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24/10/2017

Chile: no tricks, just magic

by Sylvain Lepeltier (Spain & New World Buyer)

If there is one thing I love most about my work, it’s when I enrol on a wine trip. This is partly because there is a sense of freedom and adventure - but most importantly because it opens your mind and gives you the best understanding of the terroir you are visiting and the philosophies of the winemakers you are meeting. This time I was about to learn from a country envied throughout the wine world for its lack of vine pests, its reliably warm, dry summers, and an infinite supply of water from the melted snow of the Andes. Yes: I was heading for the winemaking paradise that is Chile!

The invitation came from Eduardo Chadwick, and thanks to his generosity I was boarding the 13 hour flight with my colleague David Thomas to explore new horizons.

After arrival at Santiago airport, we slowly (thanks to airport administration) made our way to Vina del Mar, a coastal town near Valparaiso where we would touch base for the start of our trip. It was at this beautiful hotel abutting the Pacific Ocean where we were welcomed by Eduardo and his team. After a quick lunch, during which we faced, and admired, the sheer brute force of the Pacific, it was time for our first visit – to the Vina Errazuriz owned Las Pizarras. Acquired in 2005 and located only 12 kilometres away north east of Vina del Mar in the Aconcagua Costa appellation, the western part of the Aconcagua Valley (named after the highest mountain outside the Himalayas), Las Pizarras is considered one of the most exciting finds in Chile and we were about to find out why.

Vina Errazuriz

Vina Errazuriz

Tasting at Las Pizarras

There the scenery is formed of beautiful green rolling hills and as we entered the Aconcagua estate we could already see why and how the differences of micro-climates, soil types, and multiple exposures makes this a perfect place for single vineyard expression. The cool breeze driven by the Pacific’s icy Humboldt current was quite noticeable and, with the exact same effect as it has thousands of miles further north up the coast in coastal California, has the effect of helping grapes maintain enough fresh acidity to make very precise wines. It wasn’t just the wines that were spectacular, as the tasting spot afforded us a full 360-degree view on the surrounding vineyards. After trying the estate Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah (which I thought was particularly delicious with real purity and vibrancy) we moved on to the two main wines of Las Pizarras (meaning slate in Spanish), their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These are quite exceptional - extremely elegant, fine, mineral wines very reminiscent of Grand Cru Burgundy. Years of mapping in collaboration with French oenologist Francoise Vannier-Petite and other Burgundy specialists certainly helped in identifying the best plots, in particular those formed of schist, volcanic rock, basalt and andesite. These wines really show what can be done when detailed, terroir-driven work combines with minimal intervention in the cellar. Day 1 was off the charts and the thought of going to Vina Sena the following morning helped going through the disappointment of leaving such a special place.

Sena Winery

Vina Sena

The next morning David and I had the good fortune of travelling East in Eduardo Chadwick’s car, driven by the man himself: Direction Vina Sena, a vineyard which took Eduardo 4 years to find with the help of Robert Mondavi. Visiting Sena was a truly magical moment. This incredible hillside vineyard, 41km from the ocean, is nothing short of spectacular; Eduardo and his team’s work on biodynamics have resulted in an incredible ecosystem enhancing its naturally gifted terroir. Words aren’t enough to describe how impressive the experience was. The views onto the valley floor and the Andes are embedded in my mind for life! And the wines... well, the vertical tasting was eye-opening. It is undeniable that they have worked to find their identity over the years, with the public’s preference for cooler vintages driving them towards a fresher style. Not only are the vines giving better grapes with age, but Eduardo’s team have tuned the blending ratio of grapes to grow both finesse and complexity (Cabernet dialled down in favour of more Carmenere, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot). We could also tell the impact chief winemaker Francisco Baettig has had as well over the years since joining in 2005, towards fresher, more elegant wines. This graduate from renowned Bordeaux Oenology University (passed with highest honours) is one of the most talented of his generation. Francisco works to find greater elegance through precise balance of acidity, fruit concentration and tannin maturity. Vinification techniques, maceration time, use of oak and barrel ageing are amongst the key factors which have been finely tuned.

Tasting at Vina Sena with Eduardo Chadwick

In my opinion the 2015, the most recent vintage, represents the finest, most elegant example of what Chile – not just Vina Sena – can produce.

Lunch on the mirrador of Sena was very enjoyable and as soon as I was soaking up the surrounding views one last time, we were heading off to the Don Maximiano estate and Errazuriz historical cellar, located deeper in-country at Panquehue, a more continental part of the Aconcagua Valley. The historical building and winery of Don Maximiano Errazuriz (built in 1870) which sits next to the new ‘Icon’ winery – which could belong next to any top Bordeaux or Napa estate – shows an amazing contrast. It is representative of the drive towards the future while not forgetting its past and roots.

