John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for June 9th 2012
Chile is hot, but Concha y Toro is hotter, plus the Top Ten Smart Buys – The report for June 9th focuses on some excellent buys from Chile, one of the strongest themed releases at Vintages in recent memory. Without adjusting my usual criteria for the top ten smart buys – where quality and price intersect – an impressive six Chilean wines made the cut. And not surprisingly for those in the know, a single company, the nearly 130 year-old Viña Concha y Toro, is responsible for the majority. How does such a corporate behemoth pull off such consistent quality? Read on to learn more and find the best deals from Chile, maybe even something for your Father to celebrate with on the 17th.
Aside from Chile, The Top Smart Buys this week includes a terrific South African Chardonnay from the southernmost point of the Cape, a superb rendition of the Godello grape from Spain, which is rapidly gaining international acclaim as the country’s next great white, yet another impressive Georgian wine, a country with a longer wine growing history than just about any other and more exposure of late than in the last 7,000 years, and a rare but intriguing red from Italy’s Adriatic coast that will remind you of your grandmother, in a good way.
Chile Is Hot, But Concha y Toro is even Hotter
I can scarcely remember being so uniformly impressed by a Vintages theme. The buying team at the LCBO has assembled a broad range of styles and grapes/blends that offer quality and character well above the mean at fair prices. Of the 16 wines on offer, I’d say fully ten are recommendable (and one wine was not made available for tasting); two out of three wines are pretty good odds. What’s also notable is the variety of the offering. It’s no longer just cabernet sauvignon and merlot, though there are some very good ones to be sure, there are also red and white blends, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, carmenère and syrahs and to recommend. The vinous landscape in Chile is diversifying nicely.
On the other hand, an Ontario wine buyer might complain that a single company dominates that landscape, and it’s true. 60% of my recommended buys from Chile, six out of ten, are made by a single company, Concha y Toro or its subsidiary brands, Maycas del Limarì and Cono Sur. It’s also true that the lion’s share of the Wines of Chile marketing budget comes from CyT, so the company has some pull on export markets and the financial wherewithal to guarantee placements for its wines. But if this were just another instance of a large company bullying everyone else out of the playground in order to push through its mediocre wines, then I would be up in arms crying foul – as long time WineAlign readers know I’m the first to champion small, independent producers making original wines. But in this case, I have to tip my cap to the team at Concha y Toro for the impressive quality and consistency of the range from entry to ultra-premium. Sometimes big is good.
And CyT is big. To give you just one example, they’re the official “wine partner” of Manchester United Football Club, one of the richest sports franchises in the world – I’m sure partnership doesn’t come cheap. It would take far more column inches then I’m permitted just to list the full range of brands and brand extensions of the parent and subsidiary companies. Their wines could fill a Chilean supermarket, and there’d be enough labels to satisfy the majority of consumers.
Concha y Toro is a remarkable business story. Since Don Melchor de Concha y Toro first brought grapevines from Bordeaux to plant in Pirque, Maipo Valley, in 1883, it has grown to one of the largest wine companies in the world. It‘s publically traded, and in 2010 sold 29m cases of wine in over 135 countries. Aside from the parent company, the principal subsidiaries in Chile are Viña Cono Sur, Viña Maipo, Viña Palo Alto, and Viña Maycas del Limarí. The company also jointly owns the premium Viña Almaviva estate with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a clever play to gain access to the deluxe end of the market. Outside of Chile, CyT owns Trivento Bodegas y Viñedos in Argentina, that country’s second largest exporter by volume, and recently acquired Fetzer Vineyards in California, a top ten US brand by volume with 2.2 million cases sold, and tellingly, a leader in sustainable agriculture on a large scale. I’d wager that if you drink wine regularly, you’ve tasted something from Concha y Toro’s stable at some point.
Though it’s not business at all costs at Concha y Toro, there’s also a sense of corporate responsibility. The company has edged towards sustainable development and has undertaken energy audits of its cellars and estimates of its carbon footprint (they’re currently working on a water footprint). They also moved towards the use of lighter bottles to mitigate the environmental impact of transportation. One of the major subsidiaries, Cono Sur, is predicated on organic vineyards and carbon neutral delivery, too, and the addition of Fetzer vineyards, a US leader in sustainability, appears to be another move in that direction.
It’s hard to tell of course how much is corporate spin and how much is substance, but it’s at least reassuring that the company is aware of the importance that consumers, retailers, distributors and even governments now put on sustainable practices in the wine industry. The website even has an area devoted to ethics, with a company code of conduct and ethics posted, as well as a “whistle blower” page where employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and anyone else can make anonymous and confidential complaints regarding matters related to accounting and internal control of financial reports, among others things. How far the wine business has come.
But impressive business acumen aside, the platform of success is clearly wine quality. And to pull it off on such a large scale is no mean feat. One factor surely contributing to consistency is control from grape to bottle. The company now farms a total of 9500 hectares in Chile, making it the third largest winery in the world in planted acreage. Ongoing investments have been made in the cellars, too, with facilities in all of the major valleys in order to reduce transportation times and keep grapes in their region of origin. The company owns as astonishing 50 thousand barrels. And yet another critical facet of quality is the talent to operate all those facilities.
I’d rate winemaker Ignacio Recabarren as one of the company’s strongest assets. Recabarren is responsible for the exception value Trio line (try: 2011 Trio Reserva Sauvignon Blanc $13.95), the mid-range, excellent Terrunyo series (try: 2009 Terrunyo Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Block Las Terrazas, $29.95) as well as the premium chardonnay Amelia, and arguably Chile’s best carmenère, Carmín de Peumo. Recabarren pulls off amazing consistency and quality from the $14 to $100+ range with equal ease, a rare skill set indeed.
In 2005 Concha y Toro purchased the Francisco de Aguirre Winery in the northern region of the Limarí Valley, and launched Viña Maycas del Limarí with the 2007 vintage. Led by veteran winemaker Marcelo Papa and assistant Javier Villarroel, the Maycas wines have become, in a remarkably short time, some of Chile’s best for my money, offering an uncommon freshness and minerality not frequently encountered in Chile’s generously ripe and fruit forward style wines. Try both of the Maycas wines in this release, 2010 Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Chardonnay and 2008 Maycas del Limari Reserva Especial Syrah. At $19.95 both are smart buys.
Since it’s inception in 1993, Cono Sur has been dedicated to eco-friendly practices. Beginning with forty hectares in the Colchagua Valley, Cono Sur has grown to 300 hectares of certified organic vineyards, including the Campo Lindo Estate in Leyda, San Antonio Valley, as well as the original Peralillo Estate in Colchagua. The company was also recently certified CarbonNeutral®. Try the rich and flavourful 2008 Cono Sur Limited Edition 20 Barrels Chardonnay ($24.95) for an example of the estate’s quality.
Back at the original estate of Don Melchor, now on the outskirts of Santiago, sits a grand old manor house that retains the charm and atmosphere of turn of the 20th century high society Chile. Architecturally, it’s Bordeaux meets colonial Spain, surrounding by a magnificent French-inspired garden. In the elegant dining room hangs a distinguished portrait of Don Melchor, whose name graces one of the company’s flagship cabernets. I wonder what Don Melchor would have to say about the company he founded. I’m guessing he’d be very proud.
From the June 9, 2012 Vintages release:Top Ten Smart Buys Top Scoring Chilean All Reviews
John Szabo, Master Sommelier