A Sip of Chile’s Finest

During my last week in Chile I had the opportunity to visit three great wineries – Viña Montes and Lapostolle in  Apalta (part of the Colchagua valley) and De Martino in the Maipo valley, outside of Santiago.  These wineries produce some of the best wines in Chile, and are definitely not to be missed on a wine tour of the country, so I am very fortunate that I had the chance to visit and be shown around by winemakers at each of them!

(Viña Montes)

(The feng shui-focused winery building)

(View of the snow-capped Andes mountains from the top of the Apalta vineyards at Montes)

(Lapostolle is owned by the family who founded Grand Marnier in France, and is committed to making French-style — read: food-friendly, gastronomic– wines in Chile) 

(View from the top of the gorgeous, gravity-flow designed Clos Apalta winery)

(Lapostolle vineyards in Apalta – showing the shadow that comes over much of the vines in the evening light)

(One of Lapostolle’s barrel rooms, centered around a gorgeous tasting table through the top of which you can look down into the owner’s private wine cellar, located below the winery)

(De Martino’s giant wooden foudres, in which they began to vinify their Single Vineyard line in 2011.  This marks an important part of a drastic change in their approach, away from bold, ‘Pamela Anderson’ style wines to more elegant, refined ‘Gwyneth Paltrow’ style wines–**these incredibly descriptive analogies were taken from winemaker Eduardo Jordan’s presentation)

(Another project at De Martino is to ferment and mature wines, particularly of Cinsault grapes grown in the Itata Valley in the south of Chile, in ceramic tinajas – pictured here with Jaime and I – that have been used to make wine in southern Chile for over one-hundred years.  This wine, called Viejas Tinajas, has absolutely nothing added to it during vinification – no sulfur, no enzymes, no yeasts, nothing, which makes for a unique, rustic (but not too rustic), earthy but at the same time fresh and fruity wine).

Visiting these three wineries provided a great little overview of the Chilean industry – where it has been historically and some different perspectives on where it is, and where it should be, going.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone that made these visits possible, as well as everyone who made my time in Chile absolutely fantastic, and look forward to returning in the near future!

But for now… its on to South Africa!!

El Campo de Amaral

(Jaime and I attempting to take a self-timer shot, but I think the way we were caught by surprise in this photo is indicative of the ever-surprising nature of vintage)

Some winemakers see their job as one that takes place predominantly in the winery, and others, like Jaime de la Cerda, are committed to creating the essence of their wines in the vineyard.  After our last grapes arrived for harvest and things calmed down a bit at the winery, I went with Jaime to Ledya valley, where the vineyards of Amaral are located, to see the source of the grapes that I’ve been working with so closely over the past three months.  It was immediately obvious, even before we arrived at the property, that this is a very special place.  Leyda is becoming ever more popular of a location for growing cool climate grapes, but the Amaral campo is located about 20 more minutes beyond the last vineyard, along a gravel road that gives the impression of leading you to the end of nowhere.  But then you turn the corner and can see over the Maipo river valley, and on a clear day, all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.  And in between are slopes covered in the red and golden hues of grapevines resting in the post-vintage calm of autumn.

The tour of the vineyards, which comprise 600-odd hectares, only a small fraction of which have been planted so far – with sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir, and a bit of pinot gris and gewurztraminer, focused on three soil pits.  The first was comprised of the granite soils that predominately populate the vineyards in Leyda, as the Coastal Range is formed of granite mother rock.  This type of soil has what Jaime considers the 3 key requirements for growing vines (though, clearly, there are other very important components of terroir, especially climate and fitting an appropriate varietal for the conditions) – penetratability (the rock can be relatively easily broken up just with your hand, ensuring that the roots will be able to penetrate the rock and grow deep into the subsoil), lack of fertility – again forcing the roots to grow deep looking for food and water, and also causing just enough stress in the plant to grow quality grapes, and good drainage, which keeps the soil relatively dry, yet again forcing the plant deep into the earth to search for what it needs.

