ARE HEAVY CHILEAN WINES A THING OF THE PAST? – MARCELO PAPA TALKS MARQUES DE CASA CONCHA AT THE STRAND DINING ROOMS 2014

MARCELO PAPA, CHIEF WINEMAKER, CONCHA Y TORO, CAME TO LONDON TO EXPLAIN TO US HOW CHILEAN WINE IS PROGRESSING ALONG A SLOPE THAT WILL CONCENTRATE MORE ON TERROIR AND SELF-EXPRESSION OF THE CABERNET SAUVIGNON GRAPE VARIETY. HE SHOWED US HIS EXPERIMENTATION WITH OAK AGEING AND BARREL STYLES AND IN ADDITION, WE WERE INTRODUCED TO THE PAIS GRAPE, AN EXCITING PROSPECT FOR THE FUTURE OF CHILE.
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The wines of Chile have always been full of character, however Marcelo explained to us that perhaps the maturity of the grapes has been pushed too far over recent years. Now, the fantastic Chilean winemaker is moving away from the “blockbuster wines” and instead concentrating on the importance of revealing the wines’ true characters. This brings us back to the notion of terroir; to create an exceptional wine, the winemaking process must bring out the best of the soil type in which the vines grow.

Marcelo revealed that he had become tired of the heady wines of the late 2000s with huge alcohol percentages, and began experimenting with his wines in 2010. He stated, “I began to ask myself why the wines I hadn’t been drinking my own wines at home” – and this was a revelation to himself. He realised that he did not agree with the idea that Chilean wines focus on richness, resulting in high alcohol percentages meaning that the wines have to some extent lost sense of where they come from. He argued that it was easy to be swept along with the fashion of wine – and for the past 10-15 years it has indeed been fashionable to have these bolder wines, however he feels it is now time to change this and allow Chilean wines to flourish in their own right.

First, we were introduced to a 2014 Chardonnay that had not yet been bottled. I always find it really intriguing trying young Chardonnays as they are still so far from the finished product with so many lees present; however although it had a strong nose of fruit, it was already evident that there was a good acidity and higher minerality than previous years. Marcelo’s main focus for the change in his wines is earlier picking in order to reduce the high sugar levels. This means that acidity and minerality is more prominent in this Chardonnay, creating a fresher, cleaner wine that in my opinion, better reflects the limestone soils of the region of Limari and its cooler climate. Furthermore, Marcelo has been experimenting with using less new oak; for this wine it was 30% new oak, 30% one year old oak, and 30% 2 year old oak, which means that the wine’s minerality is able to shine through. Finally, the alcohol percentage of this Chardonnay is 13.7% as opposed to its usual 14% – a big step forward to achieving a wine where acidity is more prominent.

We tried a really interesting tasting involving 3 wines – all the same early harvested Cabernet Sauvignon of 2013 but one having been aged in classic oak barrels of 1 year usage, one having been aged oak in casks of  5000l, and the final being a blend of the two. Marcelo emphasised that it is possible to pick Cabernet earlier and get a good acidity while avoiding greenness. Furthermore, he stressed that this Cabernet grows on sandy soils and hence benefits from earlier picking; inherently it is not meant to be as bold as it has previously been produced. On tasting, the first cabernet aged in the standard oak barrels appeared almost ready to be bottled; portraying roundness and fruit flavours with which Marcelo agreed, whereas the second cabernet aged in the large casks was incredibly interesting; a much greater minerality, freshness and more complex aromas were present. We all agreed that it would definitely need longer before bottling but that it would give a wine with a greater depth of flavours than the wine aged in the normal barrels. Marcelo explained that this was due to the lack of contact with air; the wine in the large casks are exposed to less air and hence are able to develop more complex flavours. He believes that this innovative method may be the way forward for Chilean wines; the normal barrels are toasted and hence give the sweet, heady oaky flavours to the wine whereas using the large casks would give him the chance to move away from this stereotype and return to the wine’s origin. He emphasised that people have always followed trends – but that just because Cabernet Sauvignon has typically always been produced in oak barrels does not mean that it should be! The final blend was a lovely combination of 10% casks, 90% barrels, 50% early harvest, 50% normal harvest that will ease Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon fans towards the new direction of the wine; mocha and vanilla flavours were still present but these were combined with a lovely freshness. This blend was 14.2% ABV; a whole 0.6% less than 4 years ago! This is a number that is only going to decrease; Marcelo hinted that the 2014 harvest was almost all early picking and hence alcohol levels will be around 13.6%.

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Next we tried two Cabernet Sauvignons from Puente Alto – one standard 2010 harvest and one early harvest from 2011. Marcelo admitted himself that perhaps he had pushed the one from 2011 a little too far – it was harvested 25 days earlier than the wine from 2010 Hence, it had very high acidity, however it also showed promise; it was light and very fresh and demonstrated that a Cabernet Sauvignon can be vinifed in a way that does not produce such a heavy wine.

Finally, after tasting the Chardonnay we tasted a new wine from 2014 made from the Pais grape (but I wanted to wait to write about it until after the others as it is such a different and exciting concept). This is a grape variety that has been largely forgotten about over the recent years as it wrongly gained a reputation as inferior to the other varieties of Chile. Marcelo highlighted that this means we have lost an amazing part of Chilean history and viticulture; some of the Pais vines are up to 120 years old! He emphasised that it is a matter of repositioning the grape; by recreating the grape using carbonic maceration we can achieve a wonderful, fresh, summer wine almost comparable to some of the wines of Beaujolais generic appellation. We tried the wine chilled (it is 85% Pais and 15% Cinsault) and it revealed a lovely delicate fresh and fruity nose, a result of its vinification in stainless steel – it is a grape that does not need the addition of oak, instead flourishing from carbonic maceration hence resulting in a less tannic wine. Although very different in style to the other wines of Marques de Casa Concha, it is a lovely 12.5% ABV delicate and refreshing wine that is perfect for summer and one that I am sure will have a big market in the future.

All in all, it was a really interesting tasting – particularly for me as I have not known about Chilean wines for long and it was very eye opening and informing. Thanks to Marcelo Papa and I will be keeping my eyes open for the future wines of Marques de Casa Concha!

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