Monday, 16 October 2017

Dirt-y Talk with Don Melchor Winemaker Enrique Tirado

Producer: Concha y Toro Don Melchor

Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? A masterclass with Enrique Tirado, Chief Winemaker of Don Melchor aimed to show how different vineyard plots contribute to the final blend. Don Melchor is one of Chile’s signature wines, on the same level with wines such as Montes Alpha M, Errazuriz’s Don Maximiano and Almaviva, the latter a joint venture between Concha y Toro and the Rothschild family of Bordeaux. Don Melchor is also made by Concha y Toro and is named after the founder. The Chilean wine producer has had a good year, with sales increasing 23% in Asia according to trade newsletter The Drinks Business. It was ranked as the second biggest selling wine brand in 2017, behind Gallo’s Barefoot label.

The care that goes into the production of Don Melchor is on another level entirely. The ungrafted vines have an average age of 35 years and are planted on a vineyard that lies 650 metres above sea level. This vineyard, called Puento Alto, lies at the foot of the Andes and as a result receives cold air from the mountains at night which helps preserve freshness in the wine. What really indicates the meticulousness that this wine gets is the precise segmentation of the vineyard into 142 parcels, firstly according to the soil, next according to the vigour of the vine and finally by the style of wine produced by each parcel. “Each parcel adds to the final blend different aromas, flavours, layers and textures, so it’s not just one expression of Cabernet Sauvignon,” explained Enrique. The difference is the result of varying proportions of soil types in each parcel as well as the mixture of different-sized stones. Stonier soils will result in more concentrated wine while sandy soils provide balance and elegance. “If you have more complexity in the soil, in the end you can produce more complex wine,” asserted Enrique. With 30 years of experience under his belt Enrique is intimately familiar with every square inch of Puento Alto, and one of the first things he did when taking on the winemaker’s hat was to conduct an extensive study to find out how the amount of organic matter, water and available nutrients affect the vine. He’s not the first Chilean winemaker I have met to go into such extensive investigations of the soil. While the French may gush about terroir in romantic terms, it's the Chileans who are really down-to-earth with the concept.

Picture courtesy of Concha y Toro

The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, seven bottles of wine from selected vineyard blocks that comprise the final blend, having been shortlisted from around 140-150 free-run and press wines. Is it really possible for Cabernet Sauvignon to be so nuanced? For example, Block 1 was supposed to yield wine with a ripe, red fruit character and sweet tannins, while Block 5 provided black fruits and spice with complexity and structure. Yet as we tasted through each bottle, the differences were quite stark, proof of how terroir can make a difference. The vinification process takes around 20 to 25 days depending on the year and the parcel, with the idea being to showcase the unique personality behind each parcel. Only French oak is used for aging, 70% of them new.

Enrique works with famed Bordeaux consultant Eric Boissenot to determine the final blend. He says this gives a neutral perspective on which parcels to include. “It is better to have an extended view because I am so focused on the vineyard and the vinification, so if one year I put a lot effort into one parcel, then this parcel must be in the final blend!” In fact, he prefers to taste blind on the first day when selecting the blend so that he is not influenced by the origin of the wine. There is some Cabernet Franc blended into the wine but it forms less than 10% of the blend. The highest proportion was in 2001 and 2013 at 9% and the lowest amount was in 2011 at 1%. Enrique says, “The Cabernet Franc in 2011 was fantastic, but we couldn’t add more because it broke the balance.”

The seven component wines that we tasted were all from the 2017 vintage, so young that they were still in barrel. A recurrent element that I found in the wines was an uplifting minty note and from some blocks, a note of graphite. After we had tasted them all, Enrique did an on-site blend of what would become the 2017 Don Melchor, and we had the opportunity to compare this with the 2014 vintage. As it is, the 2017 was already a stunning wine, with a balance of red and black fruits, but the 2014 shone with aristocratic elegance that reflected why it was selected by Wine Spectator as one of the Top 10 Wines of 2014. To be honest though, comparing the relative quality of these two wines was like splitting hairs – they were both of the very highest standard. “The style is the vineyard – to respect the expression,” said Enrique. “When you taste Don Melchor, you can taste the stony character of the soil, the Andes influence, and the history behind the wine.”

Tasting notes:

Concha y Toro Don Melchor Puento Alto Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 – The secret formula for this wine is 15% Cabernet Sauvignon from Block 1, 7% from Block 2, 16% from Block 3, 18% from Block 4, 13% from Block 5, 17% from Block 6, 12% from Block 7 and 2% from the Cabernet Franc block. While still very young with amplified oak notes, this wine is already seductive with notes of black fruit, licorice, and red fruits vying for attention on the rich, structured palate. The wine brims with energy and has the potential for long aging.

Concha y Toro Don Melchor Puento Alto Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 – The wine greets you with aromas of menthol, chocolate and oak with an underlying note of graphite. It is warm and inviting on the palate with great elegance and balance supported by energetic freshness and power. Polished to perfection and carefully buffed, the Don Melchor 2014 fully deserves its title as one of Chile’s greatest wines.

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