Take one of Chile’s finest winemakers, a precocious young South African chef and an imperial old Chinese House and something truly remarkable is bound to happen.
Chile is a country blessed with an abundance of all the elements required to make exceptionally clean and cool wine: sunshine, cool-clean air, ancient and varied soils, mountainous slopes, fertile valleys and plenty of pure, fresh water.
The vines are protected by a series of coastal ranges and valleys from the harsh prevailing winds off the Pacific Ocean and the icy ramparts of the Andes. The cool air which comes in off the Humboldt Current flows through the river valleys to cool vineyard canopies and create fogs that can help protect grapes from frosts in the night and the harsh rays of the sun in the morning.
One of the country’s most successful and internationally celebrated wineries is Vina Maipo, which now exports its wines to more than 80 countries and is the most successful Chilean wine brand in Cambodia, yet its very success here has perhaps also come at a cost, says Vina Maipo’s chief winemaker Max Weinlaub.
Vina Maipo was founded in 1948 in the Maipo Valley, a renowned region near Santiago capable of producing outstanding wines. Twenty years later, Concha y Toro acquired the winery and invested heavily in enhancing the quality of its wines.
In 2007, Weinlaub joined Vina Maipo as its chief winemaker and was given free rein to focus on developing world-class wines of the highest quality. I was fortunate enough to be present at an extraordinary dinner with Weinlaub at Chinese House, where chef Amy Baard and sommelier Renier (Toki) Scannel created an outstanding menu to pair with Weinlaub’s inspirational wines.
Weinlaub is a proud and passionate winemaker determined to express the national identity of his wines as well as their varietal characters and regional nuances. “I want to express the flavors of Chile in my wines,” he declares, explaining while the reputation of both Chilean wine in general and Vina Maipo in particular in Cambodia might best be described as a hugely successful, inexpensive supermarket wine.
The fact is, most Cambodians only know the Mi Pueblo (My People) range, which is the winery’s inexpensive, entry-level label.
Weinlaub was pulling out his high-end, super premium wines to show Cambodia just what he and his country were capable of and by the end of the evening the room was wholly convinced of the ability of Weinlaub and his team to produce outstanding wines capable of aging gracefully and competing with the finest wines from anywhere in the world.
The wines that demanded you sit up and pay attention were the Quinta de Maipo Limited Edition Syrah 2013, which spends a whopping 30 months maturing in French oak. The wine is all violets, spices and ripe berry fruit with a beautiful sweet spot of ripe plum mid palate. It’s an exceptional Chilean Syrah that is approachable now but will age for a further 10 years with careful cellaring. Expect to pay upwards of $50 per bottle.
The Protegido Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 from the Buin area of the Maipo Valley is an exercise in power and grace with lots of chocolate, coffee bean and tobacco leaf characters wrapped around a core of ripe forest berries, (blackcurrant, mulberry) leading to fine, persistent tannins. A superb Cabernet Sauvignon that will age for more than a decade, expect to pay $60 and upwards for a bottle.
The Alto Tajamar Syrah (about 85 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (about 15 percent), 2009 is undoubtedly one of Chile’s great wines, perhaps comparable to Australia’s own Grange in its ambition, scope and magnificence.
The wine spends about two years in French oak and as a seven-year-old wine displays a balance of complexity and youthful vibrancy and freshness. A truly outstanding wine, it was the highlight of the evening, with depth of fruit, a finely tuned orchestra of complex flavors and an artistry of structure and finesse.
Aromas of plums and forest berries with pepper and spice, violets, raspberries and hints of wild underbrush and brooding molasses all wrapped in vibrant acidity and fine tannins. It’s not cheap at upwards of $160 per bottle, but it is one of the best Chilean wines and one of the great wines of the world.