The wines of Chile are for many British wine lovers a staple of their casual drinking diet. These wines are almost guaranteed to be bursting with fruit, well-made and well-priced. In many ways, Chilean wines slipped into a niche previously filled by Australia when the latter’s wines began to creep up in price from budget to mid-market in the middle of the 1990’s.
Casa Lapostolle is one of a handful of producers who have slowly but surely pushed the status and the quality of Chilean wines upward, to compete at premium price levels with wines from across the globe. For many Chilean houses this has been through partnerships and inward investment from North American and European wine businesses. Casa Lapostolle is a perfect case in point: their wines are pitched slightly above typical Chilean prices, but the quality is superb and has been recognised as such – particularly their Cuvée Alexandre Merlot which regularly sweeps the boards in competitions and with pundits, as one of the world’s greatest Merlots. Casa Lapostolle is in fact part of the family-owned French Marnier-Lapostolle group, producers of the famous Grand Marnier liqueur.
I met up with Cyril de Bournet, Managing Director of Casa Lapostolle, to taste through their range of wines over a very fine lunch in that steak-lovers paradise, the Champney Inn near Edinburgh. Cyril, a member of the Marnier-Lapostolle family by marriage, explained that although Casa Lapostolle was founded only in 1994, the vines on their estate property are quite ancient, with the vines for Cuvée Alexandre being around 60 years of age. The family, who make wine and own the Château de Sancerre in the Loire, had been searching for a new business in Chile and spent many years visiting and researching potential sites. Cyril claims that almost as soon as they saw the ancient, gnarled grey vines and fine exposure of the Apalta vineyard, tucked into a corner of the Rapel Valley, they knew they had found the ideal spot and, potentially, had struck gold.
Although a permanent winemaking team is in place, the appointment of French winemaking guru Michel Rolland as chief oenologist was a key element in their strategy. Rolland consults all over the world, for some of the very best wines and is a huge favourite of Robert Parker. Rather cleverly, Casa Lapostolle has retained him exclusively in Chile, where he is responsible for the management of the vineyard, the purchasing of winemaking equipment, crucial decisions such as when to harvest, the handling of the grapes, and of course, the finest details of vinification, ageing and bottling of the wines. They have recently begun to produce a single vineyard flagship wine, “Clos Apalta”, which wasn’t on show here (though I’ve tasted it previously), but the Cuvée Alexandre reds in particular are extraordinarily fine wines in their own right.
Casa Lapostolle own the vineyards from which they source around two thirds of their grapes, the remainder come from contracted growers. The winery in the Rapel Valley, built only a few years ago, is pretty much state of the art with temperature-controlled equipment and movement of wine by gravity rather than harsher pumping. French oak barrels are used for maturation, a high proportion of them new.
The whole operation at Casa Lapostolle seems to be of terrifically high quality, and quite visionary within the Chilean context. Certainly this is borne out in tasting. Regular Wine Pages readers will know of my great admiration for these wines, so it was a real treat to taste and chat about them on this occasion. These wines are available quite widely in the UK: First Quench outlets, Oddbins (Cuvée Alexandre reds), Majestic and Safeway all carry at least some of the range, but Casa Lapostolle’s UK agent, firstname.lastname@example.org, should be able to advise of local stockists. The regular wines are around £7.00 retail, the Cuvée Alexandre around £11.00 – £14.00 (£5=$7.50US)
Sauvignon Blanc 2000
Perfumed, aromatic style, with lots of fresh tropical fruit notes of peach and gooseberry and a real citrus crunch. On the palate it is fresh and zippily-fruited, with good weight and texture and plenty of clean, pure lemon fruit. Very fresh and delicious style. Well balanced, with natural acidity. Very good.
Lovely nose, a good deal of smoky, nutty oak over sweet peach and nectarine fruit and a crisp apple undertone. The nose is really lovely, with notes of caramel and butter, and just a hint of honey. Palate is fresh, displaying good quality of cool fruit, and whilst the oak rounds out the finish, this is clean and savoury in the mouth. Very good.
Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre 1999
Adds a good deal more smoky, nutty finesse to the charry oak and ripe fruit, but elegant with hints of lush, tropical fruit and a citrus/mineral restraint. Full-bodied and creamily textured in the mouth, this is chewy and dense Chardonnay, with an almost butterscotch richness, but good orange and lemon acidity to balance, joined by some oaky spice. Very good.
Cigar box aromas dominate, with cherry and blackcurrant fruit. The palate has plenty of juicy acidity and firm tannins that add a bittersweet edge and quite a bit of backbone. Black plum and cherry fruit, quite a creamy texture and good length. A very well balanced wine again, that was my “wine of the week” recently. Very good indeed.
Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
Again those cedary, cigar box notes to the fore, but beneath is soft, baked plummy fruit, some hints of chocolate, blackcurrant and again cherry. On the palate it is concentrated (though not over-extracted), smooth and fine with good ripe tannins and a lovely ripeness of fruit that is sweet but savoury, with a great bittersweet, plum skin edge to the fruit. Very good indeed.
Cabernet Sauvignon Cuvée Alexandre 1998
This was a sensational wine (and wonderful with the food) that sings with creamy, minty, ripe berry fruit, a toasty vanillin oak and a complex cedary component. On the palate it is expansive and mouthfilling, rich in texture and fruit, with a core of sweet cassis that pushes through silky tannins into a long finish. Excellent. I’d be hard pushed to choose between this and the following wine.
Merlot Cuvée Alexandre 1999
A wine (like many in the range) that I know well, and which always delivers the goods. It is the great plummy, chocolaty depth of the nose on this wine that really draws you too it, with sparks of minty ripeness and a loganberry and mulberry density of fruit. The palate is silky smooth, with fine tannins and expansive acidity, layers of thick, sweet fruit and all bolstered by subtle spice into a long finish. Top notch stuff. Excellent.