Fun fact: when I landed in Chile, I had no idea, but I’d always pronounced the name of this winery incorrectly. Even though I vaguely knew that Lapostolle is the name of the French family that produced Grand Marnier liqueur, I somehow thought that the name would be pronounced as if it were a Spanish name – and I was totally wrong. Sitting with an old friend of mine in a Peruvian restaurant in Valparaiso, sharing the best ceviche I’ve ever had, I was trying to thank him for the wines he’d selected as a belated wedding present and, well, I got it wrong. It’s Lapostolle, three syllables, and very French.
Forty-eight hours later I found myself relaxing over a lunch of empanadas and beef stew behind a colonial bakehouse in Cunaco, a small town in the Colchagua valley, just down the road from Viu Manent winery. The restaurant was called Mistela, and there is no doubt in my mind that you couldn’t possibly find a better restaurant in wine country. It was summertime, warm with a slight breeze, and we sat outside at an old wooden table, looking across fields of wildflowers towards grapevines in the distance. The service was gracious, the food nothing short of amazing – and most importantly, I felt truly relaxed and a million miles away from my office. Lapostolle had confirmed a visit to the winery later on in the afternoon, and I was hoping that it’d actually work out, unlike the Cousiño-Macul debacle the day before.
Fed, watered, and thoroughly refreshed, we hit the road again and snuck over into the relatively small Apalta valley, which meets up with the Colchagua valley near the relatively large town of Santa Cruz. Seeing that we were slightly ahead of schedule, we drove past Lapostolle and on to Montes winery, which was only a km or two further. Unlike other Chilean wineries, their gate guard was friendly and welcomed us in, explaining where we could park and that the gift shop was open. Sure enough, it was, although you reach it by way of their offices, which was a little bit strange. Lovely building, though, and if you ever wanted a Montes T-shirt or apron, you’d be in the right place. Once again, though, it wasn’t clear if you could taste wine or go on a tour, and time was running out, so we made our excuses and left.
Back down the road a couple of miles and there we were at a rather imposing gate compound with a guard; slightly confused (which appears to be usual for me when visiting South American wineries, I’m afraid), I waited for the guard to appear. He did, bad Spanish ensued, and he smiled and explained how we could get up to the winery, which was easy enough. Several minutes later – we drove slowly so as not to dust out the vines – we arrived at a very plain parking lot, parked, and sat down with a couple of German tourists and waited for the tour to start. The tour started – and then Lapostolle’s Brand Ambassador, Diego Gosselin, arrived, introduced himself, and soon it became clear that we weren’t there for the tour, but rather for something a bit more in depth than that. Suitably embarrassed, I thanked him profusely, and then we got to work.
Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, the great-granddaughter of the founder of Grand Marnier, founded the winery in 1994. It’s a familiar story: French company visits the New World, preferably somewhere where the harvest isn’t the same time as France, and founds a winery dedicated to producing high quality wines. Sometimes it doesn’t work out – I still miss the Deutz winery that used to be in California – and sometimes it does. Just as Robert Mondavi partnered with Chilean to found Seña – in that case the Chadwick family – the Lapostolle family partnered with the Chilean Rabat family. Unlike Mondavi, though, the Lapostolle family eventually took over the entire operation, buying out the locals.
Grapes had first been planted near the site of the winery back in the 1920s, which meant that the Lapostolle folks had a fairly good idea as to the potential quality of the site. Many of the vines are still producing today, which of course means that if you’re looking for old vine Carménère and Merlot, then this is probably a good place for you to start… but I digress. The older vineyards are generally on the valley floor, but they’ve also begun planting newer vineyards on the hillsides as well, taking full advantage of the microclimate of the site. Standing outside the winery, I was reminded somewhat of the Dry Creek Valley in California, or Sonoma more generally: it seemed warm, dry, rocky, a little bit scrubby… only the Andes looming in the background were an obvious reminder that this was not even remotely Californian!
