Santiago is a beautiful, tree-lined city, with great museums, concert halls and university buildings. Slightly giddy, I make my way down to the subway. It is late at night, but our carriage is packed and very noisy. I can see through the window into the adjoining carriage and there is a pretty scene going on there.
A chap holding a microphone is addressing the commuters, who listen intently. I cannot hear what he is saying, so I edge closer to the window. He has created quite a space around him, despite the carriage being full. I am now intrigued. Perhaps he is reciting something from Neruda. Maybe “She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too/How could one not have loved her great still eyes” from the gorgeous Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines. But hold on, I can see musicians standing just behind him, guitars in hand. Ah, music! What is this, then? Traditional Chilean cueca? Then the train comes into a station, the noise decreases and I can hear better. Oh no, it cannot be. Oh, but it is… Ladies Night! Kool and the Gang! “Oh, yes, it’s Ladies’ Night/And the feeling’s right/Oh, yes, it’s Ladies’ Night/Oh, what a night…” And suddenly my affection for Santiago falls by about a thousand per cent…
Thankfully matters are put right the following day when I make my way down to the Maipo Valley. It is here where I fell in love with Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon twenty years ago during the time I worked for Santa Rita and I tasted lovely Cecilia Torres’s masterpiece Casa Real. Maipo Cabernet is still THE wine of Chile for me, and though I respect the cool climate areas of Leyda and Casablanca, it is still the Maipo which holds my heart. And these days it is Perez Cruz which is the benchmark and affable winemaker German Lyon the alchemist.
Once you get through the entrance gate at Perez Cruz, you drive down a bucolic and very long tree-lined avenue which reminds me of Chantilly, where for centuries the French thoroughbred has been trained. I half expect trainer Andre Fabre to walk by, leading in the favourite for the Derby.
There are three keys to the genius of the Maipo, says German (pronounced her-MAN), as we stand at the very top of the vineyard adjoining the scrub of the Alto Maipo hills; beyond this point it is forbidden to plant vines. “First, is the valley itself,” he says, pointing beyond the estate which lies before us. In the distance you can see the two mountain ranges and, in between, the U of the Maipo valley which is shrouded in fog. “The mist comes in from the sea 100 kilometres away.” He then turns to the hills behind us and points to the 2,400-metre peak. “Then we have the influence of the mountains. So we have the cooling breeze from the west during the day, from the fog. And then the cooling influence from the east from the mountains at night.” He bends down and picks up some rocks. “Finally, you have the very stony soils. This is the alluvial bed river bed, which gives minerality. Further down in the valley there is a greater clay content.”
He shows me the chequered stations built into the ground which acts as transmitters for the drones which help calculate the rate of photosynthesis in the vineyards. Nothing is left to chance.
In the winery he tells me: “We used to have very long maceration periods and didn’t use pressed grape juice. Now we are looking for shorter skin contact and I am starting to use press wine from two basket presses in the blend. This tends to make softer wines which is what everyone in the world wants. No more big bombs.”
We walk through a huge barrel room. “Actually, I am looking for much less oak influence than ten years ago. We are not using less oak, but we are using much less new oak.”
He is trialling eggs. “They are noble containers, like oak, in that they are porous and allow ingress of oxygen, whereas stainless steel tanks are neutral containers. They can only ever store fruit, not influence it.”
We try a 2017 Cabernet that has seen one year in oak and one year in egg; it has an amazingly complex flavour but the greatest sensation is one of freshness. Then we try a 2019 that has only seen concrete egg. This has a slightly tarry feel, but it is still going through malo and German describes it as being a touch “rancio.” Finally, we try a 2018 with one year in concrete and no oak. This has a beautifully herbal and minty feel to it. A 2019 Grenache, which I’d first tasted at ProWein, again knocks my socks off with its acidity and sheer strawberry juiciness, like a really great Beaujolais. German agrees on the strawberry taste. “This is a Wimbledon wine,” I say. It will be bottled in July – alas! just too late for Centre Court.
During a full-on tasting, I note the highlights. No grape lets me down more than Carmenere, but this 2017 vintage definitely doesn’t disappoint. “This was a floral year,” explains German, and indeed you can smell lavender on the nose. A 2017 Syrah is beautiful, but it is a beautiful Syrah rather than a beautiful example of Maipo terroir. The Chaski Petit Verdot always presents a challenge, according to German. “It can be undrinkable. The thing is to use minimal intervention. Let the grapes get on with it.” It has a beautiful tar and liquorice nose, with that ineffable touch of salinity that defines the greats.
But we are here for Cabernet Sauvignon! The 2016 Reserve is classy and refined, full of massive blackcurrant flavour. The 2016 Limited Edition has blood red serious fruit, with soft silky tannins. A 2013 Pircas Cabernet has inky red depth of colour and breeding dark plummy an currant fruit. Stunning.
Good to see the Maipo still doing the business twenty years on!