Two distinct but equally exciting expressions of one of Chile’s greatest historic vineyards have now passed the ten- and 20-year mark. This is the perfect time for Patricio Tapia to review the quality and style of the wines by way of a rare vertical

From a viticultural perspective, Chile is still in a process of self-discovery. Ever since the Casablanca Valley first demonstrated the possibility of cool-climate viticulture in 1982, there has been no end to the new regions and vineyards emerging in a country that offers not only a wide range of soils but also the cold influence of the Andes Mountains to the east, the maritime breezes from the Pacific Ocean to the west, and of course, the latitude of a territory that measures 2,670 miles (4,300km) in length but averages only 110 miles (177km) in width.

But along with those discoveries are the classic vineyards that form the basis of the tradition of Chilean wine and that have been a part of the national viticultural panorama since the mid-19th century, when the first fine varieties were imported from France. Of those, Tocornal (opposite) is probably the most important.

Located on the outskirts of Santiago, at the foot of the Andes Mountains, Tocornal has played a historically important role in the modern history of Chilean wine. It was here that some of the first French vines were planted; and their owner, Manuel Antonio Tocornal, played a pioneering role in renovating the country's wine. Like many other landowners and viticulturists of the time, he was inspired by France as the ideal for wine. Around 1860, he hired French winemakers and imported the most modern enological equipment available.

Little is known about the wines that Tocornal produced from his vineyard (for years it was called Mariscal) except for the varieties that French naturalist Claudio Gay noted during his stay in Chile: "Red and white cavernet [sic] Sauvignon from Bordeaux, black Malbec, red and white pinot from Burgundy..." (Juan Ricardo Couyoumdjian, "Vinos en Chile, desde la Independencia hasta el Fin de la Belle Epoque," Instituto de Historia, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Historia 39:1, June 2006).

Among the wines that we do know about are those made by the vineyard's second owner, Alfonso Chadwick. This wine entrepreneur bought the Mariscal Estate from the Tocornal family in 1942. "He replanted it primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties and reached a total of 400ha [1,000 acres] of vineyards," affirms Eduardo Chadwick, son of Don Alfonso and current owner of Viña Errázuriz. For decades, these vineyards were used to make Tocornal Fond de Cave, a red wine that was considered one of the best in the country in the mid-20th century. With luck (which the author of this report has not yet had), it is still possible to find ancient bottles of this Fond de Cave-a quasi-mythical red in the history of Chilean wine-in old bottle shops around Santiago.

Easier to find, but no less famous, are the wines made from Tocornal grapes during the second half of the 20th century. In 1968, Viña Concha y Toro bought the vineyard from the Chadwick family and, taking advantage of the emphasis on Cabernet, began to produce Marqués de Casa Concha, an emblematic wine whose first vintage Tocornal's celebrity status was really secured 15 years later, when Concha y Toro, determined to produce a world-class wine, turned to Tocornal to make Don Melchor, the first "icon" wine in Chile's modern viticulture.

But it wasn't to stand alone. Ten years later, Baron Philippe de Rothschild entered a joint venture with Concha y Toro to create another world-class wine, from a selection of 40ha (100 acres) of the vineyard. The wine was Almaviva, which debuted with the 1996 vintage and quickly rose to the heights of Don Melchor in terms of its expression of a sense of place and quality.

Today, three wines are produced from Tocornal: Viñedo Chadwick, from a 15ha (37-acre) parcel that the Chadwick family did not sell to Concha y Toro, as well as Don Melchor and Almaviva. (Marqués de Casa Concha has become a line of varietal wines whose Cabernet Sauvignon comes from different vineyards in the Maipo Valley, including Tocornal, rather than being the second wine of Don Melchor.)

The terroir

What we know today as the Tocornal Vineyard is 11 miles (18km) south of downtown Santiago on the north bank of the Maipo River. This sector, 2,200ft (665m) above sea level, is part of the area known as Alto Maipo, at the foot of the Andes Mountains, where Chile's best Cabernet Sauvignons have traditionally originated.

