Chile is one of the top 10 wine producing countries in the world and the majority of their wine is made by a handful of wineries. At the top of that list is Concha y Toro with over 1 million litres produced from 15 facilities across the country, along with 1 in Argentina, and 1 in California. While we typically search out small, boutique, artisanal wineries (and we found some gems in Chile), Concha y Toro has proven that size doesn’t always matter when it comes to making high quality wine.
Winemaking in Chile dates back to the 16th century where at that time production was largely by way of unsophisticated techniques that resulted in simple wines meant to be enjoyed young with little thought to cellaring. In the 19th century, wealthy businessmen travelling to Europe started bringing Bordeaux varieties back to Chile to plant on their properties. They also brought with them French winemaking techniques that transformed Chile’s wine reputation from quaffable to world-class.
One of those wealthy businessmen was Melchor Concha y Toro. He and his wife Emiliana Subercaseaux (also from a very prominent family) built their summer home in 1835 on 54 acres in the Maipo Valley, just 30 minutes from the Andes Mountains. They hired a French landscaping artist to design the home and surrounding property in an English-Victorian style, complete with an artificial lake, and trees imported from North America and Europe.
In 1883, Melchor planted several varieties from Bordeaux on his property including Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc…and Vina Concha y Toro was born. Though no one lives in the original summer home which still stands on the edge of the lake and adorns some of their labels, there are still approximately 68 hectares of planted vineyards though the original property is mainly used to host visitors and tell the history of the winery.
68ha would be a substantial amount of vines for any small, boutique winery, but it makes up barely 1% of what Concha y Toro owns today, which is approximately 28,000 acres. 80% of their vineyards are in Chile divided among 9 different wine regions, with the balance in Mendoza, Argentina and Sonoma, California. While it’s not the oldest winery in Chile, it is the largest in both Chile and throughout Latin America in terms of production.
Geographically speaking, Chile is a wine region with the ability to grow many different grape varieties. In terms of consumption, the most popular white wine is Sauvignon Blanc while the most popular red wine by a long shot is Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the whites are grown closer to the Pacific Ocean where the cooler climates are (Casablanca, Valparaiso), and the red wines are grown closer to the mountains. Concha y Toro grows Cabernet Sauvignon more than any other grape and the Maipo Valley provides perfect growing conditions with its warm, dry climate.
To demonstrate the diversity of varieties able to thrive in the country, the winery has built a garden in a circular shape that displays the 26 most planted varieties; 13 whites make up one side of the circle and 13 reds complete the other side. This varietal garden has been built for the sole purpose of educating visitors and provides an effective visual lesson for any wine enthusiast.
In terms of vine age, Concha y Toro believes that their vines are at their best between the ages of 30 to 40 years. While they do have some very old vines at 150 years old in Chile, they don’t use fruit for production from vines older than 50. They use standard vertical trellising, drip irrigation in the spring and summer, and their canopy management practices work to remove leaves to ensure direct sunlight on the fruit. Harvest typically starts at the beginning of February when they pick their white grapes, the majority of the reds will be picked in March, and their Carmenère will be picked last usually the first or second week in May.
As we wandered through the main building onsite, we were shown their ‘mother’ cellar from which most of their facilities throughout the country are modeled after. They use air conditioners to control temperature and humidifiers to control humidity. The building housing this cellar was built in the 1960s but it required a partial rebuild after the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the region in 2010. While the walls were successfully rebuilt, that earthquake resulted in the loss of 80,000 litres of wine at this cellar alone, sadly there is no reproducing that lost juice.
The one cellar that has stood the test of time at the winery despite the regularly occurring earthquakes is the Casillero del Diablo, or “Devil’s Cellar”. The original cellar is still standing 4 metres underground and legend has it that the devil himself is its guardian. The Legend began over a hundred years ago after Melchor’s cellar, filled with his best wine, was robbed. Furious, he started a rumour that the cellar was haunted by the devil and used special effects such as lights, masks, dogs and fires to perpetuate it. It didn’t take long before the Legend took on a life of its own among the local residents which seems to have had the desired efffect-since that day not one bottle has been stolen.
As our guide relayed the story to us, she led us down the stairs into the Casillero del Diablo where she turned off the lights, wished us good luck and closed the large cellar doors behind us. After a few moments of dark silence, the story was brought to life through a light and sound show with a narrator’s voice relaying the myth in greater detail. We survived unscathed and made our way out of the cellar ready to taste the treasure that has been so rigorously protected.
