Calgary (Virtual) Wine Life: Vina Chocalan Tasting with Fernando Espina

6 06 2021

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Perhaps the only good thing about the state of our current COVID world is that you can still attend a wine tasting even if you miss it. Scheduling conflicts prevented our attendance at the recent portfolio tasting that winemaker Fernando Espina of Chile’s Vina Chocalan ran for key Canadian markets, but like everything else these days, the tasting was virtual, and thankfully for us it was recorded for posterity. A couple of days and a bottle delivery later, we were in business, and we were extremely thankful not to miss out on an introduction to a tremendously compelling winery honouring its maritime climate to the fullest extent.

Vina Chocalan is a multi-generational family winery that came into the wine business from a unique parallel industry. You hear a lot of stories about long-time grape farmers who finally take the next step with the fruits of their labour and try their hand at winemaking; you hear far fewer about people who instead come to wine from the glass in. Vina Chocalan’s Toro family owns the second biggest glass bottle factory in Chile and has supplied bottles to wineries around the world for six decades. In the late 1990s, they decided that they should put something in their own bottles themselves, and a grand project was born, focusing initially on the coastal western side of Chile’s Maipo Valley. While the Maipo is the heart of Chilean viticulture, in particular anchoring the nation’s red wine production, no one had planted a vineyard along the Valley’s Coastal Mountain Range until Vina Chocalan did so in 1998, planting 114 hectares out of a 350-hectare plot located a scant 35 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean ahead of their first commercial production in 2001. The next year, they took a step even further into the unknown, establishing a second estate and 25 hectares of white-focused plantings by the village of Malvilla in the San Antonio Valley, located almost due west from the Maipo and only FOUR kilometres from the Pacific. This extremely cool-climate site is a completely different expression of Chilean wine, and a reminder that the best wines nowadays are often made right at the edge of the line.

Hegemonic producer Concha y Toro, one of the 10 largest wineries in the world, might have had something to say about it if the Toro family had opted to name their nascent winery after themselves. They instead opted for their less-litigious moniker Vina Chocalan, which means “yellow blossoms”, after a prevalent local thorn bush flower in the vineyards. Our introduction to the winery came in the form of a half-dozen bottles ranging across both the Maipo and San Antonio estates, whites and reds that emphatically confirm this is a producer to know. Three bottles each, a new universe to explore. Buckle up.

2019 Vina Chocalan Gran Reserva Origen Sauvignon Blanc (~$20)

The two whites in this tasting lineup hail from Vina Chocalan’s Malvilla vineyards, in one of the coldest parts of the San Antonio Valley. Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley has received international notice and acclaim for its fresh, vivacious approach to this grape. San Antonio is located immediately south of Casablanca, and is colder, wilder and more maritime. The soils of Chocalan’s Malvilla vineyards are actually located on a marine terrace, holding a swath of fossilized shells underneath an initial bed of clay. 2019 was a strong vintage for the area, but yields are always low due to the extreme nature of the climate. The Sauvignon Blanc macerated on its lees for 2 months after fermentation, with 10% of the wine aged for 4 months in old French oak barrels to round out the texture.

I’m reasonably sure this is my first Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc. The term “Gran Reserva” has no legal meaning in Chile, but is used by Vina Chocalan to designate an elevated showcase of their broad portfolio, a line one step above their fun and fruity Reserva lineup. It is immediately clear that they did not shy away from varietal identity with their Sauv Blanc, and Fernando notes that San Antonio pulls off much more distinctive, almost New Zealand-like flavours with Sauvignon than does its neighbour Casablanca. No kidding. The piercingly pungent aromatic profile starts at bouillon cubes/chicken noodle soup then jabs into cucumber, brine, sweat, rubber boots and roasted asparagus in rapid succession. There is plenty of fruit too, tropical mango and papaya and blackcurrant Wine Gums, but the umami rubbery tanginess leads the charge. The Sauvignon is pleasantly fleshy on the palate (thanks in large part to the thick clay layer in the soil, we are told) but with lashing, almost punishing straight-line acidity throughout. Wild, herbal and ever-intense, it accents honeyed pineapple, gooseberry and lime zest with cannabis skunk and lemongrass, finishing sharp and salty and maintaining its presence well after you swallow. Absolutely explosive levels of personality and layers of flavour for a $20 bottle, making it one that immediately stands out in the crowd.

