Changes afoot for Chile’s Casa Real Cabernet

One of Chile’s most celebrated Cabernets, Casa Real, is undergoing changes under the guidance of its new winemaker, Sebastián Labbé.

Casa Real is a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile’s Alto Maipo region, launched with the 1989 vintage

As reported by the drinks business at the start of this year, Labbé, formerly chief winemaker of Viña Carmen, has taken over the position of ‘premium and ultra premium winemaker’ of Viña Santa Rita, the owner of both Carmen and Casa Real.

As part of this new post, he is now in charge of Casa Real, although he is still supported by Cecilia Torres, who has led Casa Real for almost 30 years, and stays on as a consultant for the Santa Rita flagship wine.

When asked by db last month about the impact of changes in cellar management for Casa Real, Labbé admitted that since he has taken charge of the brand he is planning to make some tweaks to the wine, which ranks alongside Don Melchor, Viñedo Chadwick, and Almaviva as one of Chile’s greatest Cabernet-based reds.

Speaking at masterclass in Hong Kong last month, timed to coincide with HKTDC Wine and Spirits Fair, and organised by dbHK, Labbé said that the main changes to Casa Real concerned viticultural methods employed in the vineyard used to make the wine, which is the 60 year-old Carneros Viejo plot in the Alta Jahuel sub-region of Maipo.

“There are two main aspects [when it comes to developments for Casa Real], and the first concerns the replanting of a lot of the Alto Jahuel estate,” he began.

“We are dealing with very old vines that are producing less and less grapes, but also, we have problems with viruses and fungal diseases, which are further affecting production in the vineyard, so have begun a five-year programme of replanting, which will see us replant around 60% of the Alto Jahuel estate, meaning that we will move [the sourcing of grapes for Casa Real] to healthier vineyards,” he said.

Already, however, there are changes in the management of existing vineyards used for Casa Real, according to Labbé.

Among these are the use of cover crops in the rows between the vines.

“We are now using cover crops to add more organic matter to the soil, and you can already see the affect in the vines – the yields were coming down, but now they are stable,” said Labbé.

This follows the decision two years ago to end the use of herbicides in the vineyards for Casa Real, added Labbé.

The second development concerns the style of Casa Real. Labbé explained, “We want to maintain the elegance of Casa Real, but we are now harvesting earlier, and we are also making some changes to the way in which the wine is fermented, so we are now fermenting a portion of the wine in barrels, and some in concrete, so we have more options, and more layers of flavour to play with.”

And, concerning the barrels used for ageing Casa Real, Labbé said that he was working more closely with the four main coopers employed by Santa Rita for the flagship wine to make sure the quality of the staves was consistent.

Other changes are more long term, but no less significant. Notably, Labbé said that he was planning to select a “Casa Real yeast” from the historic Carneros Viejo vineyard, that, he hoped, would help create a unique expression in the wine, and, being ‘wild’, would be less efficient than inoculated yeasts, which would help bring alcohol levels down in the wine.

Finally, Casa Real, which has, since its first vintage in 1989, been a pure Cabernet Sauvignon, might become a Bordeaux blend in the future.

“I am tempted to add other varieties that perform well in Alto Maipo,” said Labbé, mentioning Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Concluding, he commented, “It would go against the idea that this is 100% Cabernet, but the winner would be the wine – using other varieties could add different layers that we don’t have now.”

Hosted by the drinks business and Sebastian Labbé, the masterclass showcased six vintages of Casa Real from 1995 vintage to 2012 vintage from 4pm to 5.30pm on 10 November at the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel in Wanchai.

A full report on the masterclass will appear in the next edition of the drinks business Hong Kong.

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