For me, great wines always have a story behind them. It can be the story of the people who made it, the place it comes from, the story of how the grapes became the final wine, or a thousand other things that make a wine more than just the flavors and aromas in the glass. The best wines are overflowing with such stories, and discovering them for myself is one of the greatest joys of being a wine lover.
In the far reaches of Chile’s San Antonio valley, on a road that winds its way over the rolling hills towards the ocean, a particular crest of a hill, once rounded, reveals vineyards spilling over the steep hillsides like a green froth. Their obviously meticulous care stands in somewhat stark contrast to the corrugated tin and wooden shacks on the opposite side of the road, or the cinder block remains (or unfinished beginnings) of what might have been a house or a store. Down in the little valley at the base of these hills lies the tiny village of Lo Abarca, its 400 residents tucked snugly in a little crease between the final range of hills before Chile spills into the Pacific Ocean a mere four kilometers away.
By far, the largest building in Lo Abarca is the Casa Marin winery, where the remarkable Maria Luz Marín, her son Felipe, and sixteen of the local villagers (with help from all their relatives at harvest time) produce some of Chile’s most distinctive wines.
Maria Luz Marín remembers being a schoolgirl with great fondness. Since her home was not so far from the school she would run home and have lunch every day with the only person home during the day: her aging grandfather. He would sit and drink a glass of wine while she ate her lunch, and would always pour her a little wine into a spoon for her to have, “for her health” despite his daughter’s disapproval.
Marín’s father loved wine as well, almost as much as he loved the countryside. One day he came home and announced that he had bought a piece of property, sight unseen, basically in the middle of nowhere, near a town called Lo Abarca that no one had ever heard of. With excitement, the 8-year-old Marín asked her father to take her there, which proved to be a challenge, when their car was unable to cross the river that the little track of a road led across to get to the village. Eventually Marín would spend her winter holidays there in the countryside, riding horses, and doing the things that girls do.
When it came time to go to university, her love of the countryside led Marín to study Agronomic Engineering, something that would get her out into the fields, but a field of study that was highly male dominated at the time. And because she didn’t like machinery, there were really only two paths to take: fruit trees or wine. And when she walked into her first wine class, she realized there really was no choice at all.
“When I attended my first viticulture class, I knew I had fallen in love. It was the way the teacher spoke about the grapes. He spoke of the nobility of the plant, how it grew, how it existed like a being. He talked about how wine had always been part of human society, and I learned that wine was not just wine, it was life. I learned that wine is artistic. For me this class was like listening to poetry” says Marín.
Marín became a winemaker and viticulturist when such work was virtually unheard of for women in Chile, and from the beginning she had a dream of owning her own winery where she could make wine the way she wanted. Facing stiff opposition from the male-dominated industry, she successfully talked her way in to winemaking jobs, as well as jobs on the sales side of the industry, wanting to know the complete picture of how everything worked. Amidst all of this she had two sons, and then raised them from a young age as single mother after a divorce. In an industry that at the time was focused on making wine a business, Marín passionately strove to earn and save enough for the day that she could pour her heart into her own wine. After more than three decades of work, that day came.
When it came time to decide where she would buy land to plant her vineyards, there was no question where it would be. Never mind that no one had ever planted grapes so close to the chilly winds off of the Pacific Ocean, and that everyone in the industry thought she was crazy. Even her friends in the village counseled her against it, for fear that she would lose all her money. But Marín remembered how she used to bring the produce from Lo Abarca back into Santiago to the amazement of everyone, who wanted to know where she had gotten vegetables of such quality. And she knew what she was doing when it came to growing grapes.
After protracted trials and tribulations over everything from water rights to the stubborn insistence by the government bureaucracy that if she was going to remove 88 acres of Eucalyptus trees she had to plant an equal amount somewhere else, Marin planted her vineyards of Riesling, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer, and then set about building her winery, and her lifelong dream.
Today, ten years after she purchased her land Casa Marin is still the closest winery in Chile to the Pacific, and one of the coldest vineyard sites in the country. Marín is the only female owner-winemaker of any Chilean winery, and while she still gets the cold shoulder from many men in the industry, many more are tasting her wines and then lining up to learn what they can from her about growing grapes in a place that no one thought was possible, and making wines that are unlike any others in Chile.
The winery was completed in 2004 and is fairly modest. The winery has the capacity to produce about 15,000 cases of wine or so, but it is not operating at capacity and some of the wine produced is sold on the bulk market to make ends meet. Marín carefully farms 26 different blocks in her vineyards, which she (along with her crews and village friends) harvest in many multiple passes. All the harvesting is done by hand, as is the careful sorting of the grapes, and then each of the blocks is vinified separately, with natural yeasts, and often with whole clusters, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir. The wines go into French Oak barrels, where they are left to finish their secondary fermentation in as much time as it takes.
