What’s next from Chile’s pioneering icon wine?

Launched as a top-end Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend from the 1987 vintage, Don Melchor was Chile’s first ‘icon’ wine, but what’s next for this country’s legendary drop?

Don Melchor 2017 was the 30th vintage since the brand’s inception

Following an exclusive interview with Don Melchor’s head winemaker Enrique Tirado on Friday, despite this wine’s long history, and established character, there is still change afoot for Chile’s first icon wine.

Among the major developments taking place for Don Melchor, which is wholly owned by Chile’s largest wine group, Concha y Toro, is a new positioning for the brand – a subtle but important shift that was first announced by db last November.

Timed to coincide with the launch of Don Melchor’s 2017 expression, which marked its 30th vintage since the wine’s inception, was a new name: from now on, it would no longer be simply Don Melchor, but Viña Don Melchor, to reflect the fact it was “one winery, one wine”, said Isabel Guilisasti, marketing director at Concha y Toro, last year.

As part of this, the wine is being managed entirely independently from its parent company, which means that the sales and marketing for Don Melchor is being run as a separate, sole entity (the technical side, from winemaking to viticulture, was already standalone).

In the longer term, Viña Don Melchor is to get its own winery too, something that db also announced last year, although Tirado said on Friday that this plan was currently “on hold” due to Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Tirado is delighted with the latest vintage expression, which marks his 25th vintage at Viña Don Melchor – although he took over as head winemaker in 1997, he was on the technical team in 1995. 

Harvesting some of the 2020 fruit as much as four weeks earlier than usual, it was an atypical vintage, with a warm spring bringing forward flowering and fruit set, which was then followed by consistent warm and dry conditions right through the growing season, ensuring that the vine’s cycle of development retained its head start.

Although Tirado admitted to db that the combination of an early fruit set and warm conditions had caused him concern, because he didn’t want to harvest overripe grapes, in the end, such advanced maturation was a boon, as it allowed the estate to pick the berries before the coronavirus pandemic had struck Chile in earnest.

“This year, it was warm from spring to summer, and we were 3-4 weeks early, and I was worried about that, but in the end, it was fantastic, because it meant that we picked all the grapes from 9 March, finishing the harvest on 6 April, with good maturity, before the pandemic,” he said.

He added, highlighting the luck of 2020’s weather patterns coinciding with the coronavirus year, “If we needed this situation once in 100 years, this was the time, and, while I was worried at the beginning, at the end, I was saying thank you; we picked all the grapes in perfect condition, and it was a very good year.”

Indeed, he stressed that “there were no problems” relating to Covid-19, with more than 100 people working in the vineyard and the cellar unaffected by the virus, ensuring that the pandemic did not interfere with the winemaking for this year’s expression, which Tirado described as a vintage with “freshness, so that when you taste the wine, you feel a lot of energy.”

Such a character to the wine, which hails from the high, rocky terraces of the Maipo Andes, specifically the sub-region of Puente Alto, has also been observed in another flagship Cabernet-based red from the same area: Almaviva.

As previously reported by db, the 2020 expression of this wine – which is part owned by Concha y Toro, and sees Tirado join its technical committee – is both “spectacular” as well as a blend with “tension”, according to new Viña Almaviva managing director, Manuel Louzada – the latter character a result of the earlier-than-usual harvest date.

Returning to Viña Don Melchor, and the topic of future plans for the brand, Tirado told db that aside from the constant work to refine the wine, which is comprised almost entirely of Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a small amount of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, there were some further things that he would consider doing in the future.

One of these might be a so-called ‘second wine’, where any lesser quality grapes that aren’t used for the top wine, or ’grand vin’ – as it’s known at a Bordeaux property – are used to create a less expensive version, providing a stepping stone to the pricier and finer, more age-worthy expression. Examples of this include Le Petit Mouton de Mouton Rothschild from Pauillac’s Château Mouton Rothschild, or Epu (meaning ‘second’ in Mapudungun) from Puente Alto’s Almaviva.

Finally, db asked Tirado if he would consider making another, new, icon wine expression in Chile, but this time, without relying on Cabernet Sauvignon.

Although it’s not something he is planning at present, he is not averse to the idea. And, while one might expect Tirado to opt for Chile’s emblematic grape, Carmenere for such a potential project – a grape that’s notably absent from Viña Don Melchor, “because it would change the character of the wine too much” – it wasn’t this variety that he selected.

Rather, Tirado told db that he would like to try creating a wine from the other side of the Maipo River – Don Melchor’s Cabernet vineyards are planted on the north bank.

In contrast, he said that he would make a red blend from the south bank, using Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

With db commenting that he would then be able to craft a ‘Right Bank’ St-Emilion style Bordeaux blend to complement his current ‘Left Bank’ Pauillac expression, he said, “Yes, I like that idea”.

Viña Don Melchor: a few facts

  • The estate totals 127 hectares of productive vineyards
  • 90% of the vines are Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • 7.1% of the vines are Cabernet Franc
  • 1.9% are Merlot
  • 1% are Petit Verdot
  • The vineyard is split into 151 different parcels
  • The first vintage of Don Melchor was 1987 and the 2018 vintage expression was launched earlier this summer.

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