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Royal Cabernet
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Nov 15, 2011
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Viña Santa Rita, Maipo (Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon “Casa Real” 2007 (Palm Bay International, $75):  It is nigh impossible to visit wineries in Chile without hearing, again and again, the term “icon wine.”  That’s because almost every winery is making such a wine, a wine intended to represent the best of what Chile can produce.  Santa Rita’s Casa Real is the icon of Chile’s icon wines -- first produced 22 years ago by a winery founded 131 years ago, from a vineyard planted about 55 years ago.

Casa Real means “royal house” and the name refers to the title given the winery’s founding family by the King of Spain.  The wine is entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in Santa Rita’s Carneros Viejo vineyard in the Alto Maipo region of Chile close to the Andes.  The 25-acre vineyard is part of the winery’s 1470-acre Alto Jahuel estate, which is almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon.  (Besides Casa Real, the winery produces another three Cabernets, two of which -- Medalla Real and Reserva -- come from other parts of this estate.)  The vines are un-grafted, as is the norm in Chile.

Winemaker Cecilia Torres has been responsible for making Casa Real since the wine’s inception.  In fact, her only responsibility at the winery is Casa Real.  As others at the winery describe the situation, the diminutive Torres is fiercely dedicated to obtaining the finest possible grapes for her wine.  Occasionally, the weather prevents a particular harvest from meeting her standards, as happened in 2006, and no Casa Real is produced.   

The 2007 Casa Real is an extremely refined and polished Cabernet.  It has the marked fruitiness that you would expect from a New World Cab, but its fresh, bright fruity aromas and flavors -- red cherry, blackberry, plum -- are part of a complex aroma-flavor profile that includes mint, coffee, chocolate and stony mineral notes, along with clean oaky notes.  Unlike many other icon wines the world over, the texture of this wine is not dense and fleshy, but silky and nuanced by lively, fine tannin; the effect is a sense of depth and liveliness rather than monolithic weight.  In fact, the wine is closer to medium-bodied than full-bodied in weight (despite its 14.5 percent alcohol), and its color is medium-intense rather than opaque -- two more indications of finesse rather than power.  In your mouth, the wine has wonderful purity of fruit character and clarity of expression.

This wine is the product of a double selection of grapes, first on the vine and then at the winery.  The wine has ten days of skin contact after the 12-day fermentation, which is intended to produce silky tannins and enhance fruit expression.  Malolactic fermentation occurs in French oak barrels, 95 percent of them new, and the wine ages in that oak for 15 months.

I have tasted Casa Real many times, but a particularly impressive recent experience was a mini-vertical of the 1997, 2002 and 2007 vintages at the winery.  Chile has made enormous progress in viticulture and winemaking over the past ten years, and this mini-vertical seemed to dramatize that fact:  The 1997 is a substantial wine now showing developed notes of leather and caramel and somewhat old style in its lack of vibrant fruitiness; the 2002 is still-youthful in its concentrated fruit and somewhat chewy texture; and this 2007, still a baby, shows ideal freshness of fruit character so beautifully balanced against rich, high-quality tannins.

Don’t hesitate to age this wine five years or even ten.  But also, don’t hesitate to drink it now, using a large glass to enable aeration or decanting it for air.  It is compelling even now.

92 Points