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A Sit Down with Concha y Toro...

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 26, 2006 9:08am ET

Concha y Toro is big – millions of cases big. But the winery is also committed to quality. Its Casa Concha line offers terrific value, while its higher-end wines are impressive.

I sat down with one of the family owners, Isabel Guilisasti, and one of the winemakers, Ignacio Recabarren. Recabarren, 57, is one of Chile's most respected and experienced winemakers, and since his hiring by Concha y Toro in 1995 the wines here – particularly the Terrunyo line he oversees directly – have steadily improved so that they are consistently outstanding.

Chile is a very solid producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the bang the country can deliver for $15 is hard to beat. But there’s something missing at the top end. Although a handful of wines set a high standard (including Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, Viña Montes’ Alpha M, Viña Almaviva and Concha y Toro’s Don Melchor), Chile lacks a little excitement these days. Concha y Toro wants to change that.

“We need more small-production, high-end wines, to bring diversity to Chile,” says Guilisasti.

To that end, Concha y Toro will be releasing a 500-case wine made primarily from Carmenère, a grape that is Chile’s claim to a unique, signature varietal. Recabarren is fashioning the wine, called Carmin de Peumo, using primarily a single block of the winery's oldest Carmenère vines (23 years old) in its large Peumo vineyard. He’s thrown in a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon from Pirque and Puente Alto and a drop of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot as well, but the wine is distinctly Carmenère. It’s ripe but not jammy, with a plush, suave texture backed by nice grip on the finish. It’s an impressive wine, with vivid blue, purple and black fruit flavors. (I'll formally review the wine based on a blind tasting closer to its release.)

Recabarren hits it on the head when he says, “Carmenère allows Chile to make a Bordeaux assemblage in a New World style, with fruit and balance.”

While consumers might bemoan the explosion of small-lot, high-priced wines brought about by the single-vineyard craze, I think this is exactly what’s needed to shake things up in Chile right now. I'd like to see more wines like these produced (price not withstanding) for a greater variety of choice. With Cabernet playing the lead role, supported by grapes like Carmenère and Syrah, Chile has a chance to define itself as something other than just a mass-value wine producer (which it's already good at).

The Carmin de Peumo is set for an October release, and like most wines in small packages, it will not be cheap – around $70 a bottle, which would make it more expensive than its current flagship Don Melchor bottling. Most people will likely take pause at a $70 bottle of Chilean wine, even though the country’s elite reds broke that price barrier a few years ago. But Chile’s wines need a shot in the arm, and by using the country’s own distinct grape and focusing on quality, Concha y Toro is throwing its hat in the ring. Concha y Toro is willing to remake itself a bit in order to push the country's wines further - that's what leaders do. Kudos to them.

What do you think? Is the high-end, small lot wine the way to go for Chile?

J E Shuey
Dallas, TX —  May 26, 2006 1:09pm ET
The question will be the wine's price/value ratio. Don Melchor is worth evey penny of its $40+/- price. @ $70, any wine needs to be extra special...unless the prestige of what's in your wine room is more important to you than the quality.
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  May 26, 2006 1:50pm ET
Sorry James, given the quality of reds from Italy, Spain and Australia in the $30 to $60 range, there's little chance that I'll buy a new and basically unknown Chilean wine for $70, regardless of its rating.Cheers, TFS
Maximiliano Morales
Santiago, Chile —  May 26, 2006 4:21pm ET
I really think that Concha y Toro search for quality. I think that one of their best moves were buying properties in the north of Chile, specially the Limari valley, where they bought one of the first wineries settled in that northern area when nobody believe much..CyT did, and right after they bought vineyards and infraestructure, other wineries followed them to say...we also believed. In that case were Santa Rita, De Martino, San Pedro among others, but they were afraid of saying it at loud. Another fact that when a company like concha y toro sees a potential, trust on the land and the people. The Limari valley is well known also for organic grapes that are produced by the U.S. Texan James Pryor, grapes like syrah, cabernet and carmenere that are bought by some important wineries in Chile. I think Peumo, Maipo and Limari are going to be the next "superb" for wines.
Graham Nicholson
May 27, 2006 4:05am ET
You've got to start somewhere. A while back, people laughed at Napa cabs at $20+. I think they'd have stopped laughing when they saw Screaming Eagle's current prices. Chile offers mostly lower priced wines with a few exceptions, including Don Melchor. And good wine at that. I say thumbs up, as long as the quality can back up the cost.
Peter Stravlo
Denver, CO —  May 29, 2006 12:32pm ET
I think it's fine for Chile to try new things. It's a fun place with some very interesting wines. But, they should be careful. for years I liked Chile's cabs, they had a unique aspect which I attributed to terroir. Too many of them are now beginning to taste like wines you can buy from other parts of the world. I love Don Melchor, and spent 3 weeks traveling and tasting in Chile. Be careful what you wish for. Where will the standardization of taste end?
Robert Gott
Doral/Florida —  May 29, 2006 4:31pm ET
James, is the Carmin de Peumo going to replace the Peumo Valley Terrunyo and if not do you think this will affect the quality of the Terrunyo by using their best grapes for the Carmin de Peumo? I would love to see a higher quality Carmenere, even if it's at a higher price, but would hate to see the Terrunyo downgraded.
James Molesworth
May 29, 2006 9:14pm ET
No, they will keep the Terrunyo line. The new wine will not take all of the best vines from the Peumo vineyard, so some will still go into Terrunyo. We will have to wait and see though if quality suffers - but I'd bet against it with Igancio overseeing things...
Jean-francois Clavier
Palo Alto, CA —  May 29, 2006 10:03pm ET
I have bought and tasted the Vina Almaviva 2003, and found that at $45 a bottle, it was almost a steal. And I ordered a couple more cases before K&L Wine sells out its second order.
Ramon J Vega Sr
Illinois —  May 31, 2006 5:45pm ET
Hallelujah! The Concha y Toro wines are such a great value that it is their time now to move up the ladder.
Paul Romero
San Jose, CA,  —  June 1, 2006 9:08pm ET

