Finding balmy, extracted South America in shivery, high acid Finger Lakes is a treat; getting a dose of genuine insight into this sprawling and largely misunderstood wine continent? Priceless.
Wouldn’t have happened without an Irish lass from Brooklyn, either—Jen O’Flanagan of Feast Public Relations, who introduced me to Aurelio Montes—along with his export manager Matias Barros—in the lounge at the Corning Radisson.
As it happens, I was in Finger Lakes trying to avoid the Wine Blogger Conference, but I was at the Radisson to listen to a WBC presentation that (gratefully) had nothing to do with wine blogging. Rather, it was a overview of Montes’ juggernaut wine experiences in both Chile and Argentina. In Santiago, of course, the Montes family perches upon a rarified Andean peak of preeminence, Viña Montes being the brainchild of his winemaker father Aurelio Sr. In 1987, along with a trio of investors, the elder Montes is credited with laying the foundations for the country’s high-quality wine industry. Prior to then, the country’s output had been pretty much limited to mediocre juice produced from massive plantings of Pais and Muscatel—the latter described by wine writing pioneer André Jullien as ‘a potion of rhubarb and senna’.
Nonetheless, among its many remarkable geographical realities, Chile managed to dodge the phylloxera bullet and allows vines to be planted on their original rootstocks, something that Montes claims shows ‘a truer expression of the grape.’
The elements for growing superb wine in Chile were there all along: Isolated from the rest of the world by natural barriers, there are neither insects nor mildew to affect the vines, and the desert-dry climate, adjusted via meltwater irrigation, sees almost 330 sunny days each year.
It just required a visionary like Montes first to recognize it, then to prove it. Without a family fortune to back him up, and having landed with partners that brought everything to the party but a cash flow (Douglas Murray was the exporting whiz, Alfredo Vidaurre knew accounting while Pedro Grand was the agriculture and equipment guru), Montes had to rely on the superiority of his product.
And indeed, Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, the first premium product that flowed from his winery (under the Discover Wines label) was every bit of that. It not only put the Montes name on the eno-map, but essentially the entire country, whose bar was thus appropriately raised.
Like any son worth his grape-stained stompers, Aurelio Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps; he is the winemaker at Kaiken Wines, which aspires to equal every drop of quality that Viña Montes has squeezed from the Chilean terroir with one important difference:
It’s not in Chile.
“My father came to Mendoza in 2001, and shortly became convinced of the Argentinian potential. Not by the climate alone, but by the people—the viticulture, the traditions, the passions.”
No Tears for Argentina
If you imagine Atlas astride the Andes, he’d have one foot in Santiago and the other in Mendoza, with a hundred miles of mountain tickling his taint. From a winemakers perspective, you’d think that the growing regions adjacent to these cities would be flip sides of a coin, and in some ways, you’d be right.
Mendozan wine country lies in the eastern shadow of the Andes, specifically, Mount Aconcagua, and is semi-arid, receiving around eight inches of rain annually—on par with Phoenix. Most vineyards are planted at high elevations—3500 feet is not unheard of—and for the most part, the focus is on red wines: Sumptuous Malbec, of course, has dominated the world market for Argentinian wines so effectively that the grape’s original home in Southwest France has alter red its PR accordingly—the parent learning from the child.
But, there are differences as well, and that’s where the true intrigue begins.
If I was prone to stereotype, I could say that where Chile looks to tradition and elegance in the bottle, Argentina tends toward youthful exuberance. Were it no more complicated than that, I could easily draw the requisite parallels in which young Aurelio Montes came to Argentina to ply his trade while the elder Montes, now 66, remained in Chile.
Of course, the world doesn’t tie itself up in so neat a bow for us journalists, and the wines of Chile can display the vigor of youth as readily as Mendoza’s, while Argentina wine takes the rough and tumble signature grape of Cahors and offers it breeding and the title of an aristocrat.
Aurelio himself remains, like Atlas, with a foot in each country.
“The pace of life in Mendoza took some getting used to,” he smiles. “In Chile, we tend to be very precise, very punctual people. We operate on clocks. Chile is like Switzerland—very organized; the people work very hard, they pay their taxes, but can be a bit boring. In Argentina, people are far more relaxed, and perhaps more passionate in daily life.”
If that shows in their wine, it may be in the way that Chile—spearheaded by the Montes family and several foreign investors, including the Rothschild (Viña Los Vascos)—built up a reputation by calculated degrees, and how Argentina did not. In fact, the single varietal that today studs the crown was an afterthought a generation ago. Less than an afterthought, in fact—at one point during the 1990’s, in an attempt to address a faltering economy, growers ripped out thousands of acres of Malbec in order to plant more profitable jug wine grapes like Criolla and Cereza, or more fashionable varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon.
But, according to Aurelio, whereas Chile’s terroir is ideal for Cab, Argentina’s is really better suited for Malbec—far better, perhaps, than Cahors, where Malbec can be somewhat crude and angular, especially when young. “In Argentina,” he says, “Our soil is mainly sand and rocks, often very poor. This is important because Malbec and Torrontés are very vigorous varieties, so with poor soil they produce smaller clusters and smaller berries, and that means higher quality.”
In contrast, he adds, “In Chile, the soil has more clay and the weather is colder, so Merlot and Cabernet feel very comfortable.”
I was able to take the theory on a road test with the lineup Montes presented: In fact, the Kaiken Torrontés 2014 ($15) outpaces its price while easily living up to its name— Torrontés is a derivation of the Spanish word for ‘torrent’. A gush of fresh peach, orange and ripe cantaloupe pours from the glass; the wine is miles deep and gobs luscious with brilliant acidity. This is a grape which shares Malbec’s affinity for an Argentinian clime—outside of the country, it is virtually unknown, and where planted in Chile, often forms a foundation for Pisco (Chilean brandy), not wine.
Kaiken ‘Ultra’ Malbec 2012 ($25) is a beautiful example of the richness, power and elegance this grape achieves in the foothills of the Eastern Andes; the wine is layered with blackberry, plum, mocha and an appealing herbalness—not green flavors, but savory notes of rosemary and white pepper. Acids are in line, and so are tannins: The wine’s balance is as much the result of technique as terroir.
When Aurelio turns his hand to Cabernet, the result almost makes him drink his words. The varietal which he claims prefers the heavier, more fertile soils on the far side of the mountain range shows sensational structure and complexity in Kaiken ‘Ultra’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($25). Underpinnings of oak make this a somewhat more austere presentation than the Malbec, but the fruit/spice foundation is nicely reminiscent of Pomerol, with earth, smoke and tobacco notes behind the cassis and black cherry.
A contrast of these unique, wonderful flavors with wines produced by his father in Chile will have to await another column. As a name, ‘Viña Montes’ is self-explanatory, but ‘Kaiken’ may not be: It is a Mapuche Indian word for a species of South American goose said to be the only bird capable of flying across the Andes, able to crest mountains more than four miles high on a six-foot wingspan.
Fair to say that Aurelio Jr. has made his mark in laid-back Argentina with all the fire and fury of his native land while finding expression in grapes that have flourished under his watch. Where plenty of other investors have either cooked their own geese or laid an egg, Aurelio’s Mendozan output has, so far, been pure gold.
No wonder that the first two letters of his name are ‘Au’.