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Towards an Honest Expression of the Vineyard
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Nov 8, 2023
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San Pedro, Cachapoal-Andes (Chile) “Altair” 2019 ($90):  Four years ago, only months before the word “Covid” was coined, I visited Chile with a group of fellow Masters of Wine.  Many of the wine regions we visited were familiar to me, but one wine region was a discovery.  That region is Cachapoal-Andes, within the Rapel Valley south of Maipo.  Thinking back, I recall Cachapoal as a secret pocket of vineyards at the edge of the Andes foothills, a gorgeous site producing impressive wines.

Returning to the present, I had the pleasure of welcoming to my wine school Gabriel Mustakis, the winemaker who hosted our visit to Cachapoal four years ago. As winemaker for San Pedro Icon Wines in Cachapoal, Gabriel overseas the elite, “icon” wine production for Viña San Pedro, one of the largest winery groups in Chile.  He came to NYC bearing bottles of Altair, a Cabernet blend from the vineyards of Cachapoal.

Cachapoal Andes — that part of the region that is close to the mountains — sits at 500 meters/ 1600 feet elevation and has a Mediterranean climate, with warm and dry summers and cold, rainy winters.  It is generally cooler than Maipo, enabling more finesse in Cabernet-based wines.  An important feature of the site is its ventilation; mountain winds arrive reliably every afternoon, cooling the vines during the warmest part of the day.  Another is the diversity of minerals and soils, that enable expressive, perfumed wines.

San Pedro Cachapoal was established in 2001, originally as a partnership with a French château from St.-Émilion.  A Bordeaux influence initially guided the winemaking and the style of the wines.  When the partnership dissolved in 2007, San Pedro Cachapoal’s winemaking goals shifted toward an approach more in tune with the potential of the terroir.

This stylistic arc was evident in two bottles of Altair, one from 2006 and the other from 2019.  The blend of the two wines was more similar than not: Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Carmenère in varying proportions.  The nose of the older wine was, naturally, showing lots of tertiary character (mushroom, leather, smoke, brodo) and the younger wine smelled, naturally, more vibrant and fruitier.   But the structure of the two wines was the true tell.  In the mouth, the 2006 wine was framed by oak; the grainy tannin didn’t overwhelm the wine’s flavors but communicated that this wine was really about its structure. Solid. Squarely built.  In the 2019, the wine’s concentrated fruit is beautifully integrated with its structure. The wine shows a medium amount of spicy tannin surrounding a supple core of rich, ripe nuanced fruit.

Gabriel and I discussed the change of direction that winemaking of Altair had taken in recent years.  One of his goals is to preserve the delicate aromatics of the Cachapoal-Andes fruit, a characteristic that he says the visiting MWs had particularly noted four years ago.  Currently, he gives the wines a pre-fermentation cold soak for three to five days to gently extract color and aromas.  Fermentation is triggered by cultured yeast at low temperatures that prolong the initial part of the process by three to five days and create a more gradual transformation.

Fermentation itself is cool, at 22-24° C/ 71.5-75° F.  A cool, slow fermentation typically nurtures fresh, fruity aromatics in the wine. Each batch of grapes undergoes fermentation in vats of different types (stainless steel, oak, concrete or clay) and sizes, according to their origin in the vineyard.  Finally, the wine ages not in 100 percent new oak, as the 2006 did, but in barriques that are half new, 35 percent second-use and, for the remaining 15 percent of the wine in large foudres,

In the past, extraction from the grapes had been a primary focus, Gabriel explained.  Now Gabriel’s goal is a different kind of extraction: “To extract the best from our vineyards in the most honest way.”

My assessment of the 2019 Altair is that of fragrant, fresh aromas of red and dark fruits, some cherry, some blackberry; very well-balanced in its acid-alcohol-tannin ratio and in the measure of that structure against the fruit; smooth, silky texture; and concentration of fruit on the finish that suggests a long life ahead.  It clearly has the caliber of a Chilean icon wine.

This 2019 Altair is 82 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Cab Franc, 7 percent Syrah and 2 percent Carmenère.

93 Points