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Double Barrel Consultants

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 20, 2008 8:14am ET

Chile’s wine industry dates back over a century, but for all intents and purposes, its modern history dates back to just the early 1990s, as wineries emerged from a generation of political and economic strife. Nonetheless, that makes Veramonte, founded in 1990, one of the old guard. And who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

At Veramonte, they’re learning from both their successes and failures as they undergo a replanting program and retool their lineup of wines. In addition, Christián Aliaga, 34, has taken over the winemaking following the departure of Rafael Tirado after the 2006 vintage. Aliaga isn’t alone – Veramonte has brought in both Paul Hobbs and Álvaro Espinoza to help consult on the wines. It’s double barrel consultants at Veramonte now – and they’re not splitting a consulting fee either.

Veramonte, which sits at the eastern end of the Casablanca Valley, was one of the first wineries to make a serious move toward planting in cooler climates which, though a popular concept now, was heretical at the time in Chile. Many in the industry expected the venture to fail.

Instead, Veramonte’s white wines were some of the few bright spots among Chilean white wines through the latter half of the 1990s, with fresh, clean flavors that most other wines – typically from grapes planted in warmer valleys like Maipo - lacked. For me, the problem with Veramonte was never its whites, but its reds.

Veramonte’s reds relied on grapes sourced from the estate, and while the Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère struggled to ripen in the cool Casablanca climate over the years, the Huneeus family, which owns the winery, hung tough.

“Yes, we took too long to admit that Carmenère was not working here,” says Agustin Huneeus, Jr. “Cabernet Sauvignon we were very, very close with, so that was harder to admit to. But for Carmenère, we didn’t get as close."

The grape often showed overly herbaceous notes – and after more than 15 years of trying, both it and Cabernet Sauvignon were all ripped out after the 2007 vintage, part of the ongoing replanting program underway here.

Drawing on their long experience in the region, Huneeus and his team, along with viticulturalist consultant Yerko Moreno, are working with different rootstocks and different vine row alignments (north/south and east/west) to fine-tune the estate’s 410-hectare vineyard base.

“In the beginning you plant 50, 100 hectares at a time because of economics,” explains Huneeus. “Now when we replant, we do it 5 or 10 hectares at a time, with much more attention to detail."

To illustrate his point, we taste Merlot grapes still on the vine from two different blocks just a few feet apart. One is clearly still green in flavor, with harsh-tasting seeds and in need of several weeks more hang time. The other, on a different rootstock, seems more advanced, and already shows hints of sweet, dark fruit – it’s much closer to being ready to pick.

“Vineyards a decade ago were planted according to an engineering map to maximize irrigation,” explains Moreno. “Now they’re planted on a soil map and with more attention to clonal materials and rootstock, so you’ll see much better ripeness and better quality.”

While touring the vineyards, we come across a block of Sauvignon Blanc that’s being harvested – by both machine and by hand. When I question the quality control capabilities of machine harvesting, I’m taken to rows where the machine is slowly moving up and down the rows, sucking off ripe berries and leaving unripe ones behind as it gently passes over the vines. (Check out the video to see how it’s done.)

The pros to the machine are that it can work at night or early in the morning, when temperatures are lower – pickers can’t or won’t work at night in Chile. Bringing in cooler fruit means less chance of oxidation and fresher aromas – critical for a light-bodied, high acid grape like Sauvignon Blanc. While hand picking is still gentler in terms of handling the grapes, pickers harvest whole clusters, instead of individual berries, which means another step at the winery to sort out leaves and stems. In contrast, the machine can be calibrated to pull off just the ripe berries. Of course the machine is much faster, harvesting a hectare in about an hour, while a team of pickers requires double that much time. With vineyard labor in short supply these days in Chile, machine harvesting of value-priced varietal wines like Veramonte’s crisp, bracing $11 Sauvignon Blanc is likely to become more common in the coming years.

Back at the winery, I tasted through a number of wines, including a few vintages of the winery’s basic Pinot Noir and a new higher cuvée of Pinot that has not yet been named. The Pinot line is where Paul Hobb’s expertise is being put to work, and along with Aliaga, he’s stressing the need for vineyard work over winery manipulation.

“In the beginning, we tried to be to aggressive with extraction and structure,” says Aliaga. “Now we’re trying to be more gentle, to focus on the balance and finesse.”

Following the light-bodied ’06, the ’07 Pinot takes a step up here, showing jazzier fruit and spice notes. The new higher-end cuvée shows more focus and flesh, as it gets a kiss of new oak. Hobbs has had to adapt to the differences in Chilean Pinot fruit from the fruit he uses for his high-powered California versions.

“Gentler handling of the fruit is key here,” says Hobbs, “Because the fruit is more fragile and elegant. That’s been the biggest change I’ve had to deal with.”

While Hobbs works on the Pinot side of the red wine portfolio, the Chilean-native and biodynamic proponent Espinoza is lending a hand with the Primus cuvée, as well as some new reds. Noticeable progress can be seen here as well.

Starting with the 2005 vintage, Veramonte’s Primus cuvée, a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère blend, now contains Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère from the Colchagua valley instead of Casablanca and the difference is immediately noticeable – there’s more flesh and grip, though the Casablanca Merlot portion (just over half the blend) lends finesse and elegance. It’s the first Primus to show potentially outstanding quality. The 2006 is a lighter vintage, but the 2007 is also potentially outstanding, with lots of sweet spice, and round silky tannins. Gone are the slightly green notes that have held this wine back (for me) in the past.

Espinoza and Aliaga are also developing a new cuvée, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (from Colchagua) along with a touch of Merlot (from Casablanca). As-yet unnamed, the 2006 version is juicy and dark, with a hint of briar and macerated plum fruit. The 2007 shows the grip and density that Espinoza seem to get in blends of this sort (such as the Coyam from Viñedos Emiliana) while also showing a bright, tangy minerality. Both are potentially outstanding, with an edge to the ’07 version. There were only 500 cases of each produced, but with a target retail price of $30, it’s an attractive buy.

As if those changes weren’t enough, the Huneeus’ Chilean heritage hasn’t deterred them from trying their hand in producing an Argentine wine (the two countries are notorious rivals in everything from soccer to wine). Using grapes sourced from Carlos Pulenta in Mendoza, Espinoza is overseeing a blend of mostly Malbec with a drop of Bonarda and Petit Verdot that shows juicy grip and lots of blueberry and black licorice snap notes. As with the new Cab/Syrah blend, the wine is not yet named; the 2006 version will be the debut release later this year.

And with an Argentine venture now in the works, Veramonte also provides me with a great segue, as it’s time to catch the short 30 minute flight over the Andes into Mendoza, the land of late night-beef. I’ll spend a few days checking in on the 2008 vintage, as well as visiting some established players and new faces, so stay tuned ...

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