Wed 05 Dec 2012

Banging The Drum For Chile: Santa Rita’s Lascar and Casa Real

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The Andean Museum at Santa Rita

When visiting a winery, one expects to spend time standing in front of barrels, tanks and sorting tables; less so a selection of ancient percussion instruments. Known as ‘clavas’, they form part of the enviable pre-Colombian art museum at Viña Santa Rita in the upper Maipo.

Clavas were used to symbolise power among tribal chiefs – in some ways perhaps a fitting metaphor for Santa Rita, established in 1880 and now the third-largest producer in Chile. Though The Society’s award-winning range includes a number of arguably more romantic finds from smaller producers, the expertise of some ‘chiefs’ such as Santa Rita provides a superb source of excellent wines.

Indeed, the approach to winemaking here is far from typical of how such companies are often perceived. They own vineyards in and source grapes from many of the best parts of Chile. A case in point is the inexpensive yet wonderfully drinkable Lascar range, which Santa Rita makes exclusively for The Society.

Following my visit to the winery earlier this year, I chose to serve the Lascar Carmenère, 2011 (£5.25 per bottle) at my wedding reception in November. When I had the chance recently to speak to the winemaker, Carlos Gatica, I resisted the urge to blame him directly for a 69-year-old guest’s overexuberance on the dancefloor, focusing instead on finding out more about how they are able to produce this level of quality at a modest price.

Santa Rita is able to invest wisely in an extensive array of vineyard holdings with a committed focus on quality. ‘We have a team of three experts driving around Chile to find the best sites and the best parcels,’ Carlos explains. ‘They do this all the time.’
All the time?’ I asked.
‘ALL the time – they don?t even have an office!’

When asked about what he looks for in the grapes they select for these wines, Carlos replied: ‘In the case of Lascar, we do not worry too much about high yields: it’s more about whether the fruit has the right balance. We have access to surplus of some more expensive wines from Santa Rita’s portfolio, which we can select and blend into the wines as well, if we feel it would benefit them – here we try to find a little more ‘peppery’-tasting fruit to give greater complexity.’

Santa Rita vineyards at Alto Jahuel

Indeed, the merit of Lascar’s wines is in their fruit rather than anything that happens in the winery. ‘I would say as much as 99% of the effort is finding the right grapes,’ says Carlos. ‘In the winery, we do very little pumping over. It is not a high-intervention process.’

This is not to say by any means that Santa Rita restrict themselves to lower-priced wines, and the philosophy of minimal pumping over is also used for their flagship cabernet, Casa Real (the 2007 vintage is available from The Society at £23). This wine has emerged as one of my personal favourite red discoveries this year. A bottle of the 2001 vintage served earlier this year was showstopping, redolent of fine left bank Bordeaux on the nose with delicious, complex, cedary flavours.

Toby Morrhall, The Society’s buyer for Chile, sums up Casa Real’s appeal very well in his wine note, writing that ‘[its] concentration comes from the vineyard, not the winery.’ In the case of Lascar, the same is true of whence its value comes, attested by Carlos’ explanation of the supreme importance of the fruit.

In general terms, the Chilean wines I tend to find the most enjoyment from sit between the price ranges of Lascar and Casa Real: the £7-£15 segment has never been more fertile for wines that have broad appeal but that excite the senses too. Society members have several options to choose from Toby’s range. At both modest and high-end prices though, it is good to see this thoughtful colossus of a winery banging the clava for this ever-exciting wine-producing country.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

Categories : Chile

Comments

  1. Jerry W says:

    I am a bit surprised by the Society’s insistence on huge producers when it comes to Chile. In many other areas you pride yourselves rightly on finding the opposite.. but here, Concha y toro, lascar, undurraga, santa emiliana, vina leyda..

    Is that unfair? Anyway, it would be interesting to hear of some of the smaller, more characterful growers in the area.

