Hillside vineyards are not the norm in Chile. The country has a plethora of alluvial valley floors that are always the first choice for planting because they’re the lowest effort places to stick vineyards, and the cheapest to farm. During my visit there last week, hillside vineyards became an easy indication of both serious ambitions when it came to winemaking, as well as the financial wherewithal to back them up.
Altair Winery has a lot of both. The winery was initially 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 second largest producer of wine in Chile. Dassault’s holding company apparently wasn’t as excited about the investment as he was personally, so in 2007, he sold his ownership in the company back to the San Pedro group.
The lack of famous French wine money hasn’t changed the ambitions of Altair winery. The project began as a dream of creating a true “grand cru” wine from Chile, from what Dassault believed was an ideal location — a shallow bowl of hillside vineyards in Chile’s arid Cachapoal Valley.
The Cachapoal Valley lies in the northernmost part of the 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.
The Altair winery is perched among vineyards that roll off the foothills of the Andes Cordillera. These vineyards are a mix of alluvial soils (mostly gravel and sand and large rounded rocks that have been washed by ancient streams) and colluvial soils (rough angular rock fragments and pulverized rock that have broken off the mountains during Chile’s frequent earthquakes. The roughly 144 acres of vineyards are planted densely (2000-5000 vines per acre) and managed for extremely low yields than the somewhat reserved yields that seem to be common in the area. The vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Syrah, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. The winery recently pulled all of its Merlot vines out and is replanting with Syrah, and a little experimental Sangiovese.
All harvesting is done by hand, in multiple passes through the vineyard, and double sorted at the berry level before crush. Winemaking, under the direction of Ana Maria Cumsille, with help from consultant Pascal Chatonnet, is done with an equal level of attention to detail, from barrel fermentation in large oak vats, to the careful blending of many different vineyard blocks and grape varieties to arrive at the final blends that make up the winery’s two wines: Altair and Sideral. Both wines are aged for between 15 and 18 months in 100% new French oak.
These blends seem to be shifting considerably from vintage to vintage in a way that may confound some repeat buyers over time. But Cumsille is gradually focusing in on a blend that makes the most of what the vineyards have to offer, and that matches her sensibilities as winemaker. The latest vintage of Altair contains 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, and 3% Carmenere, while Sideral is 87% Cabernet and 13% Carmenere.
The winery and its first wine take their names 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 Aquila the Eagle, and makes up one corner of the very recognizable Summer Triangle constellation — a bright isosceles triangle that is one of the most distinct constellations in the northern hemisphere. Despite being a northern hemisphere constellation, the star Altair also happens to be visible for part of the year in the southern hemisphere, a fact which played heavily in the choice of the name.
Sideral, on the other hand is the word for the dark spaces between the constellations.
I had the opportunity to taste the first vintage of Altair some years ago (the 2002) and found it to be a compelling and complex wine. The winery continues to make excellent wines, as these most recent vintages demonstrate.
2004 Sideral Red Wine, Rapel Valley, Chile
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of cherry and forest floor aromas. In the mouth it is a nice mix of cherry, tobacco and wet earth. Good acidity and nice balance frame a wine that is structured by slightly green fine grained tannins. A light herbal vegetal note emerges towards the back of the palate. 75% Cabernet, 10% Merlot, 6% Carmenere, 5% Sangiovese, 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Syrah. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $27. Click to buy.
2005 Sideral Red Wine, Rapel Valley, Chile
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine is highly aromatic, with cherry, oiled leather, and cedar notes. Beautifully earthy on the palate with suede-like tannins, and flavors of leather, cherry, graphite, and notes of cedar on the finish. Big boned, structured, this wine could use some time. And apparently the winery agrees. This wine won’t be released until mid-to late 2010. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $27
2004 Altair Red Wine, Cachapoal Valley, Chile
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of ripe cherries with hints of black raspberry. In the mouth it is broad and expansive with rich, even intense flavors of cherry, Mexican chocolate, wet dirt and hints of orange oil. Excellent balance and acidity. Faint tannins lightly grip the edges of the mouth as the wine finishes very long and elegantly. 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 11% Carmenere, 1% Cabernet Franc. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. Click to buy.
2005 Altair Red Wine, Cachapoal Valley, Chile
Inky almost opaque garnet in the glass, this wine has a very intense forest floor, cherry, and pipe tobacco with notes of espresso. In the mouth the intense cherry, tobacco, and espresso flavors marry very well to the wet dirt undertones of the wine. High toned notes of cherry cordial float above the main body of the wine which incorporates a slight piney greenness which is actually quite nice. Great acidity and fine grained tannins will age beautifully with time. The finish of the wine is slightly warm but only after about 20 seconds. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. Click to buy.