Hubert Burda Media

Rise of the Don

Chile’s world-class reds, such as Don Melchor, are quickly taking position among august review lists.

Bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atacama Desert in the north, the Andes in the east, and the Patagonian ice fields to the south, Chile’s geography and climate makes it uniquely suited to agriculture. But despite the influence of the humble grape on its cultural identity — with burgeoning wine tourism and the likes of Don Melchor, Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta and Almaviva appealing to even the harshest of critics — vitis vinifera (the common grape vine) isn’t actually native to Chile. It arrived in the 16th century with the Spanish missionaries who needed wine to celebrate the Catholic mass.
Maipo Valley, the closest wine region to capital city Santiago, is perhaps Chile’s most historic wine area with plantings that date back to the Spanish settlers. The first vines were of the País grape (similar to California’s Mission grape), which quenched the thirst and filled the spiritual needs of early residents. But it wasn’t until the 19th century when French wine varieties were first imported to Chile that Maipo Valley started producing its now famed Cabernet-based wines.
In fact, it was at Puente Alto, the Maipo wine region at the foot of the Andes Mountains, where the first French plantings were made prior to Europe’s phylloxera outbreak. Here, one of the nation’s biggest wine groups Concho y Toro produces one of Chile’s foremost wines: Don Melchor.
Located 650m above sea level, the vineyards of Don Melchor benefit from the stony, alluvial soil carried down from the Andes by the Maipo River. Poor in nutrients and with good drainage, which is necessary to curb excessive fruit production and maintain quality of the grapes, the 114 hectares of vineyards are sub-divided into seven sections — six Cabernet Sauvignon and one Cabernet Franc parcel — that are individually harvested and vinified to reflect its micro-environment before going into the final blend. On summer nights, cold mountain air channelled down from the Andes extends the ripening process, allowing for the grapes to achieve proper maturity.
The result is a wine that, over 24 vintages (1987 to the recently released 2010), has ranked seven times in Wine Spectator‘s annual Top 100 list. The 2010, at 93 points, was also judged by Robert Parker to be Chile’s best Cabernet Sauvignon of the vintage — not that one should be appreciating wine by its scores.
Recently in Singapore for a whirlwind visit as part of The Secret Tour, which took in seven Asian cities over 10 days, head winemaker Enrique Tirado attributes the wine’s complexity and elegance to a “respect for the terroir”. “I try to make a wine that really expresses its origin and this comes from the combination of the soil, climate and vineyard [characteristics]. That’s always been my philosophy behind winemaking,” he says.
Each vintage is blended by Tirado and long-time collaborators Eric Boissenot and his father Jacques, one of the world’s most prolific and important wine consultants who passed away in September. It was Jacques — under the direction of Émile Peynaud, the Frenchman regarded as the father of modern winemaking — who helped winery owner Concha y Toro put together its inaugural 1987 Don Melchor vintage. Over the next decade, Jacques also travelled to Chile annually to exact the best from the Puente Alto vineyards and determine the final blend of the wine alongside its winemaker.
“The first time [Jacques] met me, he said: ‘We’re going to make the best quality wine; a Chilean wine that really expresses the vineyard.’ Hearing him say that made me so happy, as that was exactly what I was thinking,” says Tirado, who joined Concho y Toro in 1993 before being appointed head winemaker of Don Melchor in 1997.
It was his obsession with Puente Alto — Tirado lives just five minutes from the vineyard — that drove him to conduct the first study of terroir in the country, in 2002, in conjunction with France’s Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon. Not on his own leading the surge in Chile’s quality wines, his twin brother, Rafael (the older of the two by four minutes) owns the Laberinto winery in Maule Valley, half a day’s drive south from Santiago. Known for its affordable Sauvignon Blanc — which was named Chile’s Best White Wine, by Chilean wine guide Descorchados in 2010 — Laberinto’s non-conformist vineyards are planted in relation to shade and sun, in almost circular arrangement rather than in straight lines.
Just as wine had featured on the dining table in their youth, it is the winemaking process — which Tirado describes as “magic” — that now fuels their daily conversations. “Wine has been part of our lives for many, many years. We talk about wine every day, if not every week,” says Tirado, who also admits to harbouring some brotherly rivalry. “It’s all good, friendly competition!”
Keen to shore up the reputation of Chilean wines, both brothers welcome wine tourism. While Don Melchor already sees some 150,000 visitors pass through its doors annually, Tirado believes more needs to be done in flying the Chilean flag abroad. “That’s why outside of harvest, I travel so much. Because we need to help people discover our wines. We want you to taste our wines and we want to tell you about the beautiful Andes and the uniqueness of the soil.”