Despite his French heritage, Patrick Valette considers himself a Chilean. When you look at his winemaking résumé over the years, you can understand why. Valette, 50, helped fashion some superb Cabernet Sauvignons for the (sadly) short-lived Valette Fontaine winery, where he followed in his father's footsteps. When that ended, he moved on to help oversee the winemaking at Viña Quebrada de Macul, then consulted for Viña Santa Rita and others.
Valette has a penchant for making powerful yet stylish Cabernet Sauvignons from distinctly cool-climate areas, and now he’s found a new home at Viña Neyen de Apalta. I sat down with Valette and Viña Neyen de Apalta director Jaime Roselló (whose father-in-law, Raul Rojas, owns the estate) here in my office today, to get caught up on the project.
Viña Neyen de Apalta debuted its first commercial release in the 2003 vintage. Both it and the ’04 vintage were predominantly Carmenère with 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Both vintages offered outstanding quality, with solid, grippy structure and lots of dark tobacco, mineral and herb notes. The current ’05 vintage and soon-to-be-released ’06 vintage have shifted to a 50-50 blend of the two grapes, though there is no set recipe.
“It’s a function of the vintage,” said Valette. “We’re looking for quality first as well as an expression of Apalta. That expression of course will change from year to year.”
Valette is a big fan of the Carmenère grape, which has played a large role in many of the wines he's made in Chile.
"People often come by and taste [at Neyen] and they ask 'why don't you just make a Cabernet Sauvignon?,'" said Valette. "But the Carmenère brings such a lovely spiciness to the wines and helps to bring a special character, which is why I like to blend with it. The key is not to let it get overripe, because then it loses that character."
Carmenère is a grape that needs to be harvested late to ensure full ripeness. Underripe versions of the grape can be extremely green in aroma and flavor. But Valette is right that pushing it too far causes Carmenère to lose some of its focus. So to find the right balance, he's focusing more on canopy management rather than just harvesting as late as possible. By removing lateral shoot growth and controlling vigor, aiming for lots of dappled sunlight within the canopy and on the fruit zone, Valette aims to achieve full ripeness while maintaining balance and freshness but avoiding the grape's green side. It's a strategy that's being used more often now in Chile, as at Los Maquis.
"I remember years ago, if you said you made a feminine-styled wine, you would be in trouble," said Valette with a sly grin. "But I think today people are more open to that style of wine. It's OK to make a feminine wine now."
Apalta needs little introduction to Chilean wine fans. The crescent-shaped subvalley of the Colchagua Valley is home to Viña Montes and Casa Lapostolle, who produce their top Alpha M and Clos Apalta bottlings from the valley’s old vines. Both Montes and Lapostolle are located at the opposite end of the valley from Neyen, however, so the angle and timing of the sunlight is different. At Montes and Lapostolle, their resulting wines are broad and muscular. In contrast, Valette feels the wine at Neyen takes on a slightly different profile from those of his neighbors.
“It’s a fresher style, both the fruit and the acidity,” he said.
The Neyen property has a range of expositions, from the property’s Cabernet Sauvignon vines (planted in 1890) on clay and sandy soils at the bottom of the various hillsides and the old Carmenère plantings on the more granite-based slopes higher up. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks before moving to barrel for malolactic and aging. About two-thirds of the oak is new, a shift down from the 100 percent new oak used for the first two vintages, before the winery had fully established its barrel program.
Viña Neyen de Apalta’s production is small—only 22,000 bottles of the ’05 and 25,000 bottles of the ’06 were produced (both vintages retail for about $60 per bottle). The numbers will climb slowly to reach the project’s ultimate goal of 80,000 bottles annually in 10 years. That rather small production level isn’t a function of the size or age of the property, however: The well-established vineyard totals over 355 acres of vines. But for now Valette and Larrain are only using about 55 acres of the prime, oldest vines for the wine. The rest of the production is sold off, making them the only winery in the valley to sell grapes. Since they bear the Apalta appellation, they are highly sought-after.
“It’s a nice side business,” said Roselló with a bit of a chuckle.
With that revenue stream, Roselló is able to give Valette the investment he needs to aim for quality. An old winery facility on the property has recently been bought back and is being renovated, for example.
“Sure, it’s expensive to start this way, with small production and building as we need,” said Valette. "But when you are looking for quality, you have to take the long-term view.”
To be successful with a long-term approach, you have to feel at home with what you’re doing. After moving around quite a bit during his first few years in Chile, Valette seems to have found a spot to settle in to.
[Note: As always, official reviews of the wines, based on blind tastings of finished, bottled samples, will appear in the near future.]
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