Exciting wines from Chile? A reality, thanks to Aurelio Montes

1 Apr

I was privileged to take wine recently with Aurelio Montes, a legend in his own Latin American lifetime.  A free thinker who believes his grapes and the men who tend them benefit from spiritual sustenance like beautiful music while they work, Montes is that rare creature among Chilean wine-makers, a risk-taker.

If Chile has been missing a mention in these pages, it’s because their wines tend to be so darn bland.   Reliable, yes – you’ll rarely find a £5 bottle of Chilean which is undrinkable(with the exception of some carmeneres) – but rarely exciting enough to write home about.   The Argentinians on the other side of the Andes have been making most of the wild experiments with varying degrees of success, but the result that much more excitement has been coming out of Mendoza than Casablanca, Colchagua and the Central Valley.

Montes, named 1995 Chilean Winemaker of the Year, has shown faith by expanding the Chilean terroir, planting grapes in a coastal valley where no wine-makers have attempted to cultivate before.   Namely in the hinterlands of Zapallar, a little Pacific beach resort where summer sea breezes and morning fog inform the wine, as does slow ripening during a cool autumn.

The Outer Limits experiment has worked; these are terrific wines, even given their hefty price points(around £17 for the beautiful, grassy but full Sauvignon Blanc, £27 for the  pinot noir, heady with violets, and the somewhat more austere CGM – carignan spiked with grenache and mourvedre).

The Icon range is an even riskier venture in a recession; for £30-plus per bottle, the drinker has a right to expect something out of the ordinary.   Folly. which commands £40,  is certainly an outstanding Syrah, with all the complexity the grape can offer; it would be hard to find a better partner for red meat.    However, I  take issue with Montes on Purple Angel.   Chile has embraced carmenere as its own, but there’s a reason it disappeared from European vineyards 150 years ago, and it may well be that austere aftertaste of burnt coffee.

However, Montes is to be applauded in every other respect – not least for making very drinkable wines at the £12.99 level; in this Alpha range, the Chardonnay is to be particularly recommended, with unusual apple and pineapple notes which lend it extra liveliness.   And he makes an entry-level range at £7.99 I will be prepared to take on trust if I come across it.

Montes says the secret of his wines is that he lays out the barrels on feng shui principles and plays Gregorian chants to them 24/7 while they mature.   It sounds daft, and is bound to have taken an extra investment in the winery.  But it’s all part of what makes Montes wines much more worth drinking than the average bottle of Chilean plonk – you can taste the investment.

Incidentally, Montes is now growing in Argentina, too, and bottling under the Kaiken label.  Naturally, there’s a Malbec, but I think I prefer his Chilean Malbec overall for its subtety, ditto Montes’s Chilean chardonnay to the Kaiken, which does not display the old-fashioned white Burgundy sumptuousness Argentina’s Catena Zapata winery has brought to this much-mistreated grape.

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