Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon: The Eternal King

by | 11 Dec, 2010

The cornerstone of Chile’s wine industry is reinventing itself. With the Andes as its main ally, it is beginning to explore new latitudes while refreshing its ever deep, serious and classy character.

The inhabitants of Chile have a fragile memory. There are things we don’t like to remember, even if sometimes these are not bad but good things. During the last decades, Cabernet Sauvignon, the flagship of our wine armada, pursued its voyage almost inconspicuously, somehow eclipsed by the rising stardom of Carmenère and the new coastal valleys. However, right at the foot of the Andes and carried by the fresh breeze that blows down the steep slopes, it continued to reign, patiently waiting to have its glory fully restored.

Chile unarguably produces some of the world’s most notable Cabernet Sauvignons. In this rocky soil carved by rivers and shaped by landslides over the course of millions of years, Cabernet has found a very favorable environment where it has adapted remarkably well. in Aconcagua and very especially in Maipo, it has slowly developed an intense, gentle, deep and noble personality.

“In Maipo Alto, the special terroir allowed it to express its typicity and develop a nice natural balance between its chemical components, a feature that ensures its durability,” says french-born Pascal Marty, technical director of Cousiño Macul, who has spent the last 15 years vinifying Cabernet Sauvignon in these part of the world.

Cousiño Macul’s Antigual Reservas represents a thorough and savory account of the most memorable moments in cabernet history. In fact, just a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to taste its 1988 vintage and was very pleasantly surprised by its well achieved color and complex, lively aromas. Back then, the harvest was conducted earlier in the season – mid or late March – and, most importantly, without the pressure from critics who, with their mermaid songs, advocate for extreme structure and smoothness. The resulting wine barely reached 13o of alcohol and, while still young, its tannins must have been pretty harsh. This is an unthinkable scenario today because producers are too busy looking for a type of phenolic maturation that does not offend the already overcrowded international markets.

During the second half of the 1990s, the harvest was moved into the fall, even mid-May, a time when vines have shed most of their leaves. This practice, which at times has become an obsession, gave birth to a generation of rather dull, lifeless Cabernets of bulky structures that prevented the cultivar’s adaptability. Winemakers focused their efforts on achieving smoothness and roundness and, perhaps without willing, ended up betraying the mountain terroir and turning this excelling distance runner into a weight thrower.

Probably due to a better knowledge of the terroir (and consequently vineyard management) or because of the slow yet relentless decline of critics’ influence, chilean vintners have turned back to their origins. Their main goal today is
to maintain the concentration of those dark-skinned, small berries without masking their freshness. Acidity and tannic structure give life to these wines, allowing them to stand the test of time. And when the weather is great, as was the case last season, the resulting wines can be nothing less than absolutely charming.

“The 2010 vintage allowed us to produce wines loaded with tart red fruit and a very round mouthfeel. Thanks to this year’s lower temperatures, berries were neither too dehydrated nor too diluted. Instead, they remained firm until harvest time. The herbal aromas of Maipo Alto Cabernet are effectively balanced by the power of its fruit,” explains Felipe de Solminihac, winemaker and partner of Aquitania, who expertly manages the vineyards established on the foothills of Quebrada de Macul, at an altitude of 750 meters.


Although Maipo Alto has become synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon it should be remembered that each microzone has its own peculiarities that endow the wine with their own very unique attributes. In Puente Alto, the birthplace of Don Melchor and other great cabs like Almaviva and Viñedo Chadwick, the cultivar develops this fresh and attractive personality. The wines showcase some mint (the warmer and exotic eucalyptus is quickly being abandoned as many vintners believe it undermines their wines’ elegance). Winemakers like Enrique Tirado, the man behind Don Melchor, have initiated a crusade against eucalyptus. True, they do not evade the herbal notes that are so characteristic of highland Cabernets, but they prefer their wines to be a reflection of the mesoclimate rather than those trees hardly anyone would dare to call a native species.

Located right at the foot of the Maipo gorge, Puente Alto is directly affected by the cold and intense mountain breeze. Here summer temperatures can drop from 30oC during the day to just 10oC during the night. This great oscillation not only allows berries to develop the right amount of acidity, but also the right concentration of phenolic compounds that fill the resulting wines with astounding color and structure. In Pirque, although the influence of the Maipo river

is not felt so directly, the winding mountain chains and ravines offers multiple exposure and shade possibilities.