Mind you, I’m no architecture critic, but I have a real soft spot for building that are designed not to be flashy from the outside, but rather to be wonderfully thought out once you’re on the inside. The entrance to the winery was nothing special – it reminded me of a Spanish seaside hotel, concrete and wood and glass, but of course it wasn’t designed to be beautiful, but rather to be functional. During harvest, it looked to be no problem to set up sorting tables outside to receive grapes coming in on trucks; just as with, say, Drouhin Oregon, it had also been constructed to minimize energy usage and to avoid having to pump wine around the winery (it’s gravity-fed – and they seem to be fans of pigéage, only pumping over once or twice at the beginning of fermentation and then again only for the standard product lines).
Speaking of product lines, they were thankfully straightforward: Casa at $12, the Cuvée Alexandre line at around $20, and Clos Apalta, the tête de cuvée, at around $75. Grapes for the flagship wine are grown here, as merlot and cabernet for the Cuvée Alexandre, but they’ve got other vineyards as well; their syrah and sauvignon blanc comes from the Cachapoal valley (up by Altaïr winery), and they’ve even got chardonnay planted in the Casablanca valley, the fairly cool valley nearer to Valparaiso than to Santiago. Of course this is an oversimplification – I think they may have other, smaller vineyards near these main three – but I was taking notes as furiously as I could and didn’t get it all down!
Anyhow: we walked through the winery and this is what I remember. Gravity-fed as much as possible, it looked superficially like Altaïr on a grand scale, with large oak uprights for fermentation arranged in an oval, smaller barrels on the next level down, older barrels on the floor below that, and underneath it all a very James Bond-like wine library as well, complete with futuretronic auto-lifting glass door (yes, really). As I mentioned earlier, the winery is set up so that you can hand-carry sorted grapes directly from the sorting table into the room with the oak uprights; once they’ve moved grapes from into the uprights, they’ve got equipment to chill it down to about 5 degrees for a week or so. Unusually, they don’t use packaged yeast at all, opting instead to go with local native yeasts; they’re also in the process of certifying their vineyards as biodynamic (!) over the next two years or so. In short, they’re obviously dedicated to leaving things as much as they are as possible: no acidulation, no pesticides, no added yeasts, no nothing. Just as the winery building itself shows its beauty in its functionality (and the wonderful views out over the vineyards and valley, of course), I started to get the feeling that these people are very serious indeed about producing wine that has a real sense of place to it.
Speaking of dirt, the 200-odd hectares of vineyards nearby are planted on gray sand with clay way down deep. Surprisingly, they dry-farm the older, established vines on the flats, but the newer ones on the hillsides still have drip irrigation set up for now. Everything’s south-facing, too, which means that it’s cooler than vineyards down in the valley proper. However, there is another subtle difference: it doesn’t get as cool at night as it does in the valley because cool air from the Andes doesn’t flow down this valley. In short, it sounds like it’s overall cooler but with less temperature variation than the Colchagua valley proper.
After viewing the winery proper, we had a quick squiz at the guest houses; I’d seen them online but alas found them to be solidly outside my price range (let’s just say that a single night’s stay for two people cost more than a round-trip ticket to Chile from Los Angeles does). Up close and personal I found myself briefly kicking myself for not going into debt to stay there – yes, they were beautifully furnished and oh, that view – but thankfully I returned to reality soon enough and was more than happy to sit down and taste the wine.
We tasted eight wines at Lapostolle; here are my notes from the day.
1. Casa Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (92% sauvignon blanc, 8% semillon)
This is from the Rapel valley, further north than the winery; the Rapel valley includes the Cachapoal valley, which is where (I presume) most of the grapes for this wine were grown. This part of the country does get cold air coming down from the Andes, so it’s a cooler climate than the Colchagua valley. The soils are largely alluvial, with lots of large pebbles.
Tasting notes: Lush and perfumed, almost like fresh Bartlett pears. Not Kiwi or Sancerre at al, not fruity banana wine either; maybe a bit of tropical fruit, but a definite edge of waxy, lemon notes presumably from the old vine semillon mixed in from the Colchagua valley. Returning to it for a second time, there is a definite hint of a cat’s pee nose here; the most impressive thing here is (to me) the texture, which is rich, creamy, and mouth-filling. The finish is long as well.
