Viña Montes

By Sunny Brown on November 2, 2007

Category: Winery of the Month

The wine industry is a fast paced world. Sure, it may seem like there is a lot of waiting- waiting for the grapes to ripen, waiting for it to rain, waiting for it to stop raining… But when it comes to technology, marketing, innovation and brand building some wineries blaze a trail and others get lost in their dust. Viña Montes is one such winery that not only stays ahead of the curve, but that creates the path for others to follow.

In 1987 four friends got together and set their hearts on creating the finest wines that South America had ever seen. At the time their home country of Chile was known more for producing inexpensive swill for the local markets than for producing wines of substance and character. But the four friends knew the potential for quality wines in Chile was just waiting to be harvested, and so Viña Montes was born.

Since then they have produced the finest wines in Chile and some of the best in the world. As noted wine writer Hugh Johnson put it "If the Montes story reads like a dream, it is because it started as one and progressively came true."

Each of the partners brought a different acumen to the table: Aurelio Montes is the head winemaker and chairman. Douglas Murray is considered a pioneer in terms of exports and was voted one of the six most influential people in the Japanese wine world by Vinotheque. Alfredo Vidaurre is in charge of the financial aspects of the company, a job he became most suited for after his time as the dean of the school of economics at Universidad Católica de Chile. And Pedro Grand is an expert in wine equipment technology as well as other agricultural aspects.

There are three things these men share in common: 1) They are all Chilean, and Montes remains the only winery in Chile owned 100% by Chileans. 2) They have a passion for creating the finest wines possible. "We are always looking for quality. It is our main aspiration," says Aurelio. And 3) They share a belief that Chile is capable of producing some of the best wines on the planet.

According to Aurelio "Chile is a paradise to grow grapes," due to a unique set of climactic and geographical conditions that can't be duplicated anywhere else on the planet. "Chile is totally isolated from the rest of the world by natural barriers. In the north is the driest desert in the world. We have glaciers in the south in Patagonia. The Andes are to the east. (They are) very high mountains capped with snow. (And) the Pacific Ocean to the west. These are impossible to cross by insects." Why is that important, you ask? Unlike most of the world's major wine growing regions most of Chile's vines have never been attacked by the root louse Phylloxera, which allows these vines to be planted on their original rootstocks thus providing a more true expression of the grapes.

But it is not just insects that Chile lacks. Due to high pressure that builds over the central area of the country where the vineyards lay the climate is extremely dry with up to 320 or 330 days of sunshine per year. The result is no downy mildew, very little rain during the summer, and no risk of the hail that sometimes ravages the vines of Argentina. "We can have a long growing season and allow the grapes to ripen slowly without risk of mold or botrytis to adversely affect the grapes. Because of the lack of rain, I play the music and the plant dances," says Aurelio. "I control the stress on the vine." Paradise indeed.

Good weather is only one part of the battle in building a high quality brand. There is also a little thing called marketing, something that Viña Montes was very aware of from the start. "We were the first Chilean winery to produce premium varietal wines. The United States was the first market we focused on." Today over 90% of the wines from Montes are exported to over 70 different countries throughout the world.

Viña Montes sources their grapes from three separate vineyard areas. The Apalta Vineyard is comprised of rocky granite soils at high elevations some 40 miles from the coast. Apalta is marked by tons of sun and warm days but very cool evenings. The very best wines of the Montes estate hail from this vineyard. The Marchigue Vineyard is closer to the coast and has a higher percentage of clay and loam soils. And the Leyda Vineyard is just a bit to the north of Colchagua and is slightly cooler, due to it's proximity to the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. Here Viña Montes creates their fresh yet balanced whites and some Pinot Noir.

Viña Montes is the only winery in Chile to harvest their grapes solely at night. Aurelio explained that this provides a more balanced wine, as the vine "perspires" during the day and loses water, therefore the brix level of the grape (the amount of sugar) goes up. But if they wait until the cool of the evening the brix level goes back down. This is a good thing since in Chile ripeness is never an issue but sometimes wines with balanced levels of acidity and fruit are hard to find.

After harvest each grape goes through a rigorous selection process on the sorting table. "We take every strange element that may come with the grapes- leaves, stems, shoots and so on- and we take that out so that the bottom line is that we have only quality fruit in the tank," says Aurelio. They are then transported with plenty of TLC to what Aurelio calls very matter of factly "The most modern winery in Chile."

Here they take in the feng shui surroundings (no I am not kidding) before they come to rest in stainless steel tanks. These tanks are on elevators so that the juice is always carried from one place to another by the gentle hand of gravity- it is never pumped or forced. Even the 1,000 barrels that rest in the barrel room are lulled into their slowly oxidizing sleep by Gregorian music 24 hours a day.

The results are some of the best wines one will find on any continent, let alone South America. The 2005 Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc was a bit more rich and ripe than your average New Zealand or Loire Valley version, but the crisp citrusy acidity on the finish provided balance and freshness to the smoky melon aromas. The 2005 Classic Series Merlot was a delightful and inexpensive reason to come back to Merlot, with hints of cocoa, baking spices and black fruits on the nose followed by a palate that was soft, silky and varietally correct.

The 2005 Syrah Alpha from the Apalta Vineyard is one of my favorite wines year in and out. Smoky, spicy and seductive, with a nose that reaches out of the glass like a purple-hued siren, beckoning the thirsty traveller in for a sip. Flavors that range from tobacco and cigar box to rich blackberries to sweet perfume are bound by chewy tannins. Always more wine than the price tag suggests.

Viña Montes also has a line of reserve wines called their "Icon wines." These are created from the best barrels of wine from the oldest vines grown in the rockiest of soils. The Montes Alpha M is a Bordeaux-styled blend and was first created in 1996. This is the wine that proved to the rest of the world what Aurelio Montes already knew: That Chile could produce wines that could stand up to all challengers.

The 2004 Montes Folly is a rock solid red produced from 100% Syrah grown in the Apalta Vineyard. Big, deep, rich, spicy, earthy, perfume-y. Ok, maybe that isn't a word, but there aren't enough adjectives to go around to describe this fantastic wine. Lush and plush, but big and brooding, with gobs of fruit mixed with hints of coffee, scorched earth and smoked meats. Powerful tannins on the finish suggest about 5-10 years in the cellar would do this wine a bit of good, but if you have the patience to wait that long there will be 750 ml of rewards that await.

The 2003 Montes Purple Angel is comprised of 92% Carmenère with just a splash of Petite Verdot. Carmenère may not be a grape that everyone is familiar with but they should be. This wine is a gorgeous chocolaty purple color. It displays extracted cassis on the nose with hints of fresh herbs. The Purple Angel provides one of the most opulent fruit displays you will find in a wine with concentrated cassis, black currant, orange zest and licorice, as well as hints of molasses, bark and dust that provide it with excellent balance.

Not content to rest on their laurels, Viña Montes is always at the forefront in developing not only their wines, but also the wines of Chile as a whole. Each of the four partners is involved with some wine production board or another, and Viña Montes has provided the model that many Chilean wineries now follow to success. This comes as no surprise to those at Viña Montes, as every bottle of wine is embossed with the seal that reads "From Chile with pride."