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November 8, 2023

Towards an Honest Expression of the Vineyard: San Pedro's

Editor's Note:  Our friend Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW has been sidelined for a while due to a prolonged misfortune in her household, but is back this week with a new entry for her long-standing feature, "On My Table."  To ward off the possibility that some readers might not scroll down the WRO "Home" Page far enough to see her new profile, I'm also posting it in this space.  Welcome back, Mary!  ~MF

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San Pedro, Cachapoal-Andes (Chile) “Altair” 2019 ($90):  Four years ago, only months before the word “Covid” was coined, I visited Chile with a group of fellow Masters of Wine.  Many of the wine regions we visited were familiar to me, but one wine region was a discovery.  That region is Cachapoal-Andes, within the Rapel Valley south of Maipo.  Thinking back, I recall Cachapoal as a secret pocket of vineyards at the edge of the Andes foothills, a gorgeous site producing impressive wines.

Returning to the present, I had the pleasure of welcoming to my wine school Gabriel Mustakis, the winemaker who hosted our visit to Cachapoal four years ago. As winemaker for San Pedro Icon Wines in Cachapoal, Gabriel overseas the elite, “icon” wine production for Viña San Pedro, one of the largest winery groups in Chile.  He came to NYC bearing bottles of Altair, a Cabernet blend from the vineyards of Cachapoal.

Cachapoal Andes — that part of the region that is close to the mountains — sits at 500 meters/ 1600 feet elevation and has a Mediterranean climate, with warm and dry summers and cold, rainy winters.  It is generally cooler than Maipo, enabling more finesse in Cabernet-based wines.  An important feature of the site is its ventilation; mountain winds arrive reliably every afternoon, cooling the vines during the warmest part of the day.  Another is the diversity of minerals and soils, that enable expressive, perfumed wines.

San Pedro Cachapoal was established in 2001, originally as a partnership with a French château from St.-Émilion.  A Bordeaux influence initially guided the winemaking and the style of the wines.  When the partnership dissolved in 2007, San Pedro Cachapoal’s winemaking goals shifted toward an approach more in tune with the potential of the terroir.

This stylistic arc was evident in two bottles of Altair, one from 2006 and the other from 2019.  The blend of the two wines was more similar than not: Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Carmenère in varying proportions.  The nose of the older wine was, naturally, showing lots of tertiary character (mushroom, leather, smoke, brodo) and the younger wine smelled, naturally, more vibrant and fruitier.   But the structure of the two wines was the true tell.  In the mouth, the 2006 wine was framed by oak; the grainy tannin didn’t overwhelm the wine’s flavors but communicated that this wine was really about its structure. Solid. Squarely built.  In the 2019, the wine’s concentrated fruit is beautifully integrated with its structure. The wine shows a medium amount of spicy tannin surrounding a supple core of rich, ripe nuanced fruit.

Gabriel and I discussed the change of direction that winemaking of Altair had taken in recent years.  One of his goals is to preserve the delicate aromatics of the Cachapoal-Andes fruit, a characteristic that he says the visiting MWs had particularly noted four years ago.  Currently, he gives the wines a pre-fermentation cold soak for three to five days to gently extract color and aromas.  Fermentation is triggered by cultured yeast at low temperatures that prolong the initial part of the process by three to five days and create a more gradual transformation.

Fermentation itself is cool, at 22-24° C/ 71.5-75° F.  A cool, slow fermentation typically nurtures fresh, fruity aromatics in the wine. Each batch of grapes undergoes fermentation in vats of different types (stainless steel, oak, concrete or clay) and sizes, according to their origin in the vineyard.  Finally, the wine ages not in 100 percent new oak, as the 2006 did, but in barriques that are half new, 35 percent second-use and, for the remaining 15 percent of the wine in large foudres,

In the past, extraction from the grapes had been a primary focus, Gabriel explained.  Now Gabriel’s goal is a different kind of extraction: “To extract the best from our vineyards in the most honest way.”

My assessment of the 2019 Altair is that of fragrant, fresh aromas of red and dark fruits, some cherry, some blackberry; very well-balanced in its acid-alcohol-tannin ratio and in the measure of that structure against the fruit; smooth, silky texture; and concentration of fruit on the finish that suggests a long life ahead.  It clearly has the caliber of a Chilean icon wine.

This 2019 Altair is 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Cab Franc, 7 percent Syrah and 2 percent Carmenère.

93 Points

Posted by Mary Ewing-Mulligan at 9:31 PM

November 1, 2023

Welcoming Columnist Pam Roberto to Wine Review Online

Along with my colleagues at Wine Review Online, I’m delighted to welcome Pam Roberto to our ranks as a regular columnist.  I’ve known Pam for about eight years in our shared metropolitan area of Washington, DC, first meeting her when she participated in tastings I conducted at Capital Wine School.  Although that establishment is called a “school,” and despite the fact that what I was presiding over were technically called “classes,” it became apparent to me immediately that Pam was my equal rather than my “student”—if indeed I can legitimately refer to myself as her equal!

Pam is an exceptionally talented taster who is very effective at identifying wines even when tasting “blind.”  More important still for our purposes, she’s very adept at articulating both merits and demerits when evaluating wines, always regarding them appreciatively but never mincing words when addressing a shortcoming.  When leading discussions of wines in sessions in which she was a participant, my only difficulty with Pam was coaxing comments from her, as she is conspicuously modest by any standard—but especially in relation to her impressive capabilities and accomplishments.  

In this respect, Pam is much like our mutual friend Miranda Franco, who has been an outstanding columnist and reviewer here on Wine Review Online for more than three years.  I met Pam and Miranda almost simultandeously, and first asked both of them to contribute to WRO at the same time, but Pam was so overloaded with work that she politely declined until recently—when she probably decided it would be better to relent than to deal with my pestering.  