James, I wondered if you asked about this move and the pricing in context of the way the U.S. market is reacting right now?

All indications are the wines in the $40-$100 range from all but the hottest producers and or well established regions and vintages are all but dead at retail. I've seen 02 Clos Apalta sit at $45, 02 Lagier Meredith Syrah at $45 and scores of Super Tuscans and high end Australians just not selling.

I know the temtation to move into that pricing range is strong as margins increase with little increase in costs, but it seems risky to move into what looks like an already overcrowded segment.
James Molesworth
June 2, 2006 3:11pm ET
Hmmmm...and both those wines got 93 points from us (myself and Laube respectively). So much for those who complain about the vaunted power of WS scores.The bottom line is the fickle nature of people who spend that kind of money on wine can not be predicted ahead of time by marketing or other methods. There is as much wine in heavy bottles with fancy labels that touts 1,000 cases produced that deserves the price, as there is that doesn't. And the market doesn't necessarily sort it out on its own.CyT will be hard pressed to sway people with a $70 Carmenere, even if the proof is in the bottle...
Steve Dunn
phila, PA USA —  June 7, 2006 9:19pm ET
I love wines; probably drink too much, but my liver functions are normal, so I am OK. Anyway,I have discovered Concha while looking for QPR wines. I was a devout Casa Lopastole/Montes Alpha follower until I discovered Concha. Calif cabs are simply over priced. Cali blends are hit-or-miss. Europeans are different...good -- but different and expensive. My heart and palate are with Burgundy, but my pocketbook is in South America...Chile and Concha in particular. I was invited to a tasting of Chilean reds and a few whites. Great experience. We tried many among them Valle Central, Maipo, Maule, Rapel, Valle del Sur. We had Carmenere, Cab, Terrunyno, Merlots and more. I found the Concha line incredible for taste and value. I have 6 Don Melchor 2001's and six 2002's along with much of the lower end lines. I was surprised at the QPR. Chile and Concha is going to be a competitor. I am on the band wagon, and my pocketbook is not stretched. I can now afford to buy gas for my car. Bravo Concha--keep the prices down and the quality high. To JM: sorry I missed you at Matyson in Phila last month.
Alex Salomon
Paris, France —  June 18, 2006 5:56pm ET
I am arriving a bit late on this entry, but tasting Chilean wines for about 10 years, I can't help thinking they are a bit too stuck in the "wines of fear" situation. Everything is mostly devoted to the big, fruit forward, commercial, crowd pleasing Cab -- even when they make a Carmenere or Syrah. When I go to a tasting event lining up 50 to 100 of their wines, I come away pleased (the quality is mostly there, but it's easy with 8 months of sun, cool nights and little rain / no hail) but no longer surprised. Most wines taste the same. However, there are some surprises (Espinoza's VOE mixing Chard and Roussane or his Syrah / Mourvedre; Matetic' mixes; Aquitania) but most of these wines won't make it to most shelves (or reviews)... So it leaves foreign consumers with yet another good value red from Chile -- oaked, fruit driven, soft reds, regardless of the varietals.Actually, I have come to shock my Chilean friends by saying that right now, most Chilean whites present better price/value ratio that reds. Some SBs are cheaper and every bit as crisp and exciting as their counterparts from NZ. I use to drool over Cloudy Bay -- at $16.00 per bottle... now, at $25.00, I'll go for Los Vascos or Veramonte or Montes!!

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