To the shores of triple wheeee!
…That unforgivably awful pun must in no way detract from the quality factor of the trio of tremendous wines sent me by my Celtic cab/carménère compatriot Jen O’Flanagan, who has lent her advocacy to the uvas of the underworld—in this case, Chile—as well as to the grapes of Greece, where I’d known her focus to be.
Back in 1987, a pair of wine-savvy partners called Aurelio Montes and Douglas Murray surveyed the Chilean vinosphere and saw a huge niche: The land was ideal for premium wine production, the history was unparalleled and yet, most winemakers throughout Colchagua were content with producing inexpensive, limited-quality and often sweet plonk to stuff the shelves of Hipermercados Jumbo.
So, the duo enlisted the help of their equally talented friends Alfredo Vidaurre and Pedro Grand, intending to prove to the world that Chilean wine could be more than low-end jug ‘pais’—the grape (or a close relative thereof) introduced by Hernán Cortés (or a close relative thereof) to Mexico in 1520, which made a remarkably quick migration through South America: Until very recently, pais was the most widely planted grape in Chile, supplanted after half a millennia by cabernet sauvignon.
Cabernet was, in fact, the noble nursling upon which the newly-formed Discover Wine Ltda. intended to stake its reputation; and almost immediately, that became reputation with a bullet. Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 1987 charmed critics and cognoscenti alike. Rich, redolent and racy, the wine showed the depth and elegance of wines never before produced in that area, and is considered by most the wine that jump-started Chile’s premium wine industry
The Alpha label is still going strong, producing versions with merlot, syrah, chardonnay, malbec and carménère (note: no pais). And the winery has seen some explosive growth in the intervening years, now boasting fans in seventy-five countries around the world by fusing quality and price in a user-friendly package.
And that’s the Holy Grail of every winemaker in every wine region on the planet, of course. But Chile has a quartet of unique advantages that makes its grail holier than thine—the Atacama Desert to the north, the Andes Mountains to the east, the Patagonian ice fields to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Thus fenced in, the valley’s climate has evolved as a sort of blend of California’s and France’s only without major variations between vintages. It’s dry, but Andean melt-water is readily available via numerous nearby river systems, and nearly all Chilean vineyards are irrigated to some extent. The mountains also provide a climate buffer, allowing wide temperature variation between day and night—vital in maintaining acid levels in wine grapes as they ripen.
In 2005, Colchagua Valley was named ‘World’s Best Wine Region’ by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and the narrow viticultural zone is indeed a distilled version of all of Chile’s macroclimate superlatives. Somewhat Napa-like with a core river, ambling, often terraced slopes and a fertile valley floor, the area is a sub region of Rapel in the Central Valley. It is often referred to as Chile’s first ‘Grand Cru’ appellation, so it is fitting that Viña Montes was a pioneer in moving the local mindset from mass-produced wines to estate bottled vinifera. The first winery to plant syrah in Colchagua, Montes has recently extended its vineyards toward the sea and along the hillsides of Colchagua, where a still-wider diurnal temperature fluctuation further pushes the envelope of ‘Super Chilean’ quality.
Beside Alpha, Montes offers a limited quantity, 100% syrah under the Montes Folly and a number of premium wines under the Limited Selection, Special and Classic series.
The trio below is now tried and true—no need to send in the Marines.
Montes Twins (Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon), Colchagua Valley, 2012, about $15: Rare to see the twins without their Bordeaux triplet merlot, but here you go. It’s a crafted and balanced high-altitude, high-acidity, high-tannin fifty-fifty proposition that takes itself seriously. Plenty of textured opulence with blackberry, kirsch and cocoa-laced anise; a many-layered finish with graphite minerality and malbec’s signature Asian spices.
Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua Valley, 2010, about $20: A thrilling and intense smorgasbord for the price: Forest scents and inky fruit (cherry and currant especially) accent tobacco and cedar notes while the round mid-palate is intertwined with rather parching but silky tannins.
Montes Purple Angel Carménère, Colchagua Valley, 2010, around $70: A mostly-carménère blend with a bit of petite pinch of verdot, the wine aspires to be the first Chilean carménère able to summit Ojos del Salado—and succeeds, albeit at a hefty tariff. Ripe, dense and juicy, the wine shows the ambition of the varietal in its best Colchuaguan light. Blackberry, plum and mocha match smoke, and vanilla in the nose, while the palate is rich and softly spicy. Eighteen months in oak and a solid beam of dark fruit make the wine imminently cellar-worthy.