As you will see in her first column on Portugal’s Douro Valley in this week’s issue, Pam writes as well as tastes, with especially strong skills for sorting out the factors that are crucial for making wines that are profound rather than merely potable.  The biographical sketch that follows will indicate that Pam is not only skillful but also thoroughly seasoned by studies and site visits that make her one of the most highly qualified writers on WRO’s roster of contributors—right out of the starting blocks.

Because of Pam’s modesty, I know she’s going to be somewhat “ticked” at me when she reads on and discovers that what I’ve characterized as a “biographical sketch” is actually an autobiographical sketch.  To explain, when my pestering finally paid off and Pam agreed to join us, I asked her to send some informal background information that I could use to write an account of her experience in wine, along with a few words about how she became interested and allured at the outset.  Those who know her will be utterly unsurprised to learn that what she sent was generously detailed and engagingly written—indeed, what she sent is so good that I simply can’t improve upon it.

So, what follows in italics is Pam’s self-introduction, which I will quote untouched by my editorial hand.  If I’m lucky, Pam will be only moderately ticked that I’ve used her account, which I know would have been much less detailed regarding her accomplishments if she knew that I was going to publish what she provided in its entirely.  Knowing that I am lucky, I’ll take my chances, and if you read what follows as well as her column, you’ll know that all of us who write for or read Wine Review Online are lucky to learn from Pam’s work!

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Looking back on how I got into wine, I can’t pinpoint that single “ah ha” moment.  I’d say it was more like a slow tumble down the rabbit hole.

I studied abroad in Australia my junior year of college and that experience ignited my love affair with travel.  All the reasons I love traveling – exposure to new sights, experiences, cultures, histories, perspectives, stories, cuisines, etc. – are largely the same reasons I gravitated toward wine.

In 2015, I started occasionally taking classes at Capital Wine School.  Miranda Franco was doing her WSET studies at that time, and we would often get together and open a couple of bottles.  I’d never heard of most of what we were drinking, but I was intrigued.  That’s when I first started making a conscious effort to try new wines and identify what I did / didn’t like about them.  And whenever possible, I started adding vineyard visits to my travels to better acquaint myself with different regions.  

My WSET journey started in 2018.  I had wanted to sign up for a while, but I could never quite commit.  Work was always super busy, and I was still recovering from the exhaustion of being a full-time Ph.D. student for four years while holding down what was essentially a full-time job.  After pulling off an especially grueling project at work, my employers wanted to do something to express their gratitude.  I had mentioned wanting to take wine classes, and lo and behold, my reward was enrollment in the first three levels of the WSET program.  By the end of my first class, I was hooked.    

I received my WSET Diploma in April 2023 and collected a few other certifications along the way: Society of Wine Educators Certified Specialist of Wine (2019), Wine Scholar Guild Bordeaux Master (2020), Italian Wine Scholar (2020), French Wine Scholar (2022), and Spanish Wine Scholar (2022).  In 2020, I received the Decanter Premium Award for earning the highest score on that year’s Italian Wine Scholar exam (having won an essay contest to break a tie).  I’m currently working on the Wine Scholar Guild Bourgogne Master program.  I’m also interested in the Master of Wine program...but should probably do some more thinking about whether / how that fits into my long-term career goals.

Outside of wine, I’ve worked in health care policy in Washington, DC for 20+ years.  For the last 16 years, I’ve been at a trade association that represents the biopharmaceutical industry.  I get to do a lot of writing at work, which I enjoy, but it’s primarily technical and wonky.  I’m trying to nudge myself to get more deeply engaged in the wine, and among the possibilities, wine writing and wine education are definitely of interest.  

I’ve done a fair bit of wine-related travel: France (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Rhône, Provence, Sancerre), Italy (Sicily, Tuscany, Veneto), Spain (Rioja, Penedès), Portugal (Douro, Alentejo, Azores), Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA.  I’ve even been to a winery in Myanmar (but can’t say I would recommend it).

If I could only drink wines from one place for the rest of my life, I’d have to pick Bordeaux.  When I first started studying wine, Bordeaux thoroughly intimidated me.  So, I jumped in head-first and its now the region I’m most familiar with.  I’ve visited a half a dozen times during the past few years, and have been fortunate to drink a good number of mature wines.  But I also get incredibly excited when I come across a new grape variety I’ve never tried, or one from a region I’ve never heard of.

There’s always a moment of exhilaration when I’m at a restaurant and someone hands me the wine list (especially if it’s a tome).  Besides Bordeaux, I’m a huge fan of Spanish wines (particularly Tempranillo and Mencía), German Spätburgunder, Chilean Carménère, Bandol Mourvèdre, New Zealand Pinot Noir, Savennières, Riesling from just about anywhere, and nearly anything Italian (these days, especially Mt. Etna and Taurasi).

When I have free time to read, it’s almost always about wine. This weekend I’ll be diving into Benjamin Spencer’s The New Wines of Mount Etna.  Being a huge history and wine nerd, Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Wine & War is one of my all-time favorite books.  A few others I’ve recently read include Andrew Jefford’s Drinking with the Valkyries, Jane Lopes’s Vignette, Andre Mack’s 99 Bottles: A Black Sheep’s Guide to Life-Changing Wines, and Steven Spurrier’s A Life in Wine.  I also scour everything Jane Anson publishes on her Inside Bordeaux website. I admire Jane’s writing style and am a big fan of hers in general. We met a few years back on a Wine Scholar Guild trip to Bordeaux (she was our tour guide for the week), and she is a lovely person, in addition to being a great author.

Posted by Michael Franz at 7:12 PM