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Valette Fontaine

The Franco-Chilean tradition continues

James Molesworth
Posted: May 5, 2004

  Setting New Standards in Chile
Red wines from the outstanding 2001 vintage push Chile to new peaks of quality
  Winery Profile:  
  Odfjell Vineyards  

The Chilean wine industry was founded with French help in the 19th century, and many French investors have contributed to the country's recent wine resurgence. Patrick Valette's success there is a twist on this old theme.

Longtime owners of Château Pavie in St.-Emilion, the Valette family is inextricably linked to Bordeaux. Patrick's father, Jean-Paul Valette, took over the rundown Pavie property in 1966 and built it into one of the region's powerhouse estates. When the pressures of France's stifling inheritance taxes forced the sale of the property in 1998, Jean-Paul returned to Chile, where he had spent several years prior to taking over Pavie, and where he'd met his wife. There he teamed up with the Fontaine family, former owners of Viña Santa Rita.

Jean-Paul vinified the Valette Fontaine project's first vintage in 1999, but passed away the following year. Drawn by family duty and a love for his mother's native land, Patrick Valette, now 44, took his father's place in time for the 2000 harvest.

Valette Fontaine is a 675-acre property located in the Pirque area of the Maipo Valley, a top spot for Cabernet Sauvignon production. Nestled close to the Andes, Pirque receives a cooling breeze off the mountain slopes, providing for a long growing season, and features the nutrient-deprived, alluvial soils ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon.

The venture's first vines were planted in 1993; today the estate has 133 acres of vines, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Carmenère, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Valette Fontaine's emergence mirrors that of Chile's wine industry-the grapes from the property were initially sold off, until the Fontaine family, at Jean-Paul's urging, decided to produce its own wine.

"Chile's was more an industrial philosophy than a viticultural one," says Valette, regarding the Chilean wine industry's formerly dominant school of thought. After Valette joined the project, yields were lowered and viticulture improved.

"In 2001, I spent so much time in the vineyard. It's long-term work, with small details, but they have to be done very carefully at the beginning of a project," says the French transplant.

That attention to detail is now paying off. In 2001, an outstanding vintage for the Maipo Valley thanks to a dry, hot summer, Valette Fontaine produced its best wines yet. The flagship El Principal Maipo Valley 2001 (91 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, $40) is produced from a selection of the estate's top vines. The estate's younger-vine fruit makes up the Memorias Maipo Valley 2001 (89, $18). Both wines are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, with varying amounts of Carmenère and Merlot included in the blends.

Production levels are moderate, with an output of just more than 6,000 cases combined in 2001. "I want to stay at my own capacity, in order to make a high quality wine," says Valette, who plans to grow to about 10,000 cases annually.

Valette divides his time among a variety of projects. He took over the winemaking of Viña Quebrada de Macul's Domus Aurea Cabernet this past year, works with a handful of other Chilean wineries, and is still working in Bordeaux as well. Valette prefers a smaller production model, noting the dominance of large wineries in Chile.

"It's difficult, because we don't have the money to make all the improvements we need [unlike large wineries]. But we need small wineries," he says. "[They] bring new ideas. It's good for the evolution and competition [of the wine industry]." -J.M.

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