Like many of the larger producers, Concha y Toro has several brands at different levels of quality. During the tour itself, we tasted 3 wines from their “premium” collection which were the Casillero del Diablo Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon. After the tour we were taken to a private room for a tasting before lunch that included samples from their “fine wine” collection. Here the jump in quality was noticeable and included the 2015 Gravas Blancas Sauvignong Blanc, the 2015 Maycas del Limari Chardonnay, a 2017 Carmin de Peumo Carmenère, and the Almaviva Epu Bordeaux blend.
We then moved to the restaurant for lunch where we were spoiled with their two very best wines: the 2016 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2017 Almaviva, a project with Baron de Philippe Rothschild. As our tasting notes will show below, they were two of the best wines we tasted in Chile.
Mass production wineries the size of Concha y Toro can often get overlooked or dismissed as the majority of wine drinkers worldwide are exposed only to their entry level wines. But they’ve proven beyond a doubt that they are more than capable of making some truly world-class wines as their Don Melchor and Almaviva will attest. We were certainly convinced by our tour and tasting at the winery and found them both to be devilishly good.
2016 Gravas Blancas
One of the delights of our recent wine tour to South America was to discover just how good their Sauvignon Blanc was. Gravas Blancas was a great example. This 100% Sauvignon Blanc comes from the Bio Bio Valley, one of the southern most viticultural regions in Chile. At an elevation of almost 200 metres, this site gives the wine its cool climate characteristics of green apple, cut grass and minerals. Medium acid and good texture keep the wine out of the mean and lean category and create balance. There is a nice sea breeze-like salinity on the finish which adds complexity.
2015 Maycas del Limari Chardonnay
Tropical fruit flavours of guava mix with honeyed apple notes to give a rich but defined wine that has texture and balance. The 12 months spent in new oak add texture only, no woody flavours. There is very good minerality on this wine which provides a nice counterpoint to the tropical notes.
2012 Concha Y Toro Chardonnay Maycas del Limari
We tasted this wine immediately following the 2015. There were more similarities than differences; we found the tropical notes received greater emphasis in this vintage, suggesting a season of greater warmth. Perhaps a touch more texture as well. At 7 years past the vintage it was holding up very well, fresh and vibrant, and is a testament to how well their wines can age.
2017 Concha y Toro Carmin de Puemo Carménère
This is a blend of 95% Carménère, 2.5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1.5% Cabernet Franc. The Carménère comes from their Puemo Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley, on the banks of the Cachapoal River at 170 metres above sea level. The wine sees 14 months in French oak barrels. Notes of red cherry and blueberry make for a richly textured wine that is round and very approachable. Supporting notes of baking spices provide accent to the ripe style. A crowd pleaser for sure, this is the wine to enjoy now while ageing some of their other reds.
2016 Almaviva EPU
Almaviva is a joint venture between Concha y Toro and Chateau Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux. It was created to combine the best of Chilean soil and climate with the best of French winemaking. EPU is the project’s second wine and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. Almost hedonistic in style, there is a heady perfume that rises up instantly tells you that something special is in your glass. Plum, red cherry and spice notes intertwine for the aroma. They carry on through to the palate where they are joined by dark raspberry notes and hints of pepper on the back end. Plush and textured, there is just enough tannin and acidity to keep it structured. While ageing may bring out more complexity, it will be hard to resist this in its sexy youth.
2016 Don Melchor
Don Melchor is the flagship wine of Concha y Toro. Its first vintage was in 1987 and it was instantly recognized as an icon for what Chile can create when great care is taken to produce a quality wine. Jacques Boissenot was brought on as consultant in the first vintage and remained in that capcity until his death in 2004. Boissenot was one of the greatest wine consultants in the history of Bordeaux, consulting to 4 of the 5 First Growths (Mouton, Lafite, Latour and Margaux) among the over 200 wineries on his roster. His son Eric now takes on the consulting role at Don Melchor. Always Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, this vintage is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot and 1% Merlot. As always, Don Melchor is an elegant and finessed expresion of Cabernet with black cherry, plum, espresso and hints of spice. There is a slight herbacaeous quality to the wine which makes us think of St. Estephe. Very sophisticated and no doubt very age-worthy. In the last several years we have drank both the 1990 and 1991 Don Melchor and can attest to the longevity of these wines.
This is the first wine of the house, the big brother to EPU. A blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Carmenere, 8% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot, the wine spent 16 months in new French oak. A brilliant wine full of black fruit flavours with loads of complexity given by the earth, cedar, vanilla and spice notes. Something new greets you each time you return to the glass. The texture is rich and plush. Not enough o’s in smooth to describe this wine! While Don Melchor reminded us of St. Estephe, Almaviva evokes Napa. Full bodied, and very structured with ripe tannins, and noticeable acidity…like a Phelps Insignia of the Southern Hemisphere.