Further South, in the areas of Buin and Alto Jahuel the new vineyards of Cousiño Macul coexist with those of Santa Rita and Carmen. Here there are no significant natural barriers between the vines and the blazing afternoon sun, so average temperatures are a bit higher. The herbal notes are more modest but the wines are more structured and full-bodied. Something similar occurs in the area of Huelquén, the latest viticultural addition to Maipo Alto. Its wines are warmer and the fresh mint notes of Puente Alto are here replaced by thyme and rosemary.

“Our vineyards located at the Andean foothills are combed by the cool breeze that blows downhill in the late afternoon. Unlike Pirque, which is an enclosed basin, in Huelquén temperatures are higher, allowing us to grow other varieties like Carmenère that thrive in this soil. broadly speaking, our Cabernets are riper and thicker, with lots of red fruit and aromas of cooking herbs,” explains Germán Lyon, winemaker of Pérez Cruz, the winery that together with Antiyal and Huelkén chose this area to produce its wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon is very responsive to climatic and soil conditions. Any clay formation under the vineyard can significantly alter a plant’s balance. The wines from these lots may develop ampler structures but will hardly possess the power and depth of those produced in more porous soils. According to Enrique Tirado, the differences between both banks of the Maipo river are astounding. even within the vineyard that gives life to don Melchor, differences are considerable. The probable alcohol difference between two lots may be as high as 2o.


By all accounts, Maipo Alto is Chile’s most prestigious and proven terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. depending on the vintage, its grapes may sell for as much as USD 3 per kilogram, a real treasure compared to what we are used
to elsewhere in the country. That is why vintners are so interested in finding new growing areas that offer a similar potential. This is the case, for example, of Alto Cachapoal, an area of mountain influence located 100 kilometers south of Santiago that had hitherto remained fairly unknown.

According to Ana María Cumsille, winemaker of Altaïr, climatic differences between Cachapoal and Maipo are not so relevant. Temperatures on the slopes that support the vineyards, most of them between 600 and 800 meters,
are rather cool throughout the year. Summer nighttime temperatures hover around 8oC while during the day they may easily break the 30oC barrier, although heat peaks are 
not very frequent. This significant temperature oscillation shapes wines and gives them a fine rather than sumptuous personality.

“Although high alcohol is always present, pH remains surprisingly low. Alto Cachapoal produces a very special balance. its wines are far from tiring, and cabernet Sauvignon is by far the most profusely grown cultivar. Here it develops its best attributes,” she explains as she opens a bottle of Altaïr 2006, probably the blend’s best achieved vintage, a wine of very enticing herbal notes, tart red fruit and sublime depth.

The map of Cabernet Sauvignon keeps on growing. Coya, an area of Alto Cachapoal located at and altitude of 850 meters, is the birthplace of one of the year’s most celebrated releases: Zahir 2007 from Calyptra. Its winemaker François Massoc explains the grapes used in this Cab had never been bottled before. Instead, they were sold to other companies at a cheap price. But by resorting to microzoning, Massoc was able to establish four distinct lots that are vinified separately and enter into the final blend. And Cabernet, which had hitherto been pretty much left to its own devices, quickly became the shining star of this young winery.

Although solar radiation increases with altitude, the imposing mountains cast their shadow on the vineyards, reducing the duration of direct sun exposure. Add the wind that funnels through the valley and the result is a cool zone, almost on the verge of acceptable viticultural limits, where cabernet Sauvignon has risen to new and unsuspected quality thresholds.

“On the valley floor, near the city of rancagua, grapes ripen more fully and uniformly. In Coya, the harvest kicks in later. Grapes develop less alcohol yet the quality of their phenolic compounds is higher. The grapes we harvest are extremely fresh and their aromatic profile is somewhat different, tending more towards red fruit and violets,” he explains.

Further South but still on the mountains, Ribera del Lago produces another wine that spearheads this new generation of Chilean Cabernets. Located on the banks of the Colbún Lake in a landscape of unmatched beauty, the family project led by VIA Wines winemaker Rafael Tirado has surprised everyone with a Maule-born Cabernet of astounding elegance and depth. The 2007 vintage has been released under the Laberinto brand, although a few months ago we tasted an unnamed version reserved exclusively for friends. The 1997 vintage still retains its youth, expression and liveliness. An elegant, complex and juicy wine that without doubt shows that the privilege of being synonymous with high-class Cabernet Sauvignon of unusual aging potential is no longer exclusive to Maipo Alto.

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is reinventing itself, conquering new latitudes and deepening its fresh and elegant personality. It has reclaimed its place of honor as the undisputed classic representative of Chilean viticulture and one of the most outstanding international references for this variety. Today, His Majesty reigns with renewed authority and, perhaps like never before, with a very natural and spontaneous style.



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