Icon Wines: A Religious Experience
Not only do they include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carmenère or some ingeniously crafted red blends. Icon wines represent a winery’s quality potential, the desire to reach a higher status, and an attempt to convey an identity that is both attractive and unique.
Nobody, or almost nobody, is fully convinced about using the term “icon”, but most wineries use it anyway to refer to their top-of-the-line bottlings, those that sell
for USD 100 or more, successfully competing in the Major Leagues against their mythical old World counterparts and the insolently proud New World benchmark wines. Some will argue this is a rather ostentatious name and others will find it tawdry. But the fact is that the wines can be enjoyed by anybody who can appreciate them and realize how far Chilean wines have gone in the last couple of decades.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines icon as “a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians.” Strictly speaking, then, the meaning of this word is far from the “super premium” notion wineries strive to convey, though it still wraps these wines in a
shroud of mystery, spiritualism, dogma and, in many cases, insubstantiality. Uncorking an icon wine can be at the same time a religious and a very mundane experience. Not only will the consumer be savoring what’s inside the bottle, probably a winery’s entire philosophy, but he will also be swallowing a certain ambition to climb to a higher status.
Twenty years ago, these wines were barely, if at all, produced in Chile. Probably Don Melchor from Concha y Toro, the Cabernet Sauvignon born at the foot of the Andes, was the only true reflection of the enormous potential of chilean wines. Today, most wineries – some as a result of the natural evolution of their work in the vineyards and others for commercial reasons – have presented their candidates at the hall of fame. Featuring an icon wine in one’s portfolio has become like an imperative, an absolute must.
A SENSE OF ORIGIN
From the successful blind tastings in which Eduardo Chadwick confronts his Errázuriz wines with the “icons” of the French and Italian wine industries, to the “Top 1” obtained by Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta 2005 in Wine Spectator’s Annual Ranking, Chilean wines have not only proven their increasing quality but also begun to show the world a certain style and, perhaps, an identity that is as attractive as it is singular.
According to Álvaro Espinoza, winemaker of Viñedos Emiliana, the biodynamic “G” denotes a specific origin. Although in this blend Syrah and Carmenère lead the
band, the wine is above all a reflection of the potential the Colchagua-based Los Robles estate has to offer.
The tasting notes suggest that G is a ripe wine with expressive and concentrated fruit, a dense, almost chewable structure, very forward toasted and vanillin notes from the barrel and extremely smooth tannins. True, the wine is high on alcohol, but this is nothing but the reflection of the warm climate that dominates Colchaguan hillsides. It just reflects the warm climate of the Colchaguan hillsides.
José Miguel Sotomayor, winemaker of Viña Santa Cruz, has also chosen Syrah and the sense of origin to design his top of the line. “Tupu represents lolol (a fresher sub-valley within Colchagua) and a 4-year research on vineyard soils and mesoclimates. Syrah is the backbone of our wine. Carmenère bestows its silkiness, Cabernet Sauvignon its frankness and red fruit, and Malbec its floral character and lots of freshness. I am often asked why I don’t just make a great Cabernet Sauvignon or a Carmenère. Simply because this is the best way in which I can reflect what lolol really is about,” he explains.
Another player that has gambled on Syrah is Viña Maipo. A unit of the Concha y Toro group and ranking fourth in export volume, the winery has pioneered the introduction of this variety in Chile. According to its winemaker Max Weinlaub, the project started at the same time as the Guillame nursery 20 years ago (even before Errázuriz, which is usually credited with the introduction).
Today, the winery owns nearly 10 hectares of Syrah in Quinta de Maipo which have been grafted on 60+ year-old Cabernet Sauvignon and Sémillon rootstocks. These very balanced plants allow the variety to reach the quality levels required to bottle the wine that crowns the winery’s portfolio: Limited Edition Syrah 2007.
On the other hand, the idea was to give a new breath to this winery born in the late 1940s, which until now was best known for its bulk production and its varietal and reserve lines sold by offshore retailers. “8 years ago we made the decision to reposition the winery and elevate it to a premium level, choosing Syrah to stand apart from other companies in the group and to make the best out of this true viticultural treasure we have in Buin,” he explains.
