Born in California, winemaker Ed Flaherty has been in Chile for a while now—he’s gone native. He spent a stretch of time overseeing production at Viña Errázuriz in the Aconcagua Valley (from 1996 through 2004) then left to handle the winemaking at Via Wines, owned by the Coderch family, who are also part owners of Valdivieso. In September 2006 he moved again, this time to Viña Tarapacá and was on board when the recent merger with Viña San Pedro took place. I sat down with Flaherty at my office last week to get caught up on his latest efforts.
Viña Tarapacá is looking to improve, much the way San Pedro has done since the addition of Marco Puyo and the consultant Paul Hobbs came on board. As Puyo has streamlined production and focused on new spots like the Elquí Valley for San Pedro’s top lines, Flaherty is now following suit. He's got his work cut out for him, as Viña Tarapacá has been an underachiever for some time now.
The bulk of Tarapacá’s production comes from their 600-hectare vineyard in Isla de Maipo, located about 45 minutes southwest of Santiago, in a cool spot similar to the Alto Maipo subappellation of the Maipo Valley. As Flaherty notes, it’s a vineyard that was planted in the typical way of the early 1990s. That is to say it’s got everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a remnant of when Chilean wineries were based in one spot and tried to be all things to all people. Over time, that model broke down as wineries realized cool-climate varieties didn’t work well in warm spots and vice versa, and began branching out in search of better terroirs.
“We need to simplify things. There were too many wines,” said Flaherty of the vineyard and resulting portfolio of wines at Tarapacá. “Let’s focus on one wine per variety and get the quality nailed down first.”
“It is a unique spot though because it has a lot of elevation and hillsides. There’s a difference of 130 meters from the flat to the top and it’s on a bend in the river so it gets some nice windy spots too,” said Flaherty.
To achieve its potential though, the vineyard will be replanted with an eye on putting certain varieties in the spots where they will perform well, while removing varieties altogether that aren’t ideal for the spot.
“It’s a long process, pulling just 5 or 10 percent out a year and then mapping the vineyard better to understand what does well and where,” said Flaherty.
Flaherty has also streamlined production based on purchased fruit.
“We were dealing with a lot of outside fruit. We were bringing in stuff from Cauquenes to Limarí. One day I was in Colchagua looking at fruit and I said to myself ‘What am I doing here?’”
He realized that once again, the winery was trying to be all things to all people by trying to bring in fruit from all of the newly expanding wine valleys that have helped spur Chile’s success in recent years.
“Even though they were the right area for the grapes in question, it was still unwieldy,” said Flaherty. “Simplify. We’ve got to simplify.”
To that end, the Isla de Maipo vineyard will be the main focus for reds, with some white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc brought in from Leyda Valley, and that's it.
Viña Tarapacá currently produces 800,000 cases a year and while the line is well-distributed in Canada, it’s looking for an importer for the States (hence the break in reviews). As Flaherty streamlines the vineyard base and portfolio, there are some additions as well—there’s a new high-end cuvée called Tara Pakay, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The debut 2007 vintage (only 400 cases produced) is set for release in a few months. The wine shows outstanding potential, with very stylish violet and pastis aromas, along with crushed plum and boysenberry fruit flavors and a long, suave finish that lets a mint note chime in. It easily has more polish and depth than the typical Tarapacá offerings of the past.
It’s never easy turning around a big-production winery, especially when you have to do it from literally the ground up. But I’ve seen promising signs at San Pedro, Argentina’s Trapiche and others, so it can be done. Here’s hoping Flaherty can keep that trend going.