There are certain wine regions in the world that are known for a particular grape variety. For example, the Napa Valley is synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon, Burgundy for Pinot Noir and Argentina for Malbec. Then there are the regions that have so many different unique micro-climates they can produce a much greater variety of high-quality wines. Sonoma is one that comes to mind with its 17 different AVAs and 259 different soil types. On a recent trip to Chile, we discovered that although it’s a place often associated with Carménère, it’s finally gaining notoriety for its quality with respect to a diverse range of varieties. For the last 3 decades, Viña Montes has been at the forefront of this transformation helping to reposition the country’s reputation worldwide both with quality and diversity.
With high risk comes high reward and the risks taken by Montes to experience the level of success they now enjoy, have been many. Viña Montes calls Chile’s renowned Colchagua Valley home, and while that choice is not surprising given the Valley’s reputation, choosing the Apalta area within Colchagua when they established the winery in the late 1980s, certainly was.
Winemaker Aurelio Montes, one of the four founding partners (along with Douglas Murray, Alfredo Vidaurre and Pedro Grand) first laid eyes on Apalta long before there were any vineyards there. He was so convinced that its slopes full of boulders would be the perfect spot that he convinced his partners it was worth the cost both financially and reputationally to be the first to plant there.
They purchased the land in 1990, planting French clones on the 45-degree slopes much to the bewilderment of their peers who were all planting on the valley floor. The fertile soil on the floor certainly provided lots of fruit but the high yields and healthy soils resulted in lower quality wines.
Montes knew from his travels to highly regarded regions in Germany and France that there was a better way. He was after poor quality soil to make the vines struggle, lower yields that would produce higher concentrated berries, and hillslopes for better irrigation. He never wavered in his belief that this particular area was not only unique, but allowed for a long, steady ripening of the fruit.
This pioneering spirit also led Montes to be the first to plant their Marchigüe vineyards in the same valley between the Coastal Range and the sea, and then head north to Zapellar where they were the first to plant a vineyard there. Montes was also the first to plant Syrah in the Colchagua Valley, the grape variety that was easily the most memorable in terms of our favourite wines from the trip.
An approximate two-hour drive from Santiago, we arrived at Montes Winery on a warm spring day that truly showcased the beauty of the property.
Miles of vineyards surround the modern winery with the Pangalillo Hills serving as its backdrop. The winery itself was built in 2004 with a simple yet striking design based on Feng Shui principles all within a gravity-flow design. Using gravity to move wine from the upper to lower levels of the facility is gentler on the fruit while helping keep aeration to a minimum thus allowing for a purer expression of the fruit. All of their fruit is hand-harvested, hand-sorted and de-stemmed.
Lucky for us, not only did we have perfect weather to enjoy the beautiful vineyard views, we happened to be booked in for lunch at their restaurant Fuegos de Apalta. Built in 2017, the restaurant, opened to much fanfare as it’s run by Argentine Chef Francis Mallman. A well-known chef in South America, his fame expanded globally after being featured on the Netflix original series Chef’s Table. One could argue another risky move by a Chilean winery choosing to work with an Argentine Chef for their restaurant!
Similar to the winery, the restaurant is a modern design that takes full advantage of the views with clear glass floor-to-ceiling windows on each side.
We were greeted with a glass of their Sparkling Angel Brut (our first ever Chilean sparkling wine) then treated to an incredible food and wine pairing that included: salt-crusted pears with Burrata paired with their Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc, grilled skirt steak paired with their Icon wine the “Folly” (so named because they were considered loco (crazy) with all of their innovative ideas), capped off with a final dessert course of grilled pineapple and homemade Mascarpone paired with their late harvest gewürztraminer.
Not resting on their laurels and continuously pushing the boundaries has become Montes’ trademark though their latest “folly” may prove their most challenging project to date.
The winery has planted vines in the Chiloé archipelago, one of the most southern locations in the country with a vineyard. Production isn’t expected for a couple of years yet, but time will tell whether this proves too risky even for them, or ignites another revolution within Chile’s wine industry. Given the people behind it and their success so far, we’re certainly not betting against them.
Either way, Montes has been monumental in opening the minds of wine drinkers around the world to the idea that Chile is more than capable of producing wines of the highest quality. And while it may take a little longer to shed the Carménère association, the country’s 16 different valleys combined with the pioneering spirit of winemakers like Aurelio Montes, tells us the future of Chile’s wine industry is very bright.
2017 Montes Clos d’Angel Chardonnay
Deep gold colour. Richly textured with notes of melon, almonds and a hint of mineral. The oak adds richness as well as some vanilla notes. There is just enough acid to serve the right counterpoint to the oak. The finish lingers nicely with hints of tropical fruits.
2019 Montes Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc
Grapefruit and lime mix with a steely minerality in this refreshing 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Medium light body this is an ideal pairing with shellfish or as an aperitif. Back-end acidity gives a crisp note to the finish.
2012 Montes Folly
100% Syrah coming from the steepest slopes of their highest vineyards in Apalta in the Colchagua Valley.
This wine is a hedonists dream! The texture is soft, round and plush. But this is a powerful wine of great intensity, which brings forward comparisons to Barossa or perhaps California’s Central Coast Syrahs. Blackberry pie and hints of baking spice come through loud and clear as the fruit dominates the flavour profile. With a bit of air, hints of blueberry join in. There is a creaminess to the texture but there is enough structure to maintain its vinosity. Black pepper notes frame the long finish. Comes across as much younger than 8 years and will no doubt improve with time in the cellar. This is a very modern style Syrah; highly extracted, intense and impactful. Collectors of cult Syrahs would do well to buy this, at half the price or less than what you would pay in Barossa or Paso.
2019 Montes Late Harvest Gewurztraminer
We did not encounter many dessert wines while we were in Chile but we were sure glad we found this one. Flavours of honeysuckle and ginger swirl together and are joined by hints of lychee and burnt orange. This wine is very viscous, bordering on syrupy. The sweetness is nicely counter-balanced by the spice notes. Delicious and hedonistic, a great way to end a meal!
Parcela 15 – Millahue de Apalta
Santa Cruz – CHILE