    • Toby Morrhall says:

      Dear Jerry,

      We don’t insist on large producers but simply buy the best wines we find. I have tasted a number of wines from smaller producers and not found any that I considered worth buying. If you have some names in mind that you think are good please let me know.

      You assume that the Chilean wine industry is structured like the European model where most of the best wines come from smaller producers. In my experience there are many more high-quality large bodegas than brilliant small ones. Australia has a lot more good small producers than Chile, but few would disagree with the view that some of the biggest producers like Penfolds make some of the greatest wines. To me Concha y Toro is the Penfolds of Chile, able to simultaneously make huge volumes of reliable branded wines like Casillero del Diablo, as well as top wines such as Maycas Quebrada Seca chardonnay, Carmin de Peumo and, with Mouton, Almaviva

      In modern times, Chile reached international standard perhaps say only 20 years ago (apart from a few wines like Cousiño Macul Antiguas Reservas) and so a vast amount of capital has been necessary in recent times to build bodegas, equip them, get the right barrels, presses, and have an export team to sell abroad as only recently has the internal market consumed more expensive wines. That is also assuming one buys in grapes, as planting a vineyard is also very capital intensive and requires 6-8 years to start producing interesting fruit. Some industry figures claim that it is very difficult to be profitable with less than 200-300 hectares. Unlike Argentina, there are not a lot of good old vineyards to draw from. The best are being planted now in Chile, and will come to fruition in the next 3-5 years. In Europe the small producers have mostly inherited vineyards and wineries from their families and the capital costs have been spread over many generations. Trying to do that in one or two generations in Chile is very difficult unless you are multi millionaires like the owners of Matetic.

      We were one of the first to buy from smallish bodegas like Matetic and Viña Leyda, which were pretty small at the outset but have since grown. We are buying wines from the 90ha estate Koyle, owned by the Undurragas, who sold the business bearing their name. We were amongst the first to buy from Viña Litoral, and I include a wine from them in the South America offer next year. They support their own sales by selling grapes. I am looking at very promising wines from a couple of new producers who are quite small whose wines may be bottled next year.

      Toby Morrhall
      Buyer for Chile

      • Jerry W says:

        It’s a very fair point that the structure of the wine industry in Chile and in the much of new world generally is different to say Italy or France. I have not visited Chile and had not realised the traditional wine producers there were so insignificant. Also I suppose that with the size of the Society’s business now, there must be a lower limit to the size of parcel that is worth buying (but maybe that is a topic for another day)
        Many thanks for taking the time to provide such an informative response

  2. Tom Bennett says:

    Martin, my wife and I are in Santiago next March for a week and hope to visit some of the main producers, just to get a feel of how they do it. Concha y Toro seem to have a standard much but critiscised tour which offers a minimum in information and a tasting of wines that you would not normally buy. How did you side-step that?
    Regards
    Tom Bennett

    • Toby Morrhall says:

      Dear Tom,

      You could try visits to the smaller producers such as Matetic (San Antonio/Casablanca) who will collect you from Santiago hotels by bus. Quite how good it is I don’t know. Wine tourism is developing especially in say Colchagua valley 150 km south of Santiago where there is an established wine route, which was serviced by a train, where one can visit Casa Lapostolle (stunning boutique winery carved into a hillside), Montess, Los Vascos, etc. Not sure if that is still going.

      Toby Morrhall
      Buyer for Chile

  3. Sarah King says:

    Thank you for your informative piece on the secret behind Lascar Carmenere. My husband and I have been drinking it for a while and still have some left from the Christmas case… It is reliably good, inexpensive and goes wonderfully with food. It has a broad appeal and seems to be enjoyed by most of our guests. As a standard, we have found it hard to beat.

  4. Doug says:

    Does the Society have any plans to buy wine from El Principal again? We remember it as being of an exceptionally high quality

    • Toby Morrhall says:

      It is an interesting vineyard at a very high altitude for Maipo, 800m, but new owners are making it less well than previous ones so we have dropped it.

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