Whilst we were here Eduardo told us a bit more about the Berlin Tasting in 2004 when his wines reached 2nd and 1st place when blind tasted with Solaia, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite, Margaux and Latour to name a few. In the wine business, if there is one exercise which everyone respects, it is blind tasting. Not only did Eduardo have great success with the Berlin tasting in 2004 (which could be seen like another Judgement of Paris but for Chilean wines), but he created this tasting 22 times around the world. After reaching more than 1400 experts worldwide, Chilean wines were placed in the top 3 in 20 out of the 22 events, achieving a remarkable 90% in overall results and on many occasions beating the best wines from Bordeaux, California and Tuscany. I can’t really think of anything of that scale being achieved previously and it will probably be never surpassed. Click here to watch the Berlin Tasting Documentary.

Next up was a tasting of Le Cumbre, Kai and a vertical of Don Maximiano from 1983 to 2015. It was clear the wines had more power and punch than the ones we had been trying so far, mainly due to the fact they come from a more inland, continental, warmer place. However the acquisition over the years of different parcels in the valley helped to increase balance and complexity as the vintages went by. To build our appetite, we visited the nearby hillside vineyards which give you another incredible view over the valley – and a chance to see what Eduardo and his ancestors have achieved over the past 150 years.

It was time for another epic dinner, which included scallops, sweet breads, king crabs and BBQ lamb “Francis Mallmann style” (The ones who watched Chef’s Table will know, others should really watch it!) As the sun was setting, lighting the sky with incredible colours, dinner was finishing and it was time for us to go back to Santiago and check in to our new hotel. Once there, we had a few drinks at the bar, not wanting this incredible day to finish. As the pianist in the bar lounge was taking a long time to set up, we asked the barman if there was a problem. He told us he wasn’t in fact the pianist but a magician who had to come back to the lounge as he had lost his phone during one of his tricks! A story you can’t make up was the best way to end up what had been a crazy, unforgettable day.

Dinner at Vina Errazuriz Historical Estate

As always with these trips the best things are usually saved until last and the final day was devoted to Vinedo Chadwick, located in the Maipo Valley, only a short distance from Santiago. This drew parallels with Bordeaux and the proximity of Haut Brion and La Mission with Bordeaux city centre. Vinedo Chadwick, the house where Eduardo grew up, was bought by his father Don Alfonso in 1945. Don Alfonso was considered one of Chile’s best polo players and converted his front lawn into a polo field where he notably played with Prince Philip himself! He captained Chile’s team and went on to win 19 open championships; he even once beat their fierce rivals, the notoriously ‘best in the world, Argentina.

Late in his life, while Don Alfonso was ailing, Eduardo asked him if he could convert his beloved polo fields into a vineyard. Don Alfonso accepted but passed away the year after and never saw the finished project of what would become Chile’s iconic wine Vinedo Chadwick. Located in Puente Alto, this area is widely considered as the best Chilean terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s no surprise therefore that 5 years later Mouton Rothschild would plant vines right next to Vinedo Chadwick to create Almaviva.

We moved to the tasting room for a vertical tasting from 1999 to 2015 and in a similar way to Sena, we mostly enjoyed the cooler vintages and saw the increasing influence of Francisco Baettig towards fresher, more elegant wines. However if Sena has a beautiful lightness which could be compared to a First Growth Right Bank, Vinedo Chadwick is more akin to an amazing Pauillac. It has great structure, intense fruit concentration but still a great freshness thanks to the ever-present cool wind of the Andes. A fierce debate took place on who preferred the 2014 (first Chilean 100Pts) and the 2015 (99Pts) and while we concluded the margins were very small between the bottles, the 2015 was in my opinion another display of the sheer excellence of what Chile can produce.

Vines at Vinedo Chadwick

We sat down for a fantastic lunch at the terrace of the old family home which was washed down with the 2004 Vinedo Chadwick – a very difficult vintage in Chile. But truly great wines show their terroir in difficult vintages and this was no exception. We finished up lunch with an extraordinary bottle of the 2000 vintage, the now iconic wine which took first spot at the Berlin tasting, beating Lafite 2000 and Latour 2000!  What a way to finish what had been an unforgettable three days.

Family Home of Vinedo Chadwick

It was time to go back to the airport and prepare ourselves for the 14 hour flight back which delivered stunning views across the Andes. A colossal chain of mountains like these must be an inspiration to anyone living by their side. Eduardo Chadwick and the team directed by Francisco have certainly created something gigantic and unique in the likes of Las Pizarras, Don Maximiano, Sena and Vinedo Chadwick and it is no surprise that with pure obsession and hard work they have put Chile well into the top echelons of the world’s finest wine regions. 

View from Sena's Mirador

Vina Sena