For nearly 70 years, Viña Mapio has been making wines in the Maipo Valley of Chile, and sources its grapes from 5,000 acres of estate-owned and grower vineyards. Viña Maipo’s portfolio of brands sells approximately 100,000 cases per year in the U.S. For the past 50 years, the winery has been owned by Concha y Toro, Chile’s largest wine group. And for the past decade the brand has been headed by Chief Winemaker Max Weinlaub, who I recently had lunch with as we sampled Viña Maipo’s portfolio of wines.
The following is an excerpt from that conversation, and the wines we sampled are in the gallery below.
Beverage Dynamics: What’s having the biggest impact on Chilean wine right now?
Max Weinlaub: The perception among many consumers is that Chile means inexpensive – quality wines, but at a low price point. It’s difficult to move price points, especially when you start at a lower point and set the expectations there. We believe Chilean wines can be successful at higher price points, but it will take time to change the overall consumer perception. Our goal right now with Vitral is to give consumers “Chile in a glass,” and our price point for that brand is $9.99 per bottle.
BD: Which varietals do you find interesting to work with?
MW: We’re developing our own style of Sauvignon Blanc in Chile – not as expressive or powerful and gooseberry-driven as in New Zealand, but not as austere as in France. We have something unique to express there.
The Carmenere is also an interesting but tricky varietal. It was rediscovered in 1994 and the industry was excited to show everyone this new product from Chile. But the first wines were not very well-accepted, and it took time to learn that the varietal requires a special climate, soil and management. If you know how to deal with those factors, you can show the good parts of Carmenere. That’s my commitment and my challenge.
BD: How does Chile’s geography impact your grapes, which are grown in every part of the country?
MW: Our philosophy is to find the best conditions for each varietal. For our ultra-premium offerings, they come from a specific area where the climate and soil are a key factor in the result. For our red wines, we have clay near the coast that keeps nutrients and moisture, which is important for the Carmenere and Merlot. For Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s a little different. In the south, we have more extreme weather conditions with a wider temperature fluctuation between day and night, which creates a concentration of colors and tannins. Each region is distinctive, and we have vineyards in most of the valleys throughout Chile.
Logically, you would think that the biggest differences in climate and soil and factors affecting the grapes come when you move from north to south, since Chile is so long and narrow. But actually, the biggest differences occur when you move only a few miles from west to east.
BD: Do your brands have a distinct style that carries over from one vintage to the next?
MW: I make the best blends possible given that season’s conditions. But that said, I believe there are two types of consumers: those who are looking for consistency and want the wine to taste the same (which we try to do with Vitral), and others who want change and enjoy the way each vintage affects the taste.
We respect the same style for every brand, but the taste for some is not exactly the same. For a brand like Gran Devocion, there will be differences from year to year depending on the blend and the grapes. So I respect its style, but try to reflect that vintage’s specific conditions as well.
BD: I’ve heard you’re a big advocate for Syrah. Why Syrah?
MW: In the middle of the 1990s, this conversation would have only been about Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. At the time, Carmenere wasn’t planted in Chile and the industry was concerned about our restricted offerings. As an industry, we decided to try Syrah after the successful results in Australia.
Viña Maipo was one of the first wineries planting Syrah in Chile, and today we still grow grapes on those original vines. In one 500-acre vineyard where we grow Syrah, we have three micro-regions. The lower terrace wwas formed by the Maipo river and has a lot of sand, then there’s a steep slope with a north-facing hill, and an upper terrace about 3-4 meters up that was formed when the volcanoes in the area were still active and deposited a layer of ash. We use Syrahs from those different regions within a single vineyard to create different blends. It’s a very versatile varietal.
Jeremy Nedelka is editor of Beverage Dynamics.