The reasons for the high level of quality reached by Alto Maipo in general, and Tocornal in particular, are several. The first is the cold influence of the Andes, which comes in the form of cool breezes that slide down the mountains during the ripening period, resulting in spicier Cabernets with more pronounced acidity and flavors closer to red fruit.

It also means later harvests. According to Almaviva's French winemaker Michel Friou, "I calculate that there are at least three weeks between budbreak in Cabernet here and in Colchagua [another famous Chilean viticultural area], and another three at harvest."

And then there is soil. Tocornal sits on an alluvial terrace of the Maipo River, and its soils have a high content of gravel and round stones due to the erosion of glaciers that advanced from the mountains toward the valley, dragging material that was then deposited on the terraces. This gravel is essential for drainage and, therefore, for lower yields and more concentrated fruit (as in the Médoc). According to terroir researcher Pedro Parra, the youngest terraces are closest to the river, while the oldest-the richest in minerals and particularly in clay-are farther away. Tocornal is located on one of the oldest. "What I have learned is that the clay mixes with the gravel, lending complexity to the Cabernet.

If there is no clay, the wine is good but simpler. If there is clay in soils that are more decomposed, such as those of the old terraces, the wine tends to be longer on the palate and to offer greater minerality," concludes Para. Added to all of the above are the different viticultural and winemaking developments at Tocornal over the years. To assess those changes, as well as to see the way the wines reflect their origin, Concha y Toro and Almaviva staged a rare vertical tasting of its greatest Don Melchor and Almaviva vintages. Tasting notes for the most outstanding wines follow.

Dom Melchor

1987

The first three vintages of Don Melchor were fermented in raulí-wood foudres. This year, however, the wine was aged for eight months in French oak barriques-a first for Concha y Toro in its 128-year history. 1987 was considered a very good vintage, with even ripeness, thanks to stable weather in April and May and a lack of rainfall. Spicy and herbal above all else, the aromas of rosemary and menthol merge in a light body with a friendly texture with no rough edges. The acidity remains intact, lending a surprisingly youthful freshness to a wine that is now considered to be at its peak. 17 (90)

1990

This was the first time that stainless-steel tanks and temperature control were used during the fermentation of Don Melchor. Furthermore, as in the previous two vintages, the aging time was extended from eight months to a year, to obtain a wine with better quality and concentration. The 1990 vintage had high temperatures in January, but these dropped back to the historic average as harvest approached. In this Melchor, greater efforts seem to have gone into the texture, which is silky, while the aromas and flavors are deep and ripe, close to the black fruit that melds with notes of coffee in a wine that could continue to evolve gracefully for another couple of years. 17 (90)

1992

In this vintage, Goetz Von Gersdorff, Concha y Toro's historic chief winemaker, handed over command to Pablo Morandé, who was faced with a very complex year when hard frosts and snow severely reduced the yield per hectare. They made only 10,000 cases of Don Melchor that year, rather than the average 15,000. But the result is one of my favorite Don Melchors-a wine with tremendous freshness and elegance, full of fresh red-fruit flavors moderated by a sharp acidity and soft herbal notes. At 12% ABV, it is easy to drink and still has at least another five years of life ahead. 18 (94)

1994

A great contrast to the 1992 vintage, this was a much more stable year, though strong sun forced a relatively early harvest in mid-April. Confident in the ripeness of his fruit, Morandé decided not to filter the wine this year, which had never been done before. The result is a wine that today shows great aromatic expression, rich in herbal and menthol notes, with firm, austere acidity supporting the weight of brawny tannins that have still to soften up. 17 (90)

1995

A year with very good ripeness and little rainfall (a mere 1.1in [30mm] between January and April) produced grapes with very good concentration. After the "texture trauma" of 1994, however, Morandé decided to include another variety in the blend for the first time, adding 3 percent Merlot from the same vineyard to lend smoothness. He also decided to filter again. The result is an extremely complex and elegant wine that recovers the typical Tocornal suavity of texture, while also offering red fruit, spices, and herbal notes. 17.5 (93)