This wine seemed to me to be very good value for money – and if not perhaps as good as the Lapostolle semillon sauvignon blanc chardonnay I’d had earlier in the week, only so because this was styled more along the lines of a dry white Graves. It’s definitely a nice change of pace from watery Californian, tropical-fruit New Zealand, or stony-mineral Sancerre; it manages to taste different and interesting enough to warrant a purchase.
2. Cuvée Alexandre Chardonnay 2008
This, the only wine from the Casablanca valley, would therefore be the wine from the coolest climate. At first, a very worked style was apparent, with very subtle flavors of quince and wood smoke. It opened up to show a really lovely sort of baked custard tart quality, delicate and creamy; I guessed that there was definite lees stirring here and I was told that I wasn’t wrong (thankfully). Toasted nuts were also in evidence, but as with everything else very restrained, very elegant; the wine appeared to be all about showing as many distinct notes simultaneously without any one aspect dominating. Definitely more Burgundian than Californian, though, with no hint of any buttery or blowsy characteristics.
As it turns out, the trick here is to gather biodynamically grown fruit from seven different exposures, vinify some of it in 1- and 2-year French oak and some in stainless, and avoid malolactic fermentation. Mix it all together and presto, you have an absolutely elegant wine that would be good value at twice the price.
3. Casa Carménère 2008 (85% carménère, 15% merlot)
Grown with fruit bought in from contract growers as well as with some estate-grown fruit, we’re back at the value brand here. What’s it like?
Kind of an aggressively fruity/jujube aspect to the nose here, frankly kind of whorish, but it tastes much more serious than it smells. Plenty of firm, somewhat drying tannins here that show quickly after the sweet plums and smoky mouth; there’s also a note of spearmint or eucalyptus on the nose, which makes for a quirky, moderately complex wine.
If you’re a fan of the Chris Ringland school of winemaking, this might be a good place to start. Definitely aggressively fruity compared to their more expensive wines, the big tannins here should make this an excellent choice for steak. On its own, though, it’s overwhelming; you could try cellaring it a couple of years to tame the tannins, but you’d be better off grilling T-bones, I think.
Interestingly, they don’t add acid to their carménère, which appears to make Lapostolle very much the odd man out here. According to Alder Yarrow, nearly 100% of Chilean carménère is acidulated – but this one isn’t. I didn’t detect any flabbiness here at all, though, so I suspect they’re doing something very right in the vineyards.
4. Cuvée Alexandre Merlot 2007 (85% merlot, 15% carménère)
An entirely estate-grown wine, this strikes me as a very Ridge-like wine: native yeasts, relatively little new oak, no fining, minimal filtration, and biodynamically grown grapes. In short, no tricks here.
Tasting notes: Relatively light and sweet (not in terms of sugar, but rather sucrosité… you know), there’s also a fleeting hint of tomato leaf; the overall effect is very fresh and appealing. Medium in body and very supple, the wine shows almost a kind of smoky, meaty effect (which I suppose is probably the ubiquitous carménère adding depth and complexity to what would otherwise be a merely pretty wine). There’s also a subtle hint of black olives and some burnt cocoa notes on the finish; there’s also a fleeting hint of that spearmint or eucalyptus oil on the nose here too. Tannins are fine and well-judged; not dominant, just correct.
5. Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (85% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot)
Another estate wine, at this point I was definitely getting a strong sense of the house style; again, I’d say that the most stylistically affiliated wineries I can think of would be Ridge in California and perhaps Grosset or Clonakilla in Australia. I almost got the sense that the person making these wines was following a few simple rules: grow grapes the best you can, don’t mess with it, and when in doubt, aim for elegance, not raw power.
My tasting notes: Mulberry scented wine here with a very young look to it in the glass. Pain grillé here for sure, no doubt about it; a wonderful, almost textbook example of how to use oak to add complexity and balance to a wine without overwhelming it. Initially sweet (again in the sense of rich, concentrated fruit), the wine quickly shows complex spices and herbs. Absolutely huge character here; this is the proverbial “loads of personality.” Overall, the tendency is towards oregano and herbal notes, which are in pretty incredible balance with the spicy oak and rich fruit. Tannins are the only thing that don’t seem quite there yet; they’re somewhat lighter than the other wines, but it doesn’t bother me at all. I’d be very, very excited to taste this again in a year’s time and see where it’s going.
