What an intriguing and enchanting night! Get this, I am almost sandwiched between two very high profile wine writers (one an editor in chief of a top wine magazine, the other a noted taster and critic) and we are in the presence of Enrique Tirado, winemaker for Don Melchor.
Usually it’s fun to have the opportunity to be alone with the winemaker and question him or her about his approach, vineyard pests, and other obscure subjects of particular note to Master of Wine students, but last night – perhaps for the first time – it was just both fun and edifying to sit back and listen to my colleagues express their own opinion of the four vintages we tried (1995, 2001, 2005, and 2009) and also hear their very candid views about the position of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile in the world’s market.
As for myself, I liked all the vintages (yet favored the elegant 2001 and the firmly structured 2005) and was surprised by the power, elegance, and refinement of the wines, as well as the complexity, concentration of fruit, and the balance between the acid, tannin, and (subtle) oak in all the wines. The new debutante 2009 vintage was delicious, bold and finely balanced, very much drink now and can mature with decades of cellaring.
Speaking to Enrique before the dinner started, I was told it was 70% new oak, and all French.
According to Italo Jofre, Commercial Manager, the UK and USA are some of the best markets for this high end wine, which regularly gets high scores from all the important wine publications. Right now, the Asian market is paying particularly close attention to this icon wine.
Enrique joined the company in 1993 to lead its premium brands, and in 1997 he was appointed head winemaker to assume responsibility for its super premium and ultra premium labels in addition to Don Melchor. He is a very interesting individual — he looks a bit like an actor, very tall with the deep, concentrated brooding characteristic of his wines (though he is quick to smile and enjoys a good laugh). As the vineyard is an hour away from the large capital city of Santiago, one imagines he is on his own alot, pondering the moves that can make Don Melchor even better. Right now, he is planting Petite Verdot (he already adds a tiny percentage of Merlot and Cabernet Franc to some of the vines in certain years).
The Puente Alto vineyard in the Andean foothills on the north bank of the Maipo River. What’s special about it is the stony soil, and the cold wind from the Andes that keeps the grapes cool at night while the sun warms them during the day.
The dinner was also in honor of the newly released 2009 vintage, the 23rd for this icon of the Chilean wine industry.
Tirado describes 2009 as an extraordinary vintage. “It shows great fruit expression, pleasing acidity, and very good tannins that help it glide across the palate. The attack is mild, with a dense, elegant evolution, tremendous balance, and a persistent finish that recalls the fruit and freshness of Puente Alto Cabernet.”
According to Tirado, Don Melchor’s ripe tannins and quality are intimately tied to the levels of water restriction to the plants. This factor is crucial in the production of key phenolic compounds (notably anthocyanins and tannins), ripeness and concentration. “We have been measuring the internal water content of our plants with a Scholander pump since the 2003 season, and this allows us to better manage irrigation in the vineyard to guide the plants and enable them to reach the maximum level of maturation,” explains Tirado.
“The water restriction curves show that although 2009 was a warmer year, the Puente Alto terroir was able to naturally counteract the situation,” states Tirado. “This is explained primarily by the precipitation in the area, the influence of the Andes Mountains, well-managed irrigation and the tremendous capacity of the soil to deliver enough water to the plants at precise moments to achieve good growth and development without stopping or blocking maturation. These characteristics allow us to understand why Puente Alto is one of the world’s great terroirs.”
Temperature data show that the 2009 season was indeed warmer than the historic average, although thanks to the influence of the Andes, the nights always remained cool, crucial for maintaining acidity and freshness in the fruit. Tirado adds, “What is most surprising is Puente Alto’s consistency in maintaining this broad difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures year after year due to the proximity of the Andes.”
Annual precipitation reached a total of 14 inches, most of which fell in late winter and early spring. This natural reserve of water early in the season helped maintain a sound water level in the soil, allowing the plants to sustain healthy growth, and the subsequent formation and maturation of phenolic compounds.
The characteristics of Puente Alto’s Andean soils—of volcanic origin and alluvial at depth—ensure good drainage and also allow the plants to extend their roots to great depths to subterranean water supplies without exposure to abrupt or excessive temperature changes. The plants are firmly rooted in the soil, and are therefore less sensitive to external conditions.
Furthermore, the stones or gravel—rounded by the displacement that took place in the past during the great mudslides in the Andes Mountains—remain cooler and condense water on their surface. This allows the roots to absorb enough water for the plant to continue working and not enter into a state of blockage due to excessive water stress.
At one point in the evening, Enrique pulled out an ipad to show us climate charts over the years … irrigation usually starts after veraison, though it changes from year to year, with water retention being a key element in the quality of the wine.
Very impressed by the wine which, going by the 1995, can age for twenty to thirty years and keep going strong.