Almaviva - 25 Years
posted 12th October 2022
Chile produces some stunning wines, but at the peak of the quality pyramid there are just a few true icons. To my mind and palate, the Best of the Best list is headed by Almaviva. If ever there was wine that interweaves ripeness of the New World with the ' sense of place' of the old, this is the one. Don Melchor, produced by Concha y Toro, comes a very close second from a quality perspective, but this is an overt New World wine, built upon fruit concentration. Tannins used to also be to the fore but recent vintages, particularly the 2020 Don Melchor, have been more supple and elegant. Perhaps No. 3 in the list is VIK - a stellar wine from a producer who make their amphorae from their own clay, and barrels from their own oak trees! Also included in my Top 5 wines are Casa Real Reserva Especial and Errázuriz Don Maximiano.
I have followed Almaviva's progress from the outset and have been fortunate to visit the winey on several occasions, although I am well overdue for a return trip. However, I was pleased to attend The Almaviva 25th Anniversary Masterclass in London, organised by The Drinks Business and its editor-in-chief Patrick Schmitt. MW. Technical Director, Michel Friou, had flown in to explain Almaviva´s concepts, terroirs and winemaking, and to conduct the tasting. I've been to several previous Almaviva masterclasses, held by The Drinks Business, but each adds new insights, and gives the rare opportunity to taste the latest released vintage.
Patrick Schmitt Editor-in-Chief of The Drinks Business
Almaviva is the result of an alliance of Baron Philipe de Rothschild SA and Viña Concha y Toro. The partnership was sealed in 1997, but the first vintage had been produced in 1996 - this was released to the market in 1998. The aim of the project was simple: to produce a super-premium, terroir driven wine based on the French Château concept. Michel says that it is this concept that distinguishes Almaviva from other Chilean wines. Only 2 wines are produced: the 'Grand Vin' and a 'second wine': Epu.
The success is proven. Every vintage that is currently available in the secondary market is priced at over £115, excluding taxes, per bottle: wine-searcher
I will discuss aspects of Almaviva in this article, but further information please refer to Almaviva Website.
And so to the tasting, and the sense of place of Almaviva.
The winery has 60 hectares of vineyards at Puento Alto, in the north of Chile's Maipo Valley. The vineyards are to the south-east of Santiago - only 12 miles or so from the city.
The 1999 Almaviva was the first vintage to be produced in the new winery. It was a very hot, dry year, resulting in small berries. There is a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon (78%) in the blend, together with Carménère (19%) and a little Cabernet Franc.
The wine is now deep brick-red, with a mature tawny rim. The nose, initially a little dusty, leads into soaked summer and dried fruits, overlaid with meaty notes. There are gentle spices. The palate is rich, but delightfully balanced. Tertiary notes include truffle. leather and 'sous-bois'. The finish is supremely long, and the wine clearly fully mature.
However, this is perhaps a 'Marmite' wine. On both the nose and palate, and developing the longer the wine is in the glass, there are tones of Brettanomyces metabolised compounds: 4-EP, and 4-EG. Do these add complexity, or do they detract? I'll put these aside and enjoy the wine for what it is: a statement of time, place, and art.
It is interesting to note that although Almaviva derives a great deal from its Bordeaux heritage, the climate in Puento Alto is very different. In Bordeaux the climate in maritime, with a typical annual rainfall of some 940mm. Here it is semi-arid Mediterranean with just 281mm of rain, and in 2012 it was 200mm. Incidentally the Bordeaux rainfall figure has increased in the last 50 years - back in the 1970s the figure was approximately 780 mm, but most of this extra rain falls in winter and spring. Puento Alto is warmer and sunnier than Bordeaux - the vineyards are some 650 metres above sea level - in the 'left bank' of the Bordeaux region, they are barely above sea level. The altitude of Almaviva gives a large diurnal temperature range, helping lock a fresh acidity into the wines.
Michel Friou considers Carménère to be an essential component of Almaviva, differentiating it from 'Bordeaux blends' and other top Chilean Icon Wines. The variety can give notes of red bell-pepper or even soy sauce to wines, together with herbs, spices and cocoa. Chile today boasts nearly 11,000 hectares of Carménère - Bordeaux, the original home of the variety, has a tiny hectarage, although it is a permitted variety in many appellations.
