By Celia Strong
This week we are going to travel a long way to learn about vineyards that are known for their Cabernets. No, we are not going to Napa Valley — believe it or not, there are other sources in the world for great Cabernet wines. Instead, we are visiting South America and the vineyards of Chile.
Wine production in Chile dates back to the 16th century when Spanish conquistadors brought “vitis vinifera” vines into the country. In the mid-19th century, grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, were introduced.
Skipping forward to the 1980’s, though, we get to more modern winemaking. Stainless steel fermentation tanks came to Chile and oak barrels for aging their wines also. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of wineries in Chile went from 12 to over 70. Currently, Chile is the ninth largest wine-producing country in the world, and the fifth largest exporter.
In December 1994, their wine regions became official. Today, we are going to learn about one of these: The Colchagua Valley. Colchagua is like a Grand Cru appellation for Cabernets. (Other Chilean wine laws were established at the same time as their regions. There are no restrictions on grapes. Any variety can be grown anywhere. A wine has to be at least 75 percent the named variety, though, if it’s going to be drunk in Chile. Exported wines have to be at least 85 percent. If a particular wine region is named on the label, 85 percent of the grapes have to come from that region. The term “reserve” does not have any legal meaning, but it can be important to the wines of one winery.)
Like European appellation systems, in Chile, wine areas are defined in larger to smaller areas, with the smaller ones producing specific style wines, all supposedly better. Colchagua is a zone located within the Rapel Valley sub-region, which is located within the main Central Valley region. The Colchagua Valley is about 92 miles south of Santiago and follows the Tinquiririca River along the foothills of the Andes Mountains westward to the Pacific Ocean. The river provides a steady source of irrigation water in an otherwise dry area. The Colchagua Valley is about 70 miles wide, at its widest point, and about 2,200 square miles overall. The climate is a warm Mediterranean one. The soils are clay and sand and decomposed granite. Quality grapes are grown on the hillsides, where warm days are tempered by cool night breezes. We have seen many times before how these up and down temperatures make for more and better flavors in the grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere and Syrah are the main varieties grown here — reds! Many experts think this valley is comparable to Napa Valley. And we all know about Napa Cabs, don’t we?
Cabernet Sauvignon is a fairly new grape, at least compared to how old some other “vinifera” varieties are. It was “made” by a chance crossing of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, in southwestern France, in the 17th century. Cabernet grapes can grow more easily in more soil types; they have thicker skins than most other varieties, so they bud and ripen later, about two or three weeks behind Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Growing climates are important. As an example, in cooler climates, its vines will put more energy into making foliage. And, vineyard management in cooler regions makes pruning important.
When making Cabernet wines, all sorts of options are available. Blending is the first. This is one grape that plays well with others. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and some Malbec, Petit Verdot or Carmenere come together to make what is a typical Bordeaux blend. Beyond that, Syrah/Shiraz, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and other grapes also go well with Cabernet. Blending before, during or after fermentation are choices for winemakers. Maceration time (juice sitting with its skins) makes a difference. Longer sitting time makes wines with more tannins and flavors, but the wines must age longer to develop properly. Temperature of the fermentation, too, makes a difference. Warmer fermentations, like 86 degrees Fahrenheit, make more complex flavors and deeper colored wines. Cooler fermentation enhances fruit flavors. And, then there’s the oak. Cabernet has a great affinity for oak. The vanilla and spice flavors of the wood work well with the black currant and tobacco flavors of the wines.
But, we need to see about Cabernet in Colchgua. The late-ripening Cab does well in the warm vineyards and dry climate in this valley. The grapes ripen more fully, and they make wines with rich fruit flavors. A perceived sweetness is noticeable in Colchagua wines because the grapes get so ripe. The acidity levels of the wines are lower and the tannins are softer, making the wines more approachable sooner.
All of which gets us to our winery — Primus, a branch of the Chilean Veramonte Winery. The Primus vineyards are located in Marchigue, a Colchagua sub-region. They are 28 miles due east of the Pacific Ocean with a warm climate that is moderated by two mountain ranges that run north to south. The clay and loam soil is well drained and has rocky materials that make for great Cabernet growing conditions. Primus has 190 acres of vineyards. Using the latest viticultural technology from California, their rootstocks are matched to each site and grape clone.
In winemaking, Primus is very detail oriented, like all great wines. Yields are kept low, two to three tons per acre. This ensures concentration and intensity in the grapes’ flavors and textures. All their grapes are hand harvested and double sorted before crushing. Only the most pristine grapes end up being used for their wines. The wines are aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, about one quarter of them new each year.
The Primus Cabernet is 95 percent Cab, with 5 percent Syrah. This wine is elegant. It has plum and cassis (black currant) flavors, with rich red berries, some chocolate, some baking spices, some coffee; layers of flavors. With smooth, mild tannins, it is ready to drink. (Primus also makes a blend, called The Blend, that is Cabernet with Carmenere, Syrah and Merlot.)
And, lucky us, we can have the Primus Cabernet Sauvignon in two sizes. The 750 milliliter bottle, for $18.99 and the liter and a half bottle, for $34.99. With all the dinners and parties ahead, it’s time to call a cab. Oops, I mean a Cabernet. Enjoy.