90+ points

2019 Vina Chocalan Gran Reserva Origen Chardonnay (~$20)

Fernando advises that the goal with Chocalan’s Gran Reserva Chardonnay from Malvilla’s marine-terrace soils was to create a “fresher” style of the grape. As such, only 10-20% of the wine went through malolactic fermentation in order to preserve crisper malic acidity, and only 40% saw aging in old French oak barrels, with the rest matured in steel. The stylistic aim was aided by the vineyards’ oceanic location, which moderates temperature and prolongs grape hang time, even in a warm and generous vintage like this one. Being on the brink of the Pacific had a clear and tangible effect on this fruit: it was harvested in April, a full three weeks later than fruit in the Leyda Valley, which is immediately south of San Antonio and only scarcely farther away from the water.

This amazingly has a similar pungency to the Sauvignon Blanc, but the aromatic intensity melts instead into more measured notes of grilled lemon, pineapple Life Savers, dill, almond and smoked sage. A mirror-image saltiness rings the fruity core, echoing the brine found in the Chardonnay’s Malvilla sibling. It is broader, rounder and less kinetic than the Sauvignon, its acid smouldering and pulsing rather than racing, but still driving a panoply of beautifully interwoven flavours: florals and honeycomb, lemon curd and chalk, Welch’s white grape juice and wax and epsom salts. The finish floats and endures in spite of the admirable subtlety of the flavour profile. At the risk of oversimplifying, there is just so much there there: nuance, balance, complexity, presence. The depth and elegance is simply mystifying at this price point. This resets the scale for the $20 wine. Bravo.

91+ points

Cork Rating: 7/10 // Stelvin Rating: 6.5/10

(A little nipple-y, but strong and simplistic graphics carry weight.)

2018 Vina Chocalan Gran Reserva Origen Carmenere (~$20)

We come now to Chile’s signature varietal, the mighty Carmenere. As was the case for Malbec in Argentina, this orphan from Bordeaux found a new lease on life in the New World, doing so well that even the vignorons back in the homeland have again started to take notice. Carmenere is famous (notorious?) for green herbaceous character, particularly the pyrazines that yield the well-known green bell pepper aromas that are actually quite sublime in moderation. Couple this varietal character with the fact that Chile is already well known for placing on its own herbal eucalyptus and mint stamps on many of the wines that grow there, heedless of viticultural lineage, and one can be forgiven for approaching any Carm bottling with a generous mix of curiosity and trepidation. The present offering blends 85% Carmenére with 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, a labelling-law-friendly approach to rounding things out. All grapes hail from various coastal vineyards adjacent to the Maipo River. The wine enjoys extended maceration and then sees aging in French and American oak for a period of 10 to 12 months, although only 80% of the blend receives this treatment. It would appear that the notion here is to wring as much flavour our of these cool climate grapes as possible, but not at the expense of obfuscating freshness.

The more-purple-than-expected hue delights, as does the pleasing undercurrent of green pepper admixed with a little red jalapeno, these capsicum characters generously blended with black and green peppercorns along with a pinch of clove-like holy basil. This is exactly what Chilean Carmenére should smell like when at its best, with these aromas front and center yet not completely dominant. The first sip delivers a shockingly long attack of plush whorls of blackberry, black raspberry, stewed plum and Mission fig fruit laced with smoky slate, espresso beans, chocolate malt balls, sandalwood, and sweet tobacco. A blocky acidity contributes needed freshness that serves to lift the technicolour nigh-syrupy fruits, and the prominent soupy tannins (Carm is never a low tannin varietal!) slosh and bump around like cylinders of steel wool and cement encased in rubber. There’s even an almost peach or mango-like tropical vibe in case you feel like getting a little weird. I defy you to find a better Chilean Carmenere at this price point. This is truly masterful. If you can, buy it (and then tell us about it).

91- points

2018 Vina Chocalan Gran Reserva Origen Cabernet Sauvignon (~$20)

If Carmenere is Chile’s rags-to-riches story, fascinating if for no other reason than that the grape was near extinction in its native land, something about Cabernet in this country seems less flashy and yet somehow more solid, stalwart, and “well d’uh” expected. Cab conquers almost wherever it goes, assuming that “wherever” is hot and sunny and that the ripening period for the grapes is sufficiently long. Maipo qualifies. The prototypical Chilean Cab is known to be generous of dark fruit, rather intense, with firm tannins and the classic regional herbal overtones. It is often fair to say that such wines are more plush than those from Bordeaux, but less opulent than the typical Napa Cab, a stylistic middle ground that places more emphasis on herbal/spicy tones. This one (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Carménere (!), 5% Petit Verdot) sees a very similar winemaking treatment as the Gran Riserva Carm, except for slightly shorter maceration periods, and (interestingly) a shorter time in oak.