1996

An abundance of snow accumulated in the Andes during the winter of 1995, which resulted in lower temperatures in the foothills. The cold influence produces a Don Melchor that is brilliant in its freshness and sense of place. The herbal aromas-rosemary and eucalyptus-are clearly present, but elegantly blended with red fruit. The acidity contributes to the wine's backbone, accompanied by firm-but-smooth tannins. 17.5 (93)

1999

They tried to include Merlot in the blend again (as in 1995), but it did not give quite the right results. So, Enrique Tirado, the new Don Melchor winemaker from 1997, decided to try including other varieties planted at Tocornal, adding 7 percent Cabernet Franc to the final blend. "The Cabernet Franc from Tocornal has a role similar to that of the Merlot. It softens the blend and lends more elegance to the tannins," Tirado says. With the exception of the 2000, all subsequent vintages of Don Melchor would have Cabernet Franc in the blend. With respect to the quality of the vintage, it was a very hot, dry year that produced a voluptuous, potently ripe Don Melchor, rich in flavors of coffee and chocolate. 17.5 (92)

2003

As in most of the world's wine regions, 2003 was an extremely warm year in Tocornal. A corpulent, potent, and concentrated wine, which also offers surprisingly fresh acidity and balance, such that it still has another five or six years ahead of it. "In complex years such as this one," insists Tirado, "the work we have done in the vineyard, differentiating more than 100 lots, bears fruit." 17.5 (92)

2005

A classic year for Don Melchor; the season was ideal, with mild temperatures, scant rainfall, and time to wait patiently for maturity. "2005 gave us a great wine with tremendous balance," says Tirado-and he is right. The aromas are fresh and clear, generous in red fruits and herbal tones that submerge into a potent body with an enveloping, smooth texture, all moderated by an acidity that lends a seductive juiciness to this still very young Don Melchor. 18 (94)

2007

While everything suggested that it would be another tremendously hot year in Maipo, the final weeks of the season saw a drop in temperatures, and dry weather allowed the winemakers to wait calmly for ripeness. They have created a wine that is ripe and potent, with lush notes of black fruits and very concentrated flavors. 17 (91)

Almaviva

1996

The joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Concha y Toro was signed in 1997. For the first vintage, the enological team made a selection of wines from those that were already aging in the barrels and that would eventually become Don Melchor. From this selection-and a very cold year in Maipo-Almaviva was born, full of herbal and spicy flavors, with tense acidity, a texture that feels smooth yet very firm, and great depth of flavor. 17.5 (93)

1999

Unlike 1996, this vintage was marked by heat and drought, which produced the warmest and most voluptuous wine in Almaviva's short history. Chocolate and sweet spice mingle in a rich texture-a little monster, full of concentration and strength. 17 (90)

2004

The winemaker who began the project in situ was Pascal Marty from France. In 2004, he was replaced by North American winemaker Tod Mostero, who arrived in January to take charge of this vintage from the beginning, a vintage of very low yields, very small berries, and dry and sunny weather conditions that produced a corpulent wine full of sweet spices, intense aromas of black fruits, and a tremendous structure. Still young. 17.5 (92)

2005

One of the qualities that distinguished Mostero's work at Almaviva was his obsession with texture, of which the best example is probably this 2005. A long harvest yielded more nervous flavors that fuse into an Almaviva that has tremendous aromatic complexity and sophistication. Its texture is firm yet silky, accompanied by an acidity that keeps it all firm and refreshing. 18 (94)

2007

Tod Mostero left Almaviva to take charge of Dominus Estate in Napa Valley in 2007. The new winemaker, Michel Friou (formerly winemaker at Casa Lapostolle) took over the aging and final blending of this wine. A brilliant double act that has made for one of Almaviva's most dazzling expressions: a precise combination of ripe black fruit, outlined by a mineral acidity and tannins as fine and resistant as a steel net. This blend included 28 percent Carmenère, half of which came from Apalta in the warmer Colchagua Valley-a decision that appears to contradict Almaviva's "château" spirit, but that does not affect the final result. 18 (94)