively green, herbal character from being harvested too early (Merlot is an early-ripening grape, while Carmenère ripens later). However, Carmenère has since become one of the country's signature varietals. Espinoza is also a proponent of biodynamic viticulture, and oversees the production for the Sincerity brand, produced by Viñedos Orgánicos Emiliana, the organic arm of Concha y Toro.
Wine Spectator: What was your first vintage in the wine business?
Álvaro Espinoza: My first vintage was 1986, working at Undurraga as a cellar master with winemaker Felipe de Solminihac.
WS: What other wineries have you worked at, prior to starting Antiyal?
AE: After Undurraga I spent two years studying winemaking in Bordeaux, where I worked at Château Margaux, and I also worked at Moët & Chandon. Back in Chile I worked at Domaine Oriental from 1989 to 1992. Then I moved to Viña Carmen, where I worked as the winemaker until 2000 [with consultant Jacques Boissenot]. Then I started a consultant company called Geo Wines, where I work with [several] different wineries, including Viñedos Emiliana, Viña Undurraga, Viña Quintay, Viña Perez Cruz and Viña Apaltagua. In 1998 I started vinifying with my family, our own wine called Antiyal, and we released the first vintage, 1998, in 2000.
WS: What got you interested in being a winemaker?
AE: I was interested in being a winemaker because I learned this job from my father, [Mario Espinoza]--he was a winemaker and professor at the Catholic University of Chile. Also, my grandfather was a wine broker.
WS: You've been credited with being one of the key people to identify the Carmenère grape in Chile, which had long been confused with Merlot. How did that happen?
AE: When I started working at Viña Carmen, we noticed that we had very good blocks of Merlot that ripened late, which was strange for what I knew about Merlot [which typically ripens early]. But we kept the wine separate because it was so good. In 1994 we had a visit from a French ampelographer, and we showed him our selected block of Merlot and its late-ripening characteristic. He identified the block as Carmenère. At that time, [winemakers] were bringing new varieties to Chile like Syrah, Sangiovese and others, and then suddenly we discover this one that is already planted with old vines and producing outstanding wines. My contribution was to believe in Carmenère, and I was the first to produce and bottle the wine as Grande Vidure (Grande Vidure is a synonym for Carmenère). Now almost all Chilean wineries have a Carmenère in their portfolio.
WS: What is your favorite food pairing with Chilean Carmenère?
AE: Carmenère is very interesting, with intense aromas and a green character when it is harvested unripe. But it's very fruity and earthy when it's harvested fully ripe. Carmenère has very soft tannins that most of the time need other varieties to complement it. For me, Carmenère shows its best when it is in a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. I like [riper] Carmenère with meat while the greener and lighter Carmenère matches well with light food like salads and fish--I like both.
WS: What is your favorite wine (other than one of your own)?
AE: If you're asking me about wines from Chile, I like Concha y Toro--the Don Melchor, Terrunyo and Marqués de Casa Concha lines. I also like the Viña Errázuriz wines. For other wines I like Champagne a lot.