The Terroir of Chile in Viña Montes and of Argentina in Kaiken
Second generation winemaker, Aurelio Montes del Campo, hosted a big barbeque at his home in Argentina this summer for friends to watch Chile battle Argentina in the final match of the Copa América soccer tournament. Guests eagerly sliced into a huge slab of beef with knives they brought from home; juices streamed off the table onto the floor. Glasses were never empty of Malbec.
The game was tense. Argentina was favored. Chile hadn’t won the Copa América in 99 years. The Chilean-born winemaker anxiously watched, quietly pleased that the Argentinian super-star, Lionel Messi, wasn’t capitalizing on his astonishing skills.
“All my friends were cheering for Argentina. Even my kid,” says Montes. “I was alone in the corner.”
In the end Chile defeated Argentina in a penalty shoot-out.
“I cried when we won,” says Montes. “My friends were surprised by my tears. I said, ‘Maybe for you it was a just game. Not for me.’”
Geographically worlds apart
Chile and Argentina may share a border, but they are just as different as the U.S. is from Mexico. The culture, the politics, the climate and the landscape are a study in contrast. Their style of play on the soccer pitch and their winemaking are influenced by culture. Chile is a country of order. Argentina is a country of passion.
Chile’s wine region is cradled between the frigid Pacific and the towering Andes. Its grape vines are protected from phylloxera, mildew and hail by the cold ocean winds and the physical barriers of the Atacama Desert to the north, the mountains to the east and the Patagonian glaciers to the south.
Argentina’s wine region, centered in Mendoza, is marked by the higher altitude, starting at 3,000 feet in elevation, and is cut off from the Pacific rains by the Andes. The only significant source of water is the Mendoza River.
Two countries, one wine family
Despite the differences, the Montes family calls both countries home and makes wine in each.
Mr. Montes presented the wines from Viña Montes, the eponymous Chilean winery, and Kaiken Wines, its Argentinian sister winery, for wine writers from around the country at the eighth annual Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Corning, NY. After the session Montes shared his story and laughs with me over wine.
In 1987 Aurelio Montes Sr. built the stunning, modern Viña Montes winery in Santiago, Chile along with 3 partners. The four men had two things in common. All were passionate about wine, and none had any money. They sold a car to acquire the money start the business. It is unique in that it is the only winery in Chile where the winemaker is the owner.
Viña Montes is well known for its powerful Alpha M Cabernet Sauvignon and is famed for its Purple Angel, the super Carmenère, which is perhaps the best representation of Chile’s national grape. The winery produces more than 20 varieties of wine from several vineyards in the valleys and at higher elevations.
Viña Montes was the second winery in the world to be certified sustainable. Sheep devour the weeds between the vines rather than using herbicide. Stringent energy efficiency practices cut the amount of power used. Viña Montes commissioned one of the most comprehensive studies of water use in the industry and as a result it employs inventive dry farming techniques which have dramatically reduce water consumption by up to 65 percent in some vineyards. It’s not only good for the earth, but it also makes wines with more concentration.
Fortified with success at the winery, the Montes family decided to expand operations in other countries.
“I was talking with my father and we decided we wanted to find a new place for a winery,” says Montes. “For five years I traveled to places like Australia, Napa, Spain, Portugal and France together to learn how wine is made in these regions. It was during these travels that I realized Argentina is really special.”
Drinking in the culture of Argentina
Named for the only animal to be able to cross the Andes between Chile and Argentina, the Caiquenes wild geese, Kaiken was founded in Argentina in 2002. That spirit of crossing the Andes to start a new winery in Argentina was both a gamble and an adventure. It was an economic risk. It was a culture risk.
Fifteen years ago, the Argentinian wine industry was completely undeveloped and Malbec was unknown outside its borders.
“We choose to start our winery in Argentina for three reasons,” says Montes. “One, we fell in love with the undeveloped country. Two, the terroir is so different. Producing wine in the desert is very different. The soil in Mendoza is something I would never choose. Sandy soil. Rocky soil. Crazy soil at high altitude. Finding new terroir was very great. Three, I wanted to go someplace where people are passionate about wine. In Argentina, they drink 40 liters per person a year. Never have I had lunch or dinner in Argentina without wine. People love wine. That passion is not easy to find in other places. These three things made us say, let’s go to Argentina. We love to make wine, we love to drink wine. This is the perfect place to be.”
The climate, the altitude and the grapes are significantly different in Argentina from Chile. Doing business is equally divergent. Montes explained, “In Chile, if I want to buy grapes, I sign a contract with the vineyard owner. In Argentina, if I want grapes, I stop a grower in the street, go to the vineyard and give them instructions. Then harvest and ferment. Until that point there is no price set. Contracts don’t exist in Argentina. It sounds crazy. It’s a hand-shake relationship based on trust. Everything is relationships.”
Similarities and differences come alive in the wines
Despite the differences, there are some similarities. Kaiken also follows sustainable practices. The vineyards are farmed with biodynamic concepts, working with nature, moon, stars, and the community to guide it. Like Viña Montes, Kaiken sources grapes from multiple vineyards in various terrains like the Vistalba vineyard, the oldest vineyard in Mendoza with 105 year old Malbec vines, and the Cistaflores vineyard located on the upper slope of the Andes.
While Kaiken doesn’t make Carmenère and Viña Montes doesn’t make Malbec or Torrontés, both make Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Incidentally, the Torrontés, grown in the Salta region of Argentina, is susceptible to fall victim to the ravenous appetites of wild donkeys. That’s not an issue growers face in Chile. It isn’t easy to find Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina, but there are a few wineries that are producing good wines. It took Montes almost 10 years to find the right spot to grow Sauvignon Blanc. Kaiken makes its 2015 Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc with grapes grown at almost 5,000 feet in elevation high on a plateau in the middle of the Andes in Mendoza. The site has extreme weather, requiring the grapes to be harvested in February (which is equivalent to harvesting in July in the U.S.) because it is already too cold in March.
It’s fascinating to taste the differences in the wines from each winery side by side. This is where the importance of the growing conditions really shines through.
Montes Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2015 could easily be mistaken for a young wine from New Zealand. Its vibrant aromas of lemon blossoms and fresh jalapeños lead into crisp citrus and tropical fruit flavors with a healthy dose of green grass. This spring flower sells for $15.
Kaiken Terroir Series Sauvignon Blanc 2015 is fermented in 16 percent used French oak to round out the flavor and give it elegance and Sancerre-like complexity. Bright lemon and stone fruit flavors dance on the palate with minerals coming through on the finish. This is the second harvest for this wine. “This is like an elegant woman that doesn’t need to dress proactively to call attention,” says Montes. “The wine speaks for itself.” It is $19 a bottle.
Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is made with grapes dry farmed on the lower slopes of Colchagua Valley in soils laden with granite gravel and clay. Herbal scents of dried thyme, leafy tobacco and green pepper dominate before revealing black cherry, blackberry and chocolate flavors. It is a powerful ballet dancer ready to perform for $25.
Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 is made with grapes grown in rocky, clay-rich soil on 50 year old vines from the Vistalba vineyard in Mendoza. Pow. Bossy blackberry and saucy strawberry slap you in the mouth. Soft mocha and baking spices kisses let you know it’s all in fun. This juicy darling is $25.
The Montes family has managed to capture the order, structure and elegance of Chile in the bottle. At the same time it celebrates the freewheeling, rugged flair of Argentina with its sister winery. Soccer, politics, relationships and wild donkeys are the terroir off wines.
Disclosure: I was provided with the Rodney Strong Scholarship which covered the costs of my participation in the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference where this interview took place.