Twenty years after the first vintage of Almaviva, a long history by Chilean standards, a distinguished group of wine merchants, sommeliers, and writers gathered at Roux at Parliament Square in London to celebrate over dinner the recent release of the 2014 and chart the considerable development of the wine through that and three other vintages. We were guided by Michel Friou, Almaviva’s chief winemaker, and Francisco Zilleruelo, its commercial director.
The joint venture was undertaken in 1997 between Baron Philippe de Rothschild (who had already enjoyed great success with Opus One in California) and Viña Concha y Toro. The first vintage was in fact 1996, thanks to 40ha (100 acres) of 18-year-old vines in Puente Alto, under the auspices of Concha y Toro. These now 38-year-old vines were planted ungrafted.Almavivapurchased more land in 2001, planting vines at much higher density (8,000/ha), and grafting them onto rootstock despite the absence of phylloxera in Chile. This addition brought the total area under vines to 60ha (150 acres), and the average vine age is now 22.
The location of the vineyards is notable for two reasons. First, their proximity to the Andes means temperatures are always cooler than in the rest of the valley. As a result, budding takes place on average two weeks later than in Colchagua, and ripening is a slower process. “It’s very difficult to make great fine wines when the final ripening stage is fast,” Friou observed. Second, the vineyards are on the third terrace of the River Maipo, giving them the necessary distance not to be too sandy.
The water table, though, is at 180m (600ft), and from day one, Almaviva’s biggest challenge has been the lack of water in the Maipo Valley. For the past three years they had 230mm(9 inches) of rain (around one quarter of the average for Bordeaux). This makes irrigation unavoidable. “We’d prefer the gods to send some rain so we had fewer decisions,” joked Friou. Butinstead of leaving it to the deities, Almavivahas made a crucial and substantial investment in an underground irrigation complex—no mean feat when you consider the size of some of the rocks in the stony soils. This “obliges the roots to go deeper,” explainedFriou, but does not preclude the need for the traditional above-ground drip system, which is especially necessary after composting in order for the matter to break down and encourage microbial life in the vineyard. “If there is no life, you will not be able to get everything the terroir can bring to you,” asserted Friou, who confessed to putting “more emphasis on the soil than on the plants themselves.”
In the past, irrigation was confined to the vines themselves, and the 2.5m(8ft) between each row (in the lower-density original vineyard) was “completely dry,” depriving the vineyard of the microorganisms so crucial to the expression of terroir. The rows in the new vineyards are half the distance apart, and the rows of vines are interspersed with the likes of mustard seed, oat, and clover. While the estate is not certified organic or biodynamic, Friou started experimenting eight years ago, and 45ha(111 acres) are now organic. He remains concerned, however, by the quantities of copper and sulfur required as part of an organic or biodynamic approach, reflecting that “this might be worse than a very small amount of conventional chemical treatments.”
Unlike many other New World wines, Almaviva still fully embraces its Old World influence and underlines the advantages of the union. The branding was carefully developed with this in mind—while Almaviva might sound very Spanish, and is accompanied on the label by a symbol from the Mapuche civilization, the inspiration in fact derived from the Count in Beaumarchais’ play, The Marriage of Figaro. The word is depicted in Beaumarchais’ own handwriting (even if you might not know that if you weren’t told).
The joint venture works in a similar way. On the surface the winery is Chilean, established in Puente Alto, in the Maipo Valley, but behind the scenes is the studied presence of French savoir-faire. Indeed, Friou is French, having arrived at Almaviva in 2007. His previous jobs (in reverse order) includedthree years working on Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Chilean branded wines, eight years at Casa Lapostolle, shorter periods at Cape Mentelle in Australia and Château Margaux, and before that six years in tropical forests in Borneo and New Caledonia.
There is no official classification in Chile, but no opportunity is missed to refer to Almaviva’s Bordeaux pedigree. It’s a “classical Bordeaux château concept, with everyone concentrating on one wine, like the grands crus,”said Friou.This adherence to a signature Bordeaux style was acutely apparent in tasting the four wines selected to showcase Almaviva’s range, with one deliberate exception in 2003.“It’s a bit more Chilean,” inFriou’s words, but “a good example of how far we can go in terms of full body and ripeness.” Friou seems to favor the “elegance and finesse of more recent vintages like 2007 and 2014,” a preference I shared at our tasting. A reduction in the amount of new oak—French of course—from 100 percent to 75 percent since 2005, is indicative of a wider stylistic change.
Both the 2014 and the 2007hark back to Almaviva’s third vintage, the 1998, which for a long time was considered difficult—“one of the worst”—but today is appreciated by the team for its “freshness, spice, and herbal notes,” said Friou, who compares it to a wine from the Médoc. I thought it telling that he had chosen to show this cool-vintage example, doubtless expecting guests to make a link with the 2007 and 2014. Nonetheless, he feels “more comfortable” when the grapes achieve more ripeness, and our succinct but edifying tasting demonstrated the path the wines have followed in seeking the best balance. The latest release, the 2014, is without a doubt an accomplished embodiment of this goal.
(in the order in which the wines were served with dinner)
2007 (magnum) Super-classy and suave on the nose, with quiet, looming power. Aromas of blackberry, blackcurrant leaves and skins, dried beef, and a touch of graphite.On the palate, silky and full yet taut, showing a certain restraint.Ripe damson fruit, then a streak of blueberry with vanilla on the mid-palate.Soft into the finish.
1998(magnum) Fresh, bright, and vibrant on the nose, with notes of eucalyptus and grass.Attractive and tantalizing. Doesn’t disappoint in the mouth, with piercing, tart fresh fruit—blueberries—alongside leafiness, spice, and pepper all in a rush. The mid-palate is more floral, dried petals lending complexity and delicacy.
2014 A riper and more indulgent sweet fruit than the 1998 on the nose, with prominent blackcurrant jelly aromas. Enticing freshness and liveliness.Again very sweet fruit on the palate, but not sickly sweet—very balanced and elegant, with a long, pure direction to the quality of the fruit.More coherent and more polished than the 2007, with more follow-through and persistence. Very swish, with significant punch on the finish.
2003 (magnum) The bouquet is hot, forward, and hedonistic, boasting burned caramel, dried fruit, and jam aromas. In bizarre contrast with the ripeness felt on the nose, the wine is slightly jagged in the mouth—almost too acidic, as though there were something not quite integrated about the ripeness. Leaves you with a feeling of scale rather than finesse.