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A Sit-Down with Grant Phelps

The New Zealand native takes over at Chile's Casas del Bosque winery
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 5, 2010 10:59am ET

The last time I sat down with winemaker Grant Phelps, he was making Malbec at Chile’s Viu Manent in the warm Colchagua Valley, where he seemed to have settled in nicely. So I was a little surprised when I heard he moved north this past January, to the cooler Casablanca Valley, to take over as head winemaker at the smaller Casas del Bosque winery, which has an average track record for quality since it debuted at the start of the decade. I sat down with him again this past week to get caught up on his move.

It turns out that the idea of downsizing, along with the challenge of turning something around, helped push Phelps to make the switch to Casas del Bosque after a seven-year run at Viu Manent.

“While I was at Viu Manent, it went from 55,000 cases to 185,000 cases. Plus it added an Argentine project. So that was a lot to deal with and a lot of extra travel too," said Phelps. "Now at del Bosque, I’m managing a winery that’s the size Viu Manent was when I started there.”

And even though Casas del Bosque hasn’t exactly lit it up since they’ve been sending wines to the U.S. market—most of the wines have been in the "good" range (80-84 points)—Phelps feels like the chances for improvement are good, thanks in part to ownership. Owner Juan Cuneo also owns one of Chile’s biggest supermarket chains, making Casas del Bosque a small side project for him.

“Since it’s a hobby winery, the money is there to get things done,” said Phelps.

The Casas del Bosque property totals 1,000 hectares (250 hectares of vines, first planted in 1993) and the majority of the production is sold off to other wineries. A winery facility was built in 2000 to handle the modest 60,000-case production, culled from the estate’s best grapes.

When Phelps took over, he was actually looking to focus on Pinot Noir production first. The winery has 55 hectares of Pinot Noir vines and Phelps feels the area is an ideal spot, thanks to its cool, foggy mornings and afternoon breezes.

“Climatically and soil-wise, we can do it,” he said. “But the biggest problem is with the clonal material that’s been planted [in Chile].”

Much of that clonal material is either the Valdivieso clone, propagated off of California fruit that was designed for sparkling wine production, so the still wines it produces can be light and diffuse. Then, as Chile shifted to using better Dijon clones in the 1990s, much of that eventually turned up virused (leaf roll virus, primarily), so that is now compromised in terms of quality.

Phelps tried to reach back to his native New Zealand for better Pinot Noir vines to bring over, but governmental logistics proved to be overbearing, so that idea was scrapped. He’s back to looking for virus-free vine material from California, though it’s a lengthy process as Chilean regulations require a two-year quarantine period before new agricultural plantings can be imported into the country.

In the meantime, Phelps will focus on Sauvignon Blanc, another cool-climate grape also well-suited to the Casablanca Valley. Casas del Bosque has an ample 125 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc vines, and Phelps was familiar with the fruit, having bought some of it in during his time at Viu Manent.

“And you know when a winery sells you grapes, they don’t sell you their best stuff. So now that I’m at Casas del Bosque, I’m looking forward to working with their best Sauvignon Blanc, which is really good stuff.”

As with all great grapes, Sauvignon Blanc transmits terroir, or a sense of place, in the ensuing wine. I tasted a range of tank samples of 2010 wines that Phelps left with me (I prefer not to taste with winemakers when I meet with them at my office), sourced from a range of different clones and planted on different soils.

A sample of clone 242 planted on a mix of gray clay and loam showed bracing chive and asparagus notes with a brisk fleur de sel-tinged finish, while a sample of clone 1 planted on the same gray clay/loam mix showed a riper kiwi and lime profile and a little more flesh around the bones.

I also tasted three samples that were all clone 107, but planted on three different soil types in the vineyard. The first, on a flat portion of gray clay and sandy loam showed bright, racy lime zest and fleur de sel notes—it was really lean and bracing. The second, on hillsides of gray clay and degraded granite, was brisk and juicy, with delicious white peach and lemon zest notes. The last, from hillsides with red volcanic clay mixed with granite and sand, showed the fullest body, with almost rounded pink grapefruit and melon rind notes and a long, ripe finish; it was the biggest of the three clone 1 samples, but will probably need some of the bones of the leaner-styled lots to make a complete wine.

Casas del Bosque has a short history, and a revolving door of winemakers during that time certainly hasn’t helped get it established.

“One guy would come in and want to make changes in the vineyards and just as they were starting, they’d leave and the next guy would come in and they’d want all different changes,” noted Phelps.

While I would’ve liked to see Phelps extend his track record at Viu Manent, I did feel the winery was producing too many different wines. With a narrower focus at Casas del Bosque, hopefully Phelps can get it turned around and establish a whole new track record for quality and value.

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