For Max Weinlaub, the word “icon” sounds a bit snobbish and market-oriented. “The important thing is to be able to establish a clear difference between our products and to have a concept that is truly unique and special. To that end, you need to be extremely consistent and fully understand your brand philosophy. We could have made a wine with several varieties and origins, but instead we opted for what’s essential, basic and particular,” he says.
PURE CHILEAN SPIRIT
Until fairly recently, most Chilean icon wines were either Cabernet Sauvignon or used CS as their base. But things have changed and the story has taken a new twist. Clos Apalta, for example, now includes a significant percentage of Carmenère (the label used to read Merlot). Today, the number of wineries that utilize this variety to produce their icon wines has multiplied: Carmín de Peumo from Concha y Toro, Alka from Hacienda Araucano, Pehuén from Santa Rita, Purple Angel from Montes, Kai from Errázuriz and Microterroir from Casa Silva.
“I am the number 1 fan of Carmenère for icon wines. We need to make wines that are both distinct and drinkable. The great Cabernet Sauvignons are like a wild stallion, muscular and highly structured. Surely critics will find them awesome, but they will hardly finish a bottle. Carmenère allows you to achieve the same concentration but with a smoothness that is absolutely unique,” says José Ignacio Maturana, winemaker of Casa Silva.
The origin of the vines also plays an important part. The Carmenère that grows in Colchagua – the home of casa silva’s vineyards – shows great consistency both inland and along the foothills. It is for this reason that Carmenère dominates the 2004 version of Altura, with 50%, followed by 32% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Petit Verdot (this last variety is Colchagua’s latest star, but that is another story).
Viñedos Puertas has also placed its chips on Carmenère. Its Tronador line has been warmly received both in its natal Curicó and internationally, and Parnasso captivates with its elegance and classy demeanor. This icon wine’s 2003 vintage – and also its first – won the Great Gold Medal at the “Carmenère del Maule” competition held under the certification of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. A newcomer giving a master class, how good is that?
According to winemaker Carlos Torres, Carmenère not only proves its unlimited potential in the vineyards of this family winery, but also constitutes a differentiating element together with the rodeo horses bred in El Milagro, a property of José Puertas Esteban, the winery owner. “Besides its excellent quality, we wanted to endow our icon with pure chilean spirit,” the winemaker comments.
Cremaschi Furlotti has followed suit, choosing Carmenère as the base for its icon wine. Winemaker Rodrigo González says the story behind this choice is rather romantic. Vénere (the Greek name for Venus) was conceived as a feminine wine, where Carmenère is accompanied by two lovers that complement it: Cabernet Sauvignon, which adds structure and longevity to the blend, and Syrah, which confers complexity, floral aromas and freshness.
“This is a very personal inspiration,” the winemaker explains. “I found all those full-bodied wines a bit too heavy, so I wanted to do something completely different and part from the icon wine stereotype.”
AGAINST THE FLOW
Although to many winemakers Syrah is Alto Cachapoal’s inherent variety, Altaïr boasts a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. Now, this is not winemaker Ana María Cumsille’s whim. On the contrary, her decision is supported by sound technical reasons.
“Alto Cachapoal’s best bottlings are either Cabernet Sauvignon or blends. They are elegant, fresh and boast a non-alcoholic character. One season may well be hotter than another, yet their acidity remains unchanged. In this land, Cabernet attains astounding balance,” she explains.
The breeze blows through mountain foothills, cooling down the vineyards and helping fruit ripe at a slower pace than in interior valleys. The low pH found in grapes and the tannic structure of Cabernet mix to perfection to produce
a wine with sublime finesse that relies on a winemaking technique just as elegant. The outcome is a wine that stands out effortlessly.
Now, what’s the point of persisting on Cabernet Sauvignon in a country overpopulated by this variety and striving to compete against Alto Maipo’s top-of-the-line bottlings? That’s an easy one: “Alto Cachapoal is subject to less marketing efforts, yet its wines successfully stand up to Alto Maipo.
