The Aconcagua valley presents the first time visitor with a surreal vista. From the flattened floodplain of the valley floor, mountains rise steeply on either side but only their rocky peaks are visible. Starting only a short distance down from their spires, and extending all the way to valley below, the mountains are wreathed in a bumpy, dense green outgrowth that makes them look like they've been carpeted with a dark Astroturf on a grand scale.
How someone figured out that they could grow avocados on slopes so steep I'd love to know. But once upon a time they did, so now the Aconcagua valley reserves its steepest slopes for avocados, while the vineyards begin as the hills slope shallowly towards the river below.
Less well-known to global consumers than the highly visible and successful valleys of Maipo or Casablanca, the Aconcagua region of Chile nonetheless has an incredibly long and celebrated history as a winegrowing region, if only thanks to one pioneering winery estate called Errazuriz.
Begun in 1870 by Don Maximiano ErrÃ¡zuriz in the tiny town of Panquehue, Errazuriz vineyards was, not long after its founding, one of the largest single-owner wine estates in the world, with 1730 acres planted in an area largely unknown for viticulture in Chile at the time. Don Maximiano was used to making big bets, however. As the part owner of the country's (and at one point, the world's) primary copper producer and the owner of the country's primary natural gas producer, Don Maximiano did not do anything half-heartedly. As the elder son of one of Chile's most influential families (of which 4 sons became presidents, 2 sons became archbishops, etc.) you might say it was in his blood.
Planted with cuttings imported from Europe, the estates vineyards were planted, cultivated, and vinified with a spare-no-expense approach that is much more common today than at the end of the 19th century. As a result, the estate has had the reputation of making some of Chile's best wine for nearly 100 years.
Given the power and influence of the family, it is perhaps less than remarkable that the winery continues to be run by one of Don Maximiano's descendants. President Eduardo Chadwick is the sole owner of Errazuriz, as well as a major shareholder in the other parts of the small wine empire that has accumulated over the past few decades, including the brands SeÃ±a and Chadwick.
Errazuriz is just completing construction of a brand new winery building that is one of the most stunning pieces of modern winery architecture I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I had the opportunity to walk through on my visit as the tanks were being moved in and fitted. Designed at a price of $50 million dollars by architect Samuel Claro, with the help of sustainability consultant Guillermo Hevia, the winery is masterful in its use of light, curved surfaces, and airflow, resulting in an incredibly compelling space that is naturally cooled from air recirculated from underground. The winery maintains a small web page with renderings of what it will look like when completely finished. This building will be used to produce the winery's flagship wines.
The estate's vineyards still include much of the land purchased by Don Maximiano when he built the estate, including around 35 acres of vineyards that rise up behind the winery to meet the descending carpet of avocado trees laid down by the neighbors. The winery owns several other vineyards clustered around the town of Panquehue, as well as a newer vineyard much farther west in the valley towards the ocean in a fog-influenced that was, until recently, thought to be too cold to grow wine grapes.
Winemaking at Errazuriz is overseen by Swiss winemaker Francisco Baettig with help from Purisima Vergara, and consultant Nick Goldsmith. The approach to making the wines, even at the lowest end of the portfolio, remains as it always has, one in which the expense is not necessarily correlated with the profit to be gained. Unlike many wineries in Chile, all the fruit for the wines is hand-picked in small bins and heavily sorted before fermentation. The reds typically undergo cold soaking and extended maceration, and the top reds are also fermented (at least partially) in oak.
Here are my notes on a selection of the winery's current releases that I tasted on my visit. Sadly, they did not include the La Cumbre wine, a Syrah that is one of the winery's top three wines.
2009 Errazuriz Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Aconcagua Coast
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of unripe pear and fuji apples with hints of green herbs. in the mouth it is zingy, with very sharp acidity that makes for very juicy fuji apple flavors and little hints of grassiness on the finish. Yum. From the winery's super-cool-climate vineyard near the coast in the Aconcagua valley. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $14. Click to buy.
2009 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, Aconcagua Coast
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of green olives, cut grass. In the mouth it is quite mineral in character with nice unripe apples, wet stones, and a beautiful finish that is slightly savory. Also from the winery's coastal vineyards, the fruit from this wine was macerated for six or seven hours and then fermented on the lees. 2800 cases were made. Score: around 9. Cost: $16. Click to buy.