The colour of this Cab is firmly in deep ruby territory, less roundly purple than expected, a sign that perhaps portends the sneaky freshness that leaps from the nose. Here the herbaceous tones trend more red bell pepper than green, a vegetal spice that nicely interlocks with hints of lilac or violet, nutmeg, black licorice strands, and something earthy that resides right between clay pot shards and actual potting soil. A nucleus of less-than-garish blackcurrant Wine Gum/cassis, blackberry, black plum, and even a little bona fide red grape translates as a broad dash across the medium-bodied palate, followed by compressed, somewhat stern layers of dusty cacao powder, caffe latte, and burnt almond oak. A swarm of very fine powdery, beady tannins provides structure to what is a stylish, discerning, and appropriately subdued sip that over time surprises with its complexity and sneaky depth.  

91+ points

2019 Vina Chocalan Vitrum Blend (~$29)

Now for the blends. Vitrum (which means “glass”, natch) would appear to be Vina Chocalan’s contribution to what has become a rather common blending approach in the Maipo, and one that often portends success: Bordeaux varietals plus Syrah. This is 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Syrah, 5% Carmenère, 8% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. No Merlot allowed, apparently. These grapes all hail from specific micro-terroirs, and were picked at different times based on variety-specific ideal ripeness levels in these fairly cool maritime climes. 100% of the wine was aged for 14 months in French oak barrels (50% new, 50% old).

This pours a Welch’s-grape-juice purple. The nose is a poised balance of huckleberry, raspberry, pie cherry, and blueberry fruit amply drizzled with creamy milk chocolate shavings, aniseed, piecrust, and eucalyptus oil, all bound together on the palate with bushels of pliable, wiry, mouth-filling tannins. If the Reserva Carm was a boisterous eruption and the Cab more of a finely-etched monolith, this bridges the gap, providing a coiled yet expansive romp through more jammy red-fruited territory. The elements of this wine hang together so well that peeling back the layers to scrutinize the details requires rather more focus than expected, although such effort is amply rewarded. There’s a scattering of blackcurrants and a light smoky haze from a shorted-out radio, punctured plums turning into sauce and fig bars. The menthol vibes gather steam with time (blackcurrant Halls), a scoop of coffee ice cream puts in a quick cameo, and we finish strong with ample fruits hitting all of the key notes above. Elegant? Sure. Powerful? Yes, in a restrained sort of way. Ultimately, it is the delicious factor that matters most here.

91 points

Cork Rating: SOS!!

2017 Vina Chocalan Alexia (~$58)

Now we reach Vina Chocalan’s icon wine, the winery’s flagship offering. Alexia was first made in 2011, once the winery felt that its vineyards were sufficiently developed, and it is only crafted in the best years. 2017 is the 4th ever bottling of this pinnacle offering (after 2011, 2014 and 2015), which never clears 250 cases of production. Since we’re talking about a glass bottle company turned winery, I have to point out that Alexia’s Toro-made bottle is massively heavy, probably twice the weight of the white bottles that led off the tasting. Vina Chocalan will be moving to lighter bottles due to environmental issues (it takes more fuel to ship product in heavier containers), but Fernando noted that a hefty bottle weight remained a key marketing/selling feature in some global markets.

Alexia has always been a Cabernet Franc-focused wine: the 2017 is 75% Cab Franc, 21% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Petit Verdot. Fernando says that the winery sought to highlight one variety that they felt best represented the coastal Maipo, and Cabernet Franc always has consistent and prominent typicity in this area, exhibiting its hallmark herbal features in beautiful harmony with the area’s granitic soils and oceanic influence. As Fernando notes, there’s plenty of icon Cabernet Sauvignons out there already, so it’s about time that Franc gets its due in the New World.

The oldest wine of the tasting, the 2017 Alexia is a gorgeous deep rich ruby colour in the glass, laced with garnet at the rim. The eminently Cab Franc nose is dark yet high-toned, with a core of smoky raspberry and black cherry elevated by rhubarb, anise, celery salt, Nibs candy and potpourri. The herbal nature of this mercurial grape makes itself known in a powerful aromatic accent that is somewhere in between menthol, Jagermeister and all-dressed chips (vinegar/red pepper/salt). Thanks in part to the supporting Merlot, the palate is rich and luxurious, but not at the expense of the coastal Maipo’s flagship varietal identity. Clear Cabernet Franc greenness shines through in the form of Extra Chlorophyll gum, celery sticks and liniment, lending a bite and a rawness to near-confectionary dark red fruit (Chambord liqueur, Cherry Halls), which is separately offset by an intriguing twist of orange zest. Dramatic acid supports chalky yet unobtrusive tannin and an endless-seeming velvety texture. The temptation in an icon-level wine is to ripen the fruit to the level of grandeur, but credit to Vina Chocalan for stopping short and keeping the focus on the profile of the grape they sought to showcase. From start to finish, this was one of the most eye-opening tastings we have had in quite some time, from a winery that is now firmly on our radar.

92+ points

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