The 2012 is the product of another hot and dry year. The wine is a deep ruby, still with purple tones and pink rim. There is a pronounced nose of dark berry fruits, including blackberry, together with dark chocolate and particularly, liquorice. There are some soy sauce notes, no doubt from the ripe Carménère (24% of the blend). The soft spices add to complexity - the oaking (19 months in new French barrels) is subtle and integrated.
But this is a great example of a terroir-driven wine. Here we are in the foothills of the Andes, feeling the wind that blows down from the mountains and although the wine has 15% abv, the sensing the struggle of each and every vine. A delight.
The soils in Puento Alto are very different to the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Here the soil has a high percentage of clay, with lots of rocks. In the case of Sint-Emilion, it is Merlot that performs outstandingly on clay; at Puento Alto it is the Cabernets.
The Carménère component of Almaviva is not grown at Puento Alto but in Cachapoal some 40 miles south, where the loam soils are ideal for this variety. The question might be asked as to whether this negates the château concept?
2016 is generally regarded as a difficult vintage in the Maipo Valley. The summer had been hot and dry, but heavy rains came in mid-April, interrupting the harvest. At Almaviva, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Frand and Carménère were picked after the rains and underwent a careful selection, including optical sorting.
The wine appears youthful, a deep ruby, with a solid rim. The nose abounds with red fruits including raspberry and, surprisingly, redcurrant, but there is also a sold blackberry core. The hint of greenness is outweighed by gentle spices. The palate is fresh and surprisingly rich, with some red bell-pepper notes. The wine is elegant and, dare I say it, feminine. The finish is long. Bering in mind the challenges of the year, the wine surpasses expectations.
Winemaking at Almaviva is conventional, as might be seen in a Grand Cru Classé of Bordeaux's Left bank. Grapes are picked at optimum ripeness and placed into 9kg boxes to avoid damage by compaction. At the winery they undergo a manual and optical sorting. Following crushing and fermentation, there is a maceration period of perhaps 15 - 18 days, with a little longer for the Carménère vats. This period is less than was previously the case, no doubt to control the level of tannins. Maturation is for at least 16 months in new French oak barriques.
2018 was an excellent vintage in Puento Alto and generally in Chile. Following a hot summer, the harvest for the Cabernet Sauvignons started at the beginning of April. Temperatures cooled, helping to lock in freshness, and the last Carménère grapes for Almaviva were picked on May 24th!
The wine is very bright, deep ruby-purple. The nose is initially fragrant, and then the primary aromas of blackberries, raspberries and blackcurrant shine through. There are chocolate tones, with cedar and a very subtle toast notes from the barrels. On the palate the wine is full but very elegant, much in the Margaux style but with Chilean opulence. There is a wonderful freshness, and the tannins are supple and round. A superb wine.
Almaviva is sold through 'La Place de Bordeaux ' - it was the first non-Bordeaux wine to be sold on the Place. The 2020 is the latest wine released to the market, and the entire release of the vintage sold out in just 3 hours.
The winter had been alarmingly dry, with just 64mm of rainfall, a quarter of the winter average. Spring and summer temperatures were higher than average, and the drought persisted. Ther harvest period was earlier and shorter than usual, and of course the Covid pandemic was rearing its ugly head.
The wine in the glass is an ultra-deep purple. On the nose it is the cassis that predominates, together with blackberry and dark chocolate. There is a slight medicinal and balsamic note, together with a restrained herbiness. The palate is rich and full, showing liquorice, toffee and dark chocolate. The wine takes its high alcohol with ease.
Of course, this is a baby, and I want to revisit as it grows and matures. I am sure this will be a great wine to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Almaviva although I may not, be here to witness that celebration!
I wish to thank Patrick Schmitt, Isabel Distin, and all at The Drinks Business for the opportunity to take part in Almaviva's 25th Anniversary Masterclass. Thank you also Michel Friou for all the information and for your work in further developing this unique wine.