Since the last harvest, Marín has been joined by her son Felipe as a co-winemaker. Felipe studied winemaking at the Santa Rosa Junior College in Sonoma County, and then took classes in Marlborough New Zealand, worked several harvests around the world, and recently returned to join his mother at the winery. Felipe said he was probably always going to get into the family business. “I knew wine was a good business from a very young age. I used to steal my mother’s leftover lab samples and bring them to school and sell them to my teachers,” he says with a grin.
Casa Marín’s wines are, in a word, exceptional. They have a thread of delicacy and balance that runs through them all, and by virtue of being from Chile, they are truly incredible values. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Note that some of the 2009 vintages below are not yet on the market, but will be in a few months.
2009 Casa Marín “Cipreses Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Palest blonde in the glass, nearly without any color, this wine has an electric nose of cut grass, herbs, and cucumber skin. In the mouth it is explosive bright green apple welded to gooseberries in flavor, with gorgeous acidity. A wonderful mineral undertone underlies the whole wine, knitting it together into a fantastic mouthwatering package. The grapes come from limestone soils at the very tops of the hilly vineyards. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2009 Casa Marín “Laurel Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc, , Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, tropical fruits, and green herbs. In the mouth it is beautiful and delicate with pineapple, gooseberry, and green apple flavors that are framed by what I can only describe as a honeyed complexion. Elegant and refined, this wine comes from grapes grown in the sea-level part of the vineyards, more protected from the wind, where the vineyard, according to winemaker Maria Luz Marín is more “comfortable.” Score: around 9. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2009 Casa Marín “Estero Vineyard” Sauvignon Gris, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, this somewhat rare mutation of the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety has a nose of gooseberry and mixed tropical fruits. In the mouth it offers bright kiwi fruit flavors with, with a gush of pink grapefruit in the center of the wine. Great acid, a wonderfully silky texture and an underlying sense of wet stone minerality give way to a spicy quality in the finish. Simply gorgeous. Barrel fermented and then aged in 50% new oak. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2008 Casa Marín “Miramar Vineyard” Riesling, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, the wine has a nose of paraffin, petrol, mandarin orange zest and honey. In the mouth it is a gorgeous lemon juice sizzle with yellow grapefruit juice dancing on the palate over a bed of wet stones. Wonderful acidity lifts the wine into a very finish with beautiful lemon zest and grapefruit notes. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2009 Casa Marín “Casona” Gewurtztraminer, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel and rose petals. In the mouth it is crisp and bright and juicy and… my notes trail off and I have the word great circled and underlined. The body is beautiful orange zest, grapefruit, and a fantastic minerality. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. Click to buy.
2006 Casa Marín “Lo Abarca Hills” Pinot Noir, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has an incredibly aromatic nose of wonderfully spicy cranberry and cherry aromas with a very pungent cedar quality. In the mouth it is bright and spicy, with gorgeous cedar, cranberry, and cherry flavors that morph to hints of mulling spices and cloves in a very, very long finish. Wonderfully balanced with faint, fine grained tannins and fantastic acidity. The best Pinot Noir I have ever had from Chile, this wine will likely age quite well. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $49. Click to buy.
2008 Casa Marín “Miramar Vineyard” Syrah, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a jaw-dropping nose of black and white pepper mixed with airy cherry and cassis fruit. In the mouth it is simply stunning. I nearly dropped my glass. It’s like looking through a clear windowpane of bright cassis and blackberry fruit on a cold winter’s day. Briary hints of herbs emerge as the wine finishes with such incredible acidity and lift it takes the breath away. This is a wine you just want to gulp and gulp and gulp. A staggering 11.7% alcohol, it is the closest to a a Côte-Rôtie I have ever seen from the New World. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $49. Click to buy.
2006 Casa Marín “Brazilian Style” Pinot Noir, Lo Abarcas, San Antonio Valley, Chile
OK, OK, this wine isn’t really called Brazilian Style, but that is what we were calling it when we tasted it on Monday. It is sold as a lower priced Pinot Noir only in the Brazilian market at the moment, but it may make an appearance in this Cartagena line in the United States. Keep your eyes peeled.
Light to medium garnet in the glass this wine smells of plums and bright cherries. In the mouth it has beautiful raspberry, cherry flavors with bright juicy flavors that come alive with fantastic acidity. Exuberant and tasty, this is the kind of wine that most Beaujolais Nouveau dreams of being but never will be. Incredibly gulpable. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $15 but not available in the US. Yet.
Casa Marín also has a second label called Cartagena which they use for wine that doesn’t make the cut to their main label.
2007 Casa Marín Cartagena Sauvignon Blanc, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Light green gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of of gooseberries and green apple. In the mouth it is a bright mineral-driven wine of green apple and kiwi flavors, with a surprisingly long finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $14. Click to buy.
2007 Casa Marín Cartagena Pinot Noir, San Antonio Valley, Chile
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherries and black plums. In the mouth it is plummy with cranberry compote flavors and a light, tangy orange peel note that emerges on the finish. Juicy with acidity this is a very tasty wine. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $22. Click to buy.