2008 Errazuriz "Wild Ferment" Chardonnay, Casablanca Valley
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of melted butter, lemon curd, and pastry cream with an interesting savory note. In the mouth that savory note continues in a quite compelling way as the melted butter quality and pastry cream take on a little bit of a salty aspect that makes you want to swallow every bit of wine that gets in your mouth. Apple and lemon flavors make up the majority of the fruit, which linger with the salty note into the finish. Unique and compelling. 30 percent of the wine is aged in second-use French oak, the rest in stainless steel. 3400 cases are made. Score: around 9. Cost: $21. Click to buy.
2007 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Carmenere, Aconcagua Valley
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of chocolate, sweet tobacco, and cherry with a light herbal greenness. In the mouth it is plush and medium bodied, with a velvety texture to its soft tannins. Oak influenced, the wine is airy, and white quite tasty with cherry, red licorice and vanilla flavors, it seems to be missing a little something from the middle of the wine. High toned, but nonetheless delicious. It has a wonderful coffee with milk and vanilla finish. Contains 3% Syrah, which was macerated along with the rest of the grapes for 30 days and then aged in 50% French, 50% American oak (of which 70% of both were new) for 12 months. 20,000 cases were made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $21. Click to buy.
2007 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Shiraz, Aconcagua Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of stony black cherry and licorice aromas. In the mouth it is rich and round with back cherry and blackberry flavors touched with the sweet vanilla and toast of oak. Very faint tannins and good acidity make this wine an easy wine to drink as does a light mineral aspect. This wine has a very smooth quality. Quite tasty. Macerated for 20 days, the wine was aged in a blend of French and American oak of which about 30% was new. Score: around 9. Cost: $21. Click to buy.
2008 Errazuriz Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Aconcagua Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cassis and what I like to call grapey-purpleness. In the mouth it is somewhat thin with cherry and violet notes, very light, woody tannins and a high toned finish. 13.5% alcohol makes it quite easy to drink, but lacks complexity and excitement. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $14. Click to buy.
2007 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Aconcagua Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, wet slate, and a light briary note. In the mouth it is beautifully smooth, with cherry, black cherry, and hints of cedar. A mocha note emerges on the finish. Very nice, super smooth faint tannins, and this gorgeous texture make this a really seamless wine that is incredibly easy to drink. My notes have the word WOW underlined three times. In the quantities that this wine is made, and for the price, the wine is utterly stupendous. Run, don't walk, to your nearest wine store and buy as much as you can. A blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cab Franc, 2% Petite Verdot, and 1% Syrah, 110,000 cases are made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $21. Click to buy.
2007 Errazuriz KAI Don Maximiano Estate, Aconcagua Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of beautiful black cherry nose. In the mouth it is incredibly smooth with black cherry, mocha, very velvety tannins, the mocha note continues on the impressive finish. Beautifully structured and smooth with incredibly velvety tannins. Without a doubt one of the best Carmenere's I've ever tasted. Actually a blend of 86% Carmenere, 7% Petite Verdot, and 7% Syrah, the wine is aged in 100% new French oak for 18 months. 1100 cases are made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $80. Click to buy. (2007 vintage not fully released yet)
2007 Don Maximiano "Founder's Reserve," Don Maximiano Estate, Aconcagua Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of dark black cherry, wet slate, with notes of graphite and cedar. In the mouth it is broad shouldered and expansive with gorgeous rich flavors of black cherry, cherry and dark chocolate with incredible balance and acidity. Wonderfully drinkable. Loooooong finish. Classic. A blend of 82% Cabernet Sauvingon. 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petite Verdot, and 6% Syrah, the wine is aged for 20 months in 100% new French oak. 1600 cases are made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90. Click to buy. (2007 vintage not fully released yet).
As an interesting side note, the Founder's Reserve wine has been made for about 30 years, making it one of the oldest "icon" wines of Chile. Apparently, though, those early years weren't all that great, nor were they widely available, so only the last 15 years are considered truly commercially viable. But even so, that is a longer vertical of flagship wine than most producers in Chile can claim.