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10.04.2006

2002 Altair Bordeaux Blend "Grand Cru," Cachapoal, Chile

altair_02.jpgMost of the wine that arrives on my doorstep does so predictably. I get a call or an e-mail from some PR or marketing person who wants to know if I take samples, I explain my policy, and then a week later I get a box with some bottles and some technical datasheets and depending on the quality of the wine, maybe a refrigerator magnet or two (if you know what I mean.

This bottle of wine, however, arrived most unexpectedly, and mysteriously. As opposed to the usual UPS delivery, it arrived via a special international courier service, with no return address, no note inside, nothing.

So what else was there to do but pop it open and give it a try? Perhaps there was going to be a message in the bottle?

If there was any message in this wine from Altair, it was simply this: Chile can make Cabernet like the best of them.

Altair Vineyards and Winery is a joint venture between Laurent Dassault, owner of Chateau Dassault and Chateau La Fleur in Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, and the massive Viñas San Pedro, the third largest producer of wine in Chile. Apparently the project began as a dream of creating a true "grand cru" wine from Chile, and Dassault searched high and low in Chile to find vineyards capable of producing the sort of wine he wanted to make. In one of the corners of the Cachapoal Valley, he found what he felt was the ideal spot, and it happened to be land owned by Viñas San Pedro.

Thus began the partnership that takes its name from the star Altair. This extremely bright star (first magnitude -- which means that it is one of the brightest stars in the night sky) appears in the constellation Aguila the Eagle, and makes up one corner of the very recognizable Summer Triangle constellation -- a bright isosceles triangle that is currently headed for the horizon (and eventually the Southern Hemisphere) after spending most of the Northern Hemisphere summer right overhead.

The Cachapoal Valley lies in the northernmost part of the better known winegrowing region of the Rapel valley in Central Chile. This is a warmer growing region than some of the more remote areas of Chile. Carved by the Cachapoal river against the flanks of Chile's coastal region, the vineyards of the area are sheltered from the cool, wet influence of the Pacific, allowing sun hungry varietals like Merlot and Cabernet to ripen nicely.

What I've been able to learn about Altair makes it clear that this is the sort of international winery project where no expense has been spared. From the replanting and re-trellising of vineyards, to the construction of the winery, to the use of consultants like Michel Rolland, Dassault has clearly invested a lot of money towards the dream of creating Chile's best Bordeaux-style blend. Many call these sorts of projects "vanity" wineries, which certainly has a ring of truth, especially when one is standing on the deck of a winery built by world class architects, over all brand new, top-of-the-line winemaking equipment, and looking out on dazzling views of the landscape, but such characterizations typically don't hold up to even a small bit of scrutiny. Especially not when the wine is actually good.

The grapes for this wine come from sloping vineyards that roll off the foothills of the Andes Cordillera. The soil is a gravelly-clay mixture, mostly erosion from the mountains above. The roughly 144 acres of vineyards are planted densely (2000-5000 vines per acre) and managed for even lower yields than the somewhat reserved yields that seem to be common in the area. The vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. All harvesting is done by hand, in multiple passes through the vineyard, and double sorted at the berry level before crush.

The 2002 harvest was one of the earliest in many years in the Cachapoal Valley. Early harvests in this area are generally equated with better wines, as they tend to be lower yield and more consistently ripened fruit. This wine is mostly Cabernet (86%), with small amounts of Merlot and Carmenere (7% of each) added for character and balance. It was aged for 18 months in 100% new French oak. 2002 is the inaugural vintage of this wine.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark ruby in color, this wine has a pleasant nose of hazelnut, cherry, toasted oak and light leather aromas. In the mouth it is silky and plush with flavors of cherry and plum that hang on a very nicely integrated tannic structure and excellent acidity. This is not a bruiser of a wine, and is more medium bodied than full bodied, with a nice finesse that lingers into a very enjoyable finish. Despite its barrel treatment and telling traces of vanilla flavors, it is not an oak driven wine, which, coupled with its reasonable alcohol level (14%) make it real pleasure to drink.

Food Pairing:
It may be sort of gauche to suggest a Cuban dish to pair with a Chilean wine, but I can't help thinking that this would be a lovely accompaniment to traditional Cuban "Ropa Vieja."

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $60

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

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