Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac, has
succeeded through its Almaviva joint venture with Vina Concho y Toro in creating a Bordeaux-style Chilean wine that sells for more than $100 a bottle in the U.S.
While that’s a testament to 20 years of investment and experience, and has shown what Chilean
vineyards can produce, there remains a drive to improve and refine the product, even as the
winemaking team grapples with a recent trend in the country toward greater aridity, as well as the more familiar challenge of periodic cool vintages.
``We’ve been working on the quality of the tannins, looking for more finesse, more elegance,’’ head winemaker Michel Friou said during a presentation in June of past vintages back to 1996. ``These last few years have been almost 30 percent drier than usual.’’
Almaviva was set up by Baronne Philippine de Rothschild in 1997 along with Eduardo Guilisasti Tagle, president of Vina Concha y Toro SA. It was modelled along similar lines to the French family holding’s existing Opus One joint venture in California’s Napa Valley with Robert Mondavi. It is also part of a wider move among Bordeaux wine estates to look to international ventures and partnerships to broaden their own experience and export techniques developed over centuries to New World wineries.
Almaviva is situated in the Maipo Valley, very close to Santiago. Both Maipo and Napa are wetter in winter and drier in summer than Bordeaux, with Maipo being drier than either California or the Medoc. While average rainfall at Almaviva’s Puente Alto site is around 340 millimeters a year, in the five years from 2011 to 2015 it was consistently below 300 millimeters, forcing regular irrigation of the vineyards from its own well sunk deep into the rock.
The site covers 85 hectares, of which 68 hectares are vineyard and 60 hectares currently in
production. Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the blend, with Carmenere, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot making up the balance.
Friou, speaking at the tasting held at Chateau Clerc Milon, a close neighbour of Mouton and under the same ownership, said that one of the key points about the Almaviva vineyard site is the proximity of the Andes, which makes Puente Alto cooler.
``That means a very slow ripening process, which gives a special balance between the alcohol and the acidity.’’
Almaviva produces between 140,000 and 180,000 bottles of its main wine annually and between
30,000 and 45,000 bottles of its second wine. Some 90 percent is sold through Bordeaux merchants.
The first vintage in 1996 was a blend of 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 19 percent Carmenere and 6 percent Cabernet Franc, aged in new oak for 16 months.
``It was only in 2006 that we started to use a bit of Merlot,’’ Friou said. ``We thought we had Merlot before, but discovered it was Carmenere.’’ Merlot was planted in 2001 and from 2010 Petit Verdot started to be added to the wines.
The 1998 wines were ``considered as a weak vintage, but we have been very happy to rediscover them through the years and see how complex they have become,’’ Friou said.
2001 he described as a ``classical year,’’ 2002 a ``warm vintage’’ and 2003 characterized by a hot month of March approaching the harvest.
In 2005 the vineyard started to be divided into micro zones, which ``helped us get more precision in the wines’’ and also ``a smoother quality of tannins,’’ according to Friou.
He said the wines sell for about $120 a bottle in the U.S.