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Tasting notes from Chile

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on Chile, North to South.


The family-owned De Martino was founded in the 1930s in Maipo. Now with the third and fourth generations involved, the company is ambitious and experimental: they were the first in Chile to label a wine as Carmenère following the discovery in the 1990s that Carmenère had been misidentified as Merlot, they are currently the only producer of a wine from the Choapa Valley appellation, and here in Elqui they farm some of Chile's highest vineyards.

I met up with winemaker Eduardo Jordán (right) and endured a particularly bumpy ride in the back of his truck, bouncing up precipitous dirt-track roads in the 30ºC mid-day heat, to reach their highest plantings at 1950 metres. The range of soils, with rocks at the top of the slopes, alluvial soils at the bottom, affords great flexibility Eduardo tells me. Temperatures peak at 32ºC, but only for a couple of hours per day. Winter sees 20 centimetres of snow cover the vineyards, but there is no frost risk, as temperatures rarely fall below -2ºC.

Eduardo's full-time project currently is scouting for new vineyard zones, as a key company policy is to keep expanding Chile's repertoire of wines and wine styles. They have vineyards all the way from Elqui down to Bío Bío. "Millions of years ago Chile was below sea level," he tells me. "The coastal ranges appeared 160 million years ago, and then the Andes, and it was the valley between that was planted. Only recently has Chile understood that the valley floor is not always the best terroir for wine. Yes, the south of Chile is cold, the north is warm, but the proximity to the coast and mountains is just as important in terms of where you grow grapes."

vineyard    Next came a lesson in geology: "80% of Chile's soils come from volcanic activity. There are still many active volcanoes - one city in the south had to be moved 20 kilometres last year because of volcanic activity. It is important to avoid the ashy soils, and find either the rounded stones and alluvial materials from the last glaciations 15,000 years ago, or colluvial soils, full of rugged, square boulders laid down by volcanic activity." (left: the vineyards at 1950 metres. Click photo for bigger image)

All of De Martino's vineyards are farmed organically, though not certified: "we believe in organics, not in certificates," says Eduardo. Perhaps a little glimpse of the focus and ambition here comes when he explains how crucial terroir is to De Martino by comparing Romanée Conti's vineyards with those of village Vosné Romanée just next door. All of De Martino's vines are planted on their own roots. "If you change the rootstock, you change the place," says Eduardo. "If you plant Cabernet in the same spot, on three different rootstocks, they all taste different, so obviously rootstocks do not allow the purest expression of terroir."

white wines

De Martino's UK importer is Berkmann Cellars. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

De Martino Quebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008
Name means 'Dry Cliff' in this single vineyard wine from Limari fruit. 100% barrel ferment, with a very careful barrel selection from different forests so as not to overpower fruit. 50% new oak. Deliciously honeyed nose, with nutty tones and a very cool, pure, melon fruit. There's a gentle cashew richness, but only 10% malolactic keeps the freshness. There's a creaminess, but also a touch of soft, leafy herbal quality and touch of salty minerality and a fine, very dry and elegant finish. Delicious and very classy. 92/100. £14.99.

red wines

De Martino Legado Syrah 2007
From the Choapa valley, south of Limari but still 200 kilometres north of Santiago. De Martino is the only producer with fruit from this valley. 100% Colluvial (volcanic formed) soils on mostly clay, 845 metres above the sea in the Andes foothills. There is a touch of resinous, almost balsamic quality, with rich, thick raspberry and darker plummy fruit notes. The palate has lots of sweetness, but a roasted chestnut richness and plenty of body, though the freshness is there, with good acidity and a bit of spice. 89/100. £8.49, Oddbins.

De Martino Alto los Toros Syrah 2008
From the 1950 metres vineyard in Elqui that I visited, this has 15% Petit Verdot in the blend. Around 600 cases only, and will be shipped to the UK early in 2010 at a price level between Legado (£8.99) and the single vineyard range at £14.99. Very deep, suave, spice and pepper wine. Lots of damson fruit, but a little exotic spice and herbal lift and some balsamic notes. The mouth retains very good freshness, with lots of dry extract and a spicy, gravelly quality to the tannins. The power is there, but it has a certain freshness and balsamic strawberry fruit quality. 90/100.

De Martino Alto de Piedra Carmenère 2007
From the Isla De Maipo. Lovely smoky quality, touches of menthol, nice schisty edge to pure, tight black fruit. The palate has a lovely blackcurrant fruit purity, but lovely softness and freshness, with a really fine tannin structure and black fruit skin acidity. 91/100. £14.99

De Martino Las Cruces Old Bush Vines 2007
Single vineyard named after a nearby hill in Cachopoal, 66% Malbec and 34% Carmenère from 60-year-old dry-farmed bush vines. The Carmenère marks the nose powerfully, with some of that green fig and eucalypt lift, but the smooth, juicy black fruit of the Malbec fills the mouth, some spice 91/100. £14.99

De Martino El Léon Carignan 2007
Old bush vine Carignan from Maule. "There's a lot of Carignan in Maule, but you must be on the granite slopes and old vines," says Eduardo. Fresh, lifted raspberry and redcurrant fruit, some herbal, soft sage character. The palate too has delightful freshness and grip, tight, fine tannins and tight acidity. 92/100. £14.99

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