6. Cuvée Alexandre Syrah
This is an estate wine as well, but from the Las Kuras vineyard near Requinoa in the Cachapoal valley; this is just down the road from Altaïr.
My tasting notes: This is very, very much la syrah here, feminine and floral, and not Côtes du Rhône or (God forbid) Barossa shiraz. Smoke and bacon fat, classic in the extreme here, this is smokehouse violets lying on a raw venison steak.
I stopped taking notes on this wine because I wanted to fully experience it in the moment: this was possibly the best wine I tasted in Chile. There are a handful of New World syrahs that all manage a similar effect: the rich, ripe fruit you don’t often get in the Old World, but not overwrought at all, but rather sensitively grown and vinified with an eye towards smoked meat, bacon fat, and flowers. For my money, this wine can hold its own with the likes of Cayuse and Clonakilla. Truly remarkable wine, no question about it.
7. Cuvée Alexandre Carménère 2008 (85% carménère, 15% merlot)
This wine hasn’t been released yet; I believe it’s the first go at a midrange carménère, rounding out the Cuvée Alexandre line. For better or worse, this is very much carménère; it’s kind of a love it or hate it proposition. Me, I wasn’t a huge fan of this wine at all.
Tasting notes: The acid seems a bit out of whack here. Overall, the wine tends towards the bass end of the spectrum, showing notes of dark chocolate, tobacco, and spices. If the syrah was elegant, this is a wine taken in nearly the opposite direction: this is muscular, brutal, and very nearly harsh. If it were up to me, I would hold this back for a year before selling any of it at all: the tannins need time to soften, and it just doesn’t seem well integrated at this point. I suspect this wine could be a big seller at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, but this really isn’t a style I particularly appreciate.
8. Clos Apalta 2007 (61% carménère, 12% merlot, 24% cabernet sauvignon, 3% petit verdot)
Nearly every winery produces a wine that’s much more expensive than anything else the winery produces. This retails for triple the price of the Cuvée Alexandre; yields are lower than any other wine they produce, they use only new barrels, the vines are ancient (well, 60 or 80 years old) and ungrafted, they’re biodynamically grown, everything’s hand-destemmed, all native yeasts… you know the drill. We’ve all been to wineries and read through the list of Reasons Why This Wine Is Totally Worth A Lot Of Money. We then taste the wine – if we’re lucky – and most of the time my reaction is “well, OK, I taste the new oak and it’s concentrated and, well, that’s all well and good, but is this really anything special?” This wine is.
Sometimes – not very often, but every once in a while – you smell a wine you haven’t tasted before and the first thing you think is “oh, there’s that undefinable, ineffable great wine smell.” This hasn’t happened often to me.
My tasting notes: Unctuous, almost like Port at first, the wine smells overwhelmingly of graphite, stone, and minerals. This does not smell like fruit. Tarry, rocky, stony, asphalt and tar: additionally, there is huge, bright acidity here that suggests immense ageing potential. Tannins are curt, serious, and not at all green. There’s almost a fresh, wet redwood smell here; I also feel warm stones and sense a light jasmine or honeysuckle perfume surrounding it all. This wine manages to balance acidity an dfruit absolutely perfectly; there is obvious structure here that will carry this wine forward for decades.
The greatest wines are not like other wines. The greatest wines are instantly recognizable as themselves and themselves alone. This wine has the potential – and I hope that it eventually is – to be recognized as one of the greatest New World wines.
When we were finished at Lapostolle, I felt that we’d just experienced something very, very special. A month later, I’m still convinced of that; the Cuvée Alexandre syrah and the Clos Apalta in particular were phenomenally lovely wines that really went the extra mile: they showed, well, terroir. After all of the hype I’d heard about carménère, I feel like I’ve finally tasted something that justifies it; just as with California zinfandel or Hunter sémillon, I think that Lapostolle are obviously growing something equally distinctive (in the sense that no other place on Earth produces anything like it) – and they’re doing everything right in the vineyard and winery to ensure that its character is transmitted without distortion.
More like this, please!