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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.


Another part of the large San Pedro/Terrapaca group, Santa Helena is in its own right the 11th biggest exporting wine company in Chile. Founded in 1942, over one million cases were exported last year. Brazil and Finland are their biggest export markets, but the UK is growing, with 84,000 cases sold last year, up from 67,000 in the previous year.

Santa Helena has over 500 hectares planted in the Colchagua Valley, with lots of wonderful old-vine material like these dry-farmed Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in front of their winery.
   old vines

   I met up with winemaker Matías Rivera who conducted a tour of the vineyards and a tasting through the Santa Helena range. Matías was particularly keen to introduce a fascinating new project called 'Alta Helena' which showcases Chile's Valleys through sets of premium wines. The new project will focus on sustainability, with reduced weight bottles, carbon footprint monitoring, organic wines and running an energy efficient winery. But it is the nature of the Alta Helena wines and the way they are being offered for sale that will interest most wine lovers.

The first offering is a four-pack of wines being sold for around £50 - £55, each a Cabernet Sauvignon from one of the four most important Chilean valleys specialising in this variety: Aconcagua, Alto Maipo, Colchagua and Curicó. Each bottle has a tag explaining the project, and a presentation box contains maps and other information about the wines and the project.

"The wines have lots of similar characteristics," says Matías. "All are massal selections planted at high altitude on their own roots, and all come from single vineyards. Vineyard management, irrigation and yields are all the same, and vinification and ageing is exactly the same: 14 months in oak, 15% new. It is an incredible way for the wine lover to understand Cabernet Sauvignon - which still makes up 46% of all Chilean plantings."

Matías says the basic characteristics to look out for are:

There are 6,000 boxes for this inaugural vintage.

white wines

UK agent for Santa Helena is Off-Piste Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Santa Helena Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Central Valley. A certain creaminess if slightly dull aromatic. Some nettle and herb does come through which is more expressive. Some crisp apple fruit. Nice lemony, fresh fruit and some of that varietal succulence come through nicely. 86/100. £4.99

Santa Helena Reserva Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Curico fruit. Not hugely expressive on the nose. With a bit of fat, lemony fruit and touch of apple skin. The palate is crisper and more bracing than the varietal, with more of that lemony bite and a touch of salty minerality. 87/100. £6.99.

Santa Helena Seleccion del Directorio Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Paredones fruit - coastal. Natural acidity. Piercing herbaceous and mineral nose, with huge elderflower note that approached Sauvignon sweatiness, but stops with punchy, herbal and green bean notes and tropical fruit. It has the same shimmering, piercing quality on the palate, with masses of lime and grapefruit and a salty tang to the mineral finish. 89/100. £7.99

red wines

Santa Helena Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
Central Valley. Bold, cherry and currant black fruit, the fruit expressive and bold. The palate has lovely fruit sweetness, the nicely dark, slightly inky touch to the tannins adding a fine, savoury character and the fruit and acidity fine in the balance. 86/100.

Santa Helena Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Colchagua. Some creamier and herbal notes here, with some cedary touches. The palate has similar bold, crunchy, sweet black fruit to the Reserva, that extra layer of vanilla rounding it out and even a suggestion of gaminess to the fruit. Nice balance here. 87/100.

Santa Helena Seleccion del Directorio Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Colchagua. 15% Malbec and Petit Verdot in the blend. Subtle wine, with a density and polish to the fruit and a creamy, subtle cedar note. Just a touch of leafiness too. The palate is dry and savoury, the fruit having plenty of plum skin bite and sharpness. 88/100. £7.99

Santa Helena Seleccion del Directorio Pinot Noir 2008
Casablanca. Very careful, slow, gentle fermentation with no pumping over. Only older barrels. Quite a nice undergrowth and truffle note to this, as well as some cedar and minerality. Some softer, spicy coffee and strawberry notes come through in quite a complex aromatic profile. The palate is quite plush, with a lot of sweetness to the fruit. There's a nice silky texture too, with some of that mocha coffee coming through in the finish. Tannins are perhaps a little more rustic than they could be, but a massive over delivery at the price. Lovely wine and great value. 90/100. £7.99, Co-op under Winemaker Series label

Santa Helena Vernus Malbec 2008
Colchagua. Quite dusty and earthy nose, with solid black fruit, if slightly subdued. Nice on the palate, with a certain plushness and juiciness to the fruit, fills the mouth with blackcurrant and plum, and the tannins are very fine. Sweet and refined, with a touch of Malbec lift. 88/100. Not in the UK Market, but would be around £9.99.

Santa Helena Vernus Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Colchagua. Some of the fruit comes from the oldest vineyard which includes 100-year-old vines. Very sweet, tight, ripe black fruit on the nose. Plenty of spice too, and a touch of briar and black olive savour. Big, plush and toasty palate, with lots of rich, plum and blackcurrant. Nice structure here, with dry but elegant tannins. 89/100.

Santa Helena Notas de Guarda Carmenère 2008
Colchagua. Some Cabernet and Petit Verdot in the blend. 15 months in new and used French oak. A lot of canopy management and de-leafing to avoid pyrozene character. There is some dustiness and sense of chestnutty, dry character. There is black fruit, but although there is no green it is not the most expressive Carmenère nose either. Lovely plush palate, with lots of dark, sinewy, spice-edged black fruits. Quite fine tannins and a lovely dry finish. 90/100. £14.99 if in market

Santa Helena Parras Viejas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Colchagua. From a five hectare vineyard of very old vines around the winery. Lots of spice and smokiness. A certain earth and tobacco note, but the blackcurrant fruit is there too. The palate has delicious sweet fruit and freshness - it is fruity and plush, some coffee and fudge and a liquoricy, tight edge that is muscular, but broadened and softened by the coffee oak and refined tannins. Lovely wine with great length. 91/100. £14.99 if in market

the Helena Alta project

Helena Alta Aconcagua Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Elegant, softly-fruited nose, with creamy black fruit and a fine, delicate spiciness. The wine is creamy and fruity on the palate too, with excellent fruit sweetness and a cassis intensity. The finish has a nicely grippy, but sweet and ripe tannin quality, the wine finishing with spice and a plum-skin bite. 90/100.

Helena Alta Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
There's a touch of gamy, spicy character to this, with elegant black fruits and a certain blue/black dustiness. On the palate it is creamy and quite cedary, the crunchy fruit intensity coming through with a creamy texture and perhaps a slightly leaner finish than the Aconcagua wine. 89/100.

Helena Alta Colchagua Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Less expressive than the other two wines, with a fine, crisp, tight structure and a more subdued but intense, tightly-wound nose. The palate has a crisper, more red fruited quality. It seems to lack a little flesh on the mid-palate, but a spicy, warming, cedary and lithe finish. 89/100.

Helena Alta Curicó Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Quite gamy and earthy, with cedary, focused black fruit. Spicy, but again quite tight and has even a touch of herbal aromatics. The palate follows through with that spice and herb-edged character. Very nice fruit and balance, and a great sense of freshness here. 90/100.

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