They are not better or worse, only different. Altaïr is not the competition stereotype wine. Far from a powerful or concentrated wine, Altaïr’s attributes are elegance and sophistication,” the winemaker says.
Another definitely out-of-the-ordinary wine is the now classic Valdivieso’s Caballo Loco. This blend, named after Jorge Coderch’s nickname (one of the partners in the winery), is one of a kind, but also one of the Chilean icon wines that has gotten the farthest. With an appealing label and the blend components as the best kept secret, Caballo Loco honors the style that sent it off on a crazy race: every year, a portion of the blend is kept and that portion is used as half of the following year’s blend.
Brett Jackson, Valdivieso’s new Zealand-born winemaker, reluctantly admits that Malbec gains increasingly more ground in Caballo Loco’s final blend: “I’m after a fruitier character,” he says. However, the wine expresses freely, with great docility, like a horse that gallops at sound and elegant pace. Brett lets the reins go loose and the wine does the rest.
STYLE AND PHILOSOPHY
Interestingly, talking about icon wines has turned into some kind of controversial thing. Pushed by market preferences or by the statements of 2 or 3 critics, these wines are renowned for their high concentration and ripeness, and sweet and gentle tannins that always rely heavily on a new barrel that contributes structural soundness and the popular vanilla, chocolate and cinnamon flavors.
“The style of these wines is heavily influenced by what Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator have to say. Unfortunately, it seems that you need to meet all the stereotypes to be able to say you’re making an icon wine. But, let us not forget that it’s the critics, rather than the market itself, that set those stereotypes. At least to me wine doesn’t need to be extremely dense and structured, otherwise it becomes vulgar,” José Miguel Sotomayor affirms.
The barrel is a particularly sensitive issue. “The problem is that these wines run some kind of marathon and they need to cross the finish line in good shape. The tannic character from the barrel is like pumping oxygen to a wine when climbing a mountain. Wines in this price range need to be longer lived. they need to attain the longest possible shelf life. They can’t simply yield after 3 or 4 years,” José Ignacio Maturana explains.
Álvaro Espinoza believes there’s some room for creativity, which should not be overdone because, after all, they need to be commercially viable. “You take vanillin out of the equation and you’ll see how your scores plunge. And I’m not only talking about G here, but also about Antiyal. I’ve seen it myself: When the barrel is brand new, scores rise to 94 and even though Antiyal is a family project, it needs to be profitable. I don’t have the pressures a company like Emiliana suffers, but I do have to deal with my wife!” (Marina, who is in charge of sales), he laughs.
According to the winemaker, the same is true in Chile, where a double speech tends to dominate the scene. While critics ask for lower alcohol content and barrel aging, when it comes to blind tastings it’s precisely the ‘other’ wines that get the highest scores. “Critics talk about one thing but give the highest scores to something totally different. More words than actions. actually, it’s more like a longing,” he asserts.
On the other hand, there’s the commercial pressure to release these wines ahead of time, when they still need to age in the bottle. Although Chilean wines are “made” much earlier than French or Italian ones, a few more months of cellaring would undoubtedly help curb those tannins and blend them with those of the barrel.
“No way. Don’t even think about touching Vénere. It’ll do at least 3 years of aging before launching. We had no 2002 and 2004 vintages simply because I found that the quality of the grapes was wanting,” Rodrigo González rushes to say.
Price is another issue. Many icon wines are sold for over USD 100.00 due to commercial rather than enological criteria since offering a wine in that segment shows the winery’s quality potential and helps spur sales of varietals and reserve wines.
Producing an icon or higher quality wine is a long road of ongoing learning. “It needs to be a process that reaches completion on its own, naturally and subject to no pressure whatsoever. Marketing and communication do not suffice. That wine will eventually portray the winery’s style,” José Ignacio Maturana comments.
Rather than a mission statement, icon wines represent the philosophy of the winery turned into wine (where critics have no say).
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