When it comes to Chilean wine, most American consumers have a vague familiarity As one of the leading South American wine producing countries, Chile has done an excellent job of producing and exporting a hefty sum of quality, price-point driven labels that consumers can readily find on the shelves, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot Carmenère, and to a lesser extent, Sauvignon Blanc among the most recognized varieties. But with more than 500 years of viticultural history as well as more than a 1,000-mile expanse of coastal wine producing geography, all along a narrow strip of land book-ended by the Pacific Coast to the west and two dominant mountain ranges to the east, Chile has a lot more to offer than just the limited selection commonly found on your grocer’s shelves.
From North to South, Chile’s six main regions are set between coastal, valley, and mountain range geographical areas. They include Atacama, Coquimbo, Aconcagua, Central Valley, South and Austral, and are further divided into 17 sub-regions, with additional zones and areas that more precisely conform to certain growing climates. While the initial phase of Chile’s industrial wine efforts focused more on Bordeaux varieties, more recent decades have seen producers emphasizing grapes varieties better suited to the particular soils and microclimates in which they are grown. As a result, we’re seeing more successful examples of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir from cooler coastal areas, expressive Riesling from regions further south, and complex and sophisticated Syrah from arid valleys. Additionally, examples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and more importantly Carmenère, are becoming more elegant and identifiable as being reflective of their terroir.
Indeed, these are exciting times for Chilean wine producers. Multiple factors explain advancement in Chilean wine production, but some of the country’s larger, more established producers have paved the way for the advent of this new chapter in Chilean wine. One such producer is Aurelio Montes of Viña Montes.
The son of an insurance salesman, Montes originally began his career in agronomy, focusing on horses and cattle after his father purchased land in the countryside west of Santiago. While at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in the early 1970s, he took an optional course in winemaking, and that soon lead him down the path to study oenology. He then spent more than a decade forging his path as Chief Oenologist at Undurraga Winery in Chile before moving to Viña San Pedro. It was there that he met Douglas Murray, a wine marketing professional who was eager to help reshape the global perception of Chilean wine. The duo then left to create Viña Montes along with Alfredo Vidaurre in 1988.
Since that time, the Montes brand has grown to become one of the country’s largest producers, with an annual production of more than 650,000 cases. The majority of Montes wines are sourced from the Colchagua Valley with 135 hectares at the La Finca de Apalta vineyard, which produces a range of high elevation style reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Syrah and Merlot.
Closer to the Pacific, the 350-hectare El Arcangel Estate experiences slightly cooler temperatures and drier weather conditions than the rest of the Colchaguea Valley. Planted in the more clay-driven soils on this estate, the vines are more vigorous, yielding a different expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, and Syrah. Montes also cultivates vineyards in the Maule region of the Central Valley and along the Zapallar Coast of the Aconcaqua Valley, allowing for a wider range of cool-climate wines such as Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
The growth of the brand has arguably played a pivotal role in broadening the awareness of Chilean wines in the global market. Aurelio Montes himself has received numerous accolades as an innovator and entrepreneur.
But beyond growing a brand and raising the perception of quality wine from Chile, Montes has helped bring forth a new era by focusing on terroir-driven wines, using modern technology but balancing it with balanced with sustainable vineyard practices, and perhaps most importantly, mentoring and consulting with other producers throughout the country.
Tasting through a cross section of Montes’ wines shows that the acclaim he has drawn is well deserved:
Montes Alpha Carmenère 2014: With bold, fruity aromas veiled in leather and spice, this wine has a soft, supple mouthfeel with flavors that are savory and rich with dark dried fruit, violet and a touch of blackberry jam. 91
Montes Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2016: A beautiful summer wine, this Sauvignon Blanc offers fruity aromas of yellow apple and lime zest and is backed by a crisp minerality on the palate. Delicious with seafood. 93
Montes Alpha Syrah 2014: With aromas of blue fruit, Kalamata olive and a hint of eucalyptus, this Syrah is big with pronounced tannin and a brambly blackberry backbone framed with vanilla and spice. 91
Montes Classic Series Merlot 2014: A rich, ruby color looks lovely in the glass, followed by aromas that are decidedly red-fruit driven, with notes of cherry, ripe plum and raspberry. Suggestions of violet and vanilla lead to a soft, silken palate with cocoa and blackberry. 90
Although Viña Montes is but one example of the forward strides being made in this South American country, it certainly stands as an exemplary case in point.