(Granite soils, typical of Leyda and characterizing some, though not the majority, of the blocks at Amaral)

The second soil pit we saw, only a couple hundred meters away from the first, was shockingly different.  This pit, composed of ancient alluvial deposits, characterizes most of Amaral, and, Jaime believes, is what makes the terroir so special.  The close proximity to the Maipo river explains the appearance of these types of soils in a region primarily characterized by granite, and alluvial soils comprise much of the most highly prized vineyards all along the Maipo river, which flows from the Andes, but the alluvial soils of Amaral are quite unique within the cool climate of Leyda.  These soils again posess the 3 keys outlined above, as the round river rocks are so old that they fall apart easily to the touch, and the bright colors suggest a variety of mineral types which, who know, might even have some sort of effect on the final qualities of the wines.

(Alluvial soils typical of Amaral)

Finally, we drove to a third pit that was shockingly white and immediately recognizable as what may well be the most highly sought after soil in the wine world – limestone.  Again possessing the three traits that characterize a good soil, the limestone suggests that this area was covered by the sea at one point in geologic history, as it is a product of deposition of calcium carbonate from marine life.  The limestone is only in a few streaky patches across some of the vineyards, but adds a third, distinct soil type to the already diverse terroir profile of Amaral.

(Limestone at Amaral)

For Jaime, at least, this is where art can come into winemaking.  His goal is to express this incredible place in the wines he makes, and this is, in essence, the challenge of any artist – to take one form, in this case a place, and express it in a new form – for us, the wine.

(Sheep left over from the region’s previously most important industry roam the vineyards, as if as a nod to New Zealand, one of Jaime’s many sources of inspiration)

(Block 901 of Syrah – planted in the style of Hermitage Syrah in France, this particular block planted at the high density of 10,000 plants per hectare)

Tiempo libre

Here’s a quick peek at some of the things I’ve been up to lately while not at the winery…


(descubando – okay this was at the winery, but not something I do regularly)

(llama on the beach – Pichilemu, Chile)

(Fresh fish for about US$4 per kilo, sold directly from the boat that was towed ashore by a pair of tractors)


(Punta de lobos, Pichilemu)



(football match – equipo O’Higgins de Rancagua)

Eso es la vendimia…

I have now been in Chile for an entire month and am just now getting my first opportunity to post!! Just reflects how busy I have been since I arrived, working vintage at Vina Mont Gras in Chile’s Colchagua Valley (where I am helping winemaker Jaime de la Cerda with Amaral Wines), learning Spanish, and basking in the warm and wonderful Chilean culture (perhaps my word choice gives the wrong impression – just trust me – I’m working).

(Mont Gras Winery)

(Ninquen Vineyard)

Working with Jaime is incredibly interesting from the perspective of my Watson project, as he is committed to a very scientific approach in the winery, experimenting with different terroirs (…hmm maybe some inherent conflict in this concept since I’m not sure terroir is something we’d typically think of as well-enough defined to use as a scientific variable.. but then again, I can say with 100% confidence that I can TASTE differences when we go around every day and taste the tanks – each tank containing juice from a different vineyard block, and many having been processed in exactly the same way… like I said – interesting), different yeasts, different fermentation temperatures, different varietals (so far we have mostly received Sauvignon Blanc but have a couple of tanks of Gewürztraminer and are starting to get in some Pinot Noir, which will eventually be followed by Chardonnay and Syrah).  All of this means a lot of information to keep track of (which is essentially my job), and I have found it very interesting to observe the challenges in maintaining the logistics of such precise winemaking in a winery as large as this one (Amaral is relatively small but is made here at the main Mont Gras winery, which is huge by my standards – and something like the 15th biggest winery in Chile).  I am really enjoying the work, learning a ton, and having a ton of fun as well!

La Fiesta de la Vendimia (grape harvest festival) in Santa Cruz was one of the first weekends I was here, and was a fabulous weekend of wine, food, music, dancing, etc.

(Santiago from San Cristobal)

(Border crossing from Argentina into Chile over the Andes)

As an aside – here is a great article by NY Times wine critic Eric Asimov about how one vintage changed the course of winemaking in Bordeaux over the past 25 years.