Given the amount of steak and wine I have consumed as part of my job, it would have been sacrilegious for me to not visit a few vineyards whist in Chile. On top of providing me with a load of information that I can hopefully remember well enough to recite during my next business lunch, it was one of the highlights of our time in middle Chile.
We did a tour of the largest and most important wine companies in the world, Concha y Toro, who own a number of different brands that are marketed globally.
Interestingly, the UK has for the first time,topped the US as their biggest consumer; proof that the power of the city lunches has not been dampened by the poor economy…I suppose when things get bad drink is even more popular!
The tour consisted of a walk around some of the 9500 hector which are spread around various regions in Chile (Maipo, Maule, Rapel, Colchagua, Curico) owned by the firm.
Our tour guide ´Ronnie´ explained the history of the firm and the various grapes grown, as well as the process by which the wine is actually produced. Given my keen interest, I did take some notes, which unfortunately due to the number of different wine tastings done along the way seemed to be some what erratic when reading them back.
The Concha y Toro Vineyard was founded by Don Melchor de Santiago Concha y Toro and his wife, Emiliana Subercaseaux, in 1883.To start the winery, he brought grape varieties from the Bordeaux region in France. The origins of Concha y Toro are connected to Chilean nobility and aristocracy that is delicately imbedded in this history of Chile following independence from Spanish rule.
Given the poor relations with Spain, they decided to import some of the best grapes from France such as; Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot, and Carmenère which all thrived in the diverse types of land found in Chile.
The key to the firms and in fact the countries success in producing world-class wines at affordable prices is quite simply, the country’s geography. Chile is in reality an island that is cut off from the rest of the world; the north is cut off from Peru and Bolivia by the largest and driest desert (Atacama), the Andes, effectively isolated the country from the East and Argentina, the south, is the most southerly point in the world before you reach the Antarctic and finally to the west is the Pacific with the next neighbour being Japan!
Aside from an interesting explanation as to the locals weariness towards foreigners, this unique barrier to the rest of the world is the very reason they don´t have any disease within agriculture, thus the inexistence of pesticides. It also helps explain the border situation I found myself in when crossing from Argentina!
The diverse landscape found within Chile also provides the ideal conditions for most type fo grape to flourish, all accept Malbech which requires more humidity, and is therefore grown in Argentina instead.
The Cabernet Sauvignon was for me one of the most interesting grapes and one of my favourites wines to taste. The vine itself is a strong , wild vine that actually needs poor soil with sand and stone and not many nutrients to produce the best grape.In addition to this, they also starve the vine of water before harvesting (untill near death!) so that the vine concentrates all its energy on producing the best fruit to continue ´its legacy´ so to speak, thus requiring true skill to grow this grape successfully.
The other interesting grape, that is fast becoming the signature grape of both the firm and the country is the Carmenère. It is also known as the lost grape since it was brought over to Chile from France in the late 1800´s, however completely died out in Europe following the disastrous fungus, phylloxera, that pretty much wiped out the French vineyards. Given the unorganised planting of the vines in Chile a lot of them were mixed together, as such most red wine in Chile was thought to be Merlot.
After scientific investigation in the 80´s this grape was in fact discovered to be thriving in Chile. With a considerable amount of investment and time the vines where carefully analysed and separated to once again create enough pure Carmenere to go into production. Given the difficulties of producing this grape, Chile remains the only producer of it in the world.
Concha y Toro have recently developed what they feel to be the best Carmenere in a new vineyard at the base of the Andes (Cachapoal River) where it has been able to flourish on the rich nutrients of the soil and fresh glacier water. They have created a new brand and belive the 2007 and 2009 harvest to best the best it has ever produced. The wine itself has not yet been given a score by the experts and so is still relatively cheap. It is expected to receive a 100 score this year and so will without doubt rocket in price and so great investment for any wine collector.
Grande Reserve ,CARMENERE Cachapoal River
It is not only the planting and harvesting of the wine that have become extremely scientific, but also the fermentation of them. The firm have spent considerable amounts developing the most advance technology in the world for their cellars. They use only the finest oak for the barrels with American oak for the cheaper wines and the older more refined French oak for the premium wine. Each barrel costs over $1000 and will only ever be used 4 times depending on the number of months required for the particular grape. The first use of a barrel creates the most expensive and finest wine brand (Grand Reserve), although all of the wines here are of the finest quality irrespective of the price.
Ironically it is in fact the first and oldest cellar that still produces the best wine due to the consistent temperature and humidity it provides. This original cellar was built by the actual founder Mr Concha y Torro and has an interesting myth attached to it.
In the beginning the firm used cheap local labour to produce the wine which also meant that theft in the cellars was rife. Given that the locals were poorly educated and had strong beliefs in religion, Mr Concha y Torro began a myth that the cellar was haunted by the devil. He even went as far as spooking the workers with noises and flashes of light to ensure they believed him. They all soon quit out of fear and were replaced with cheaper immigrants from Europe.
The back of the cellar has always been reserved for the families own personal collection. They now only own a 3% stake in the company although they do have a number of rights regarding the brand and the use of the family name.