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A Sit Down with Chile's Aurelio Montes

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 6, 2008 10:10am ET

I sat down the other day with Aurelio Montes, co-owner and head winemaker of Viña Montes, one of Chile’s top wineries.

Now in its 20th harvest, Viña Montes has grown from its initial 10,000 cases to 800,000 cases annually, all while helping to push quality upward. The winery’s Alpha M, Folly and Purple Angel bottlings are among Chile’s best red wines, while its Alpha range, at around $22, is one of the country’s most consistent values. Aurelio Montes is not one to rest on his laurels either: The winemaker has been invigorated recently, after meeting up with the Chilean terroir hunter, Pedro Parra, and has a number of new projects in the works, some of which are now bearing fruit. The first is a new Sauvignon Blanc sourced from vineyards around the coastal resort town of Zapallar.

“It’s like Carmel in Chile,” said Montes of the area.

Zapallar is a cool spot, temperature-wise as well as hip-wise, according to Montes. Located 70 km north of Vista del Mar, its temperature is similar to that of the San Antonio Valley and is even a touch cooler than the northern Limarí Valley. Zapallar’s soils are composed of a soft, clay/granite composition, with more clay than sand (unlike the slightly sandier soils of San Antonio and Limarí).

These cool, coastal areas like Zapallar, San Antonio and Limarí are now being explored by Chile’s wineries, as they focus on better site selection for grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Currently, Montes has the only vines in the Zapallar area, 30 hectares of mostly Sauvignon Blanc, along with a little Pinot and Chardonnay that he planted back in 2006.

A tank sample of the 2008 Zapallar Sauvignon Blanc shows very good to outstanding potential, with really bracing lime aroma and flavor, followed by ripples of fleur de sel and chamomile. The superfresh finish has a nice chalky underpinning. It‘s reminiscent of the lean, bracing Sauvignon Blanc from the Elquí Valley that Marco Puyo is developing for Viña San Pedro, or some of the chiseled whites that Adolfo Hurtado is making at Viña Cono Sur. The Zapallar wine is currently slated to be blended in with Montes’ excellent Leyda Sauvignon Blanc, but may merit its own bottling in the future.

Montes is also working on a Carmenère bottling to join his Alpha tier, currently led by the consistently very good to outstanding Cabernet and Syrah bottlings. The 2007 version, drawn from barrel, shows solid ripeness, with dark plum and blackberry fruit along with the grape’s typically caressing mouthfeel. A twinge of sweet, aged tobacco on the finish helps keep it honest. The wine doesn’t show any of the overtly green notes that continue to plague many Carmenère bottlings, particularly those produced in volume amounts. The grape is a conundrum for Chilean vintners right now, who want Carmenère to be the country's signature grape, but they're still having a hard time getting a handle on consistency.

“It’s a function of the terroir,” said Montes, who notes that most volume bottlings of Carmenère historically draw upon fruit from central valley sites, where Carmenère’s herbaceous edge gets exacerbated by poor canopy managment and high yields.

“Carmenère needs an open canopy, medium-fertility soils—not too low and not high—and low yields are critical,” said Montes, who has been honing in on spots in Peumo and Colchagua for the grape.

In addition, Montes is working on new wines from his extensive Marchihue plantings, located at the western end of the Colchagua valley and within a stone’s throw of the coastline. The project started in 2000 and should be up to 600 hectares of vines by next year (the winery’s Purple Angel bottle already draws fruit from here). Both the new Marchihue wine as well as a new wine from his Argentine project, Kaiken, are still too nascent to discuss.

As if this all wasn’t enough, Montes and his partners have also released the first wines from their Napa Valley venture, but that’s the domain of my colleague James Laube …

Montes is hardly a newcomer to wine. One of the Chilean wine industry’s most respected and venerable winemakers, it’s impressive how much he has going on, even more now than when he began. I asked him if by constantly growing, he thought he might lose focus at some point.

“It’s very difficult to define yourself by knowing when to stop,” said Montes. “As long as the market accepts the wines, its OK to keep growing as long as you don’t betray the quality.”

Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  October 7, 2008 3:18am ET
Will your review of the 2006 Montes Alphas (especially the Syrah) be out anytime soon? I've gone from disliking most Chilean wines (mid 90's) to really liking them across the board. I've had some of the early 200x Alpha Syrah/Cab and I liked them more each successive vintage. The culmination: the 2005 Alpha Syrah was one of my "top 10" wines of last year... I must have bought nearly a case of this wonderful wine at $16 / bottle at Costco.... and now the 2006's are in stock.
James Molesworth
October 7, 2008 9:48am ET
Russell: The Alpha Pinot was reviewed back in May. I've tasted the '06 Alpha Cab and Syrah and they'll appear shortly...the '06 vintage isn't as strong as '05, which was a great year for Chilean reds...
Thomas Hill
October 8, 2008 6:36pm ET
Hi James. I'm part of a group that, like you, is making a Thompson '07 Syrah at Crushpad. I have followed your blog entries about the project, but the most recent I can find was on Feb. 6. Have I missed any?
James Molesworth
October 8, 2008 7:27pm ET
Thomas: No you haven't missed any entries since I racked the wine. I've tasted it a few times and even designed the label, but nothing that I would report on via my blog (remember it's not a commercial venture for me). It's on track to be bottled after the New Year, and that's when I'll probably recap the (hopefully good) results...

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