Almaviva: Chile’s grand opus turns 20

Almaviva is now 20 years old. This is the joint venture between Viña Concha y Toro, one of Chile’s largest wine companies, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, the parent company of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux. Almaviva was launched in 1997 as a Chilean-Bordeaux partnership akin to Opus One, Mouton’s joint venture with the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. The goal was to combine French winemaking with Chilean terroir and craft an icon wine for Chile that could stand among the best in the world.

I visited Almaviva earlier this month while in Santiago to judge the Catad’Or wine competition. Almaviva is located in the Maipo Valley on the outskirts of Santiago, just beyond where the freeway ends, though I suspect that description won’t last long as the city continues to expand. The winery draws upon the legends of the Maipu peoples, and the name means “living soul.”

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Maipu guardians keep watch at Almaviva.

Chile is taking two divergent paths to distinguish itself on the world wine market. Almaviva represents the first, an effort to prove Chile can produce world-class wines to stand tall among the best from France, California and – well, anywhere else in the world. The other path, which I will write about in future posts, seeks not to match the best of the world, but to reconnect with Chile’s history.

The 20th anniversary for Almaviva shows not just that the two partners in the joint venture have staying power and patience, but it is also a sign that their efforts are reaching some level of maturity. In May, I spoke to Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, vice chairman of Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA (and the baron’s grandson) in Washington. He described Almaviva as “a great team experience” but one that still has a long future ahead of it.

“Wine is an investment,” he said. “It takes time for the terroir to begin to express itself. Almaviva is already 20 years old, but it is only 20 years old. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

My hosts when I visited Almaviva were Francisco Zilleruelo, the commercial director, and Felipe Feliú, the export director. They explained that Almaviva was meant to combine Chilean terroir and the Carmenere grape with the French point of view of winemaking and marketing – Almaviva was the first non-French wine distributed through the Bordeaux negociant system. (Which may not make it easier to find, of course.)

And there’s irony to the emphasis on Carmenere, which my hosts readily acknowledged. When Almaviva was founded, the first few vintages featured “Merlot” in the blend, before they realized it was actually Carmenere. Lemonade from lemons, perhaps, but now Carmenere offers a link to Bordeaux’s pre-phylloxera past, when the variety was more prominent in top Bordeaux wines.

Zilleruelo and Feliú offered me a tasting of 12 vintages of Almaviva, along with an interesting presentation about the weather conditions for each – not just a summary of rain and sunshine, but a month-by-month breakdown that proved a worthwhile reminder that the amount of rain during a growing season is less important than its timing. It was the same tasting and presentation given at an Almaviva birthday event at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild during Vinexpo in June.

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My overall impression was the wines had impressive structure and mouthfeel, and they are aging well. Almaviva definitely strives for the ripe, powerful style rather than a classical Old World restraint, as the alcohol levels show.

But anyway, my notes on the vintages.

1996 – The first vintage, made from grapes from Concha y Toro’s top vineyards, mostly used for its Don Melchor icon wine. Fresh and peppery, with hints of graphite and dried flowers, beginning to show some brick color. Rainy during harvest. 13.5%.

1998 – An El Niño year, but the rain was mostly in July (winter!). Nice ruby color, with notes of tea, olives and black fruit, plus some menthol. Quite good, a little sharp on the finish. 13.5%.

1999 – (served during lunch, when everything tastes better) – A “classic” vintage with generous yields. This is savory, peppery, with some flinty minerality. Quite delicious and Bordeaux in style. 14.5%.

2001 – Another classical vintage, slightly cool and rainy during the winter. The wine is still dark in color, tannic but approachable, with flavors of black fruit, smoky tar and olives. 14.2%.

2002 – A drier, warmer year, not considered a “great” vintage. Rain was balanced throughout the season, a warm harvest 10 days earlier than normal. The wine is dark ruby, with aromas of cherries, tea, olives and some mint. Tannins are smoother and riper than the 2001. 14.5%.

2003 – Plenty of rain, but mostly in winter, similar to 2001. Cool, dry harvest. Vibrant ruby color, meaty, dark fruits, some chocolate, cocoa, flint and tobacco. Big, powerful, dry finish. This wine still tastes young. 14.5%.

2005 – Rain in November helped the growing season get underway. This was the first year Almaviva harvested by microzones, fermenting small lots and blending later, and it was the longest harvest to date. The wine is still purple in color. Big, meaty, sappy, savory and long, with drying tannins on the finish. 14.5%.

2007 – Warm season, cool harvest, low rainfall. Very expressive nose, with cocoa, dark fruit, beef, black olives. My favorite so far. (But remember, I’m more accustomed to drinking younger wines than old …). 14.5%.

2010 – The earthquake year – February 27, just before harvest season. Also the start of a string of cooler vintages with some drought conditions. Low yields, with a late, long harvest. The blend used less Cabernet Sauvignon, more Carmenere and Cabernet Franc. The wine was quite good and harmonious, though it seemed to be a bit hot on the finish. 14.5%.

2012 – Warm, dry year. Dark color, dark fruit, sappy and sweet mouthfeel, with the alcohol noticeable on the finish. 15%.

2013 – A cooler year, with lower than average rainfall, and another record-setting long harvest, concluding on May 30. Rain in October and December helped the vines later in the season. This wine featured dark chocolate and coffee flavors and a long finish. Despite the alcohol level, it did not taste hot. 15%.

2014 – A dry year, though the rainfall pattern was normal. Cooler temps in January through May meant another slow harvest. The wine is ripe, flinty, powerful and long. 15%.

2015 – Not yet released. Higher yields required cluster thinning. This wine seems to have an extra boost of fruit and tannin over the 2014, though it may be too soon to tell. 14.5%.

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About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of DrinkLocalWine.com, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (dmwineline.com).
This entry was posted in Chile, France, Wine and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Almaviva: Chile’s grand opus turns 20

  1. I was in Chile in the 1990s lecturing on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks and ampelographically checking mother vineyards for trueness to type. It was the first time I had seen Carmenere (which they were still calling “Merlot” and thought it was phenotypically more similar to Cab Franc of which it is a mutation I think. My thoughts at the time were “if you can’t fix it, feature it!” which is the course they took, thereby adding a nice layer of varietal complexity to “Bordeaux” blends.

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