Lush, romantic and not yet overrun with tourists, the wine regions of Argentina's Mendoza area and Chile's Colchagua Valley are becoming the twin baby Bordeaux of the Southern Hemisphere.
With the majestic Andes as a backdrop, a team of young waiters opens the first bottles of Dom Pérignon at 11 a.m., just in time for the arrival of winemaker Nicolas Audebert at his party at Cheval des Andes, the vineyard he runs near Mendoza, Argentina. Audebert, a dashing 33-year-old Frenchman who is dressed for a polo match he will play in later in the day, grabs a crystal flute and saunters through the bright morning sun toward a teak and glass pavilion that rises rather incongruously from the vines.
“You should have seen it here four months ago,” says a beaming Audebert, who has a Tom Cruise smile and a billionaire playboy’s insouciance. “There was nothing. There were just vines.”
Outside the winery’s gates, country lanes are lined with pencil-straight poplar trees—it could almost be Provence in the decades before Peter Mayle got there—but the Loft, as Audebert calls his tasting room, would disappoint old-world wine snobs expecting a cellarful of dusty bottles. Decorated with sleek white leather sofas and Buddha heads, it instead has the vibe of a Buenos Aires nightclub and overlooks a polo field laid out among the vines. Visitors from abroad may be surprised—a polo field at a winery?—but the locals don’t seem to find it odd. Audebert loves to play the sport, and this is Argentina, after all.
The purpose of today’s party is to inaugurate the Loft and to let Audebert’s 150 guests—dignitaries from as far away as China, France and the United States, plus a gaggle of sexy Brazilian girls who flew in from Rio on someone’s private jet—have a first taste of the 2005 vintage of Cheval des Andes. Addressing the group after a lunch of braised Argentine beef, Audebert describes the wine in his French-inflected Spanish as a blend of “two different savoir faires”—a combination of local grapes and Continental know-how. “What we are looking for is a wine that’s 100 percent Argentinean, with a French touch,” he says.
Cheval des Andes winery is itself a project that derives from mixed parentage. Launched in 1996, it’s a collaboration between France’s Château Cheval Blanc—one of the world’s finest wineries, co-owned by LVMH kingpin Bernard Arnault—and Argentine producer Terrazas de los Andes. Audebert’s $75-a- bottle brainchild and today’s lavish event are unmistakable signs that South American wines, once synonymous with cheap plonk, are making a bid for connoisseurs’ attention. With the guidance and investment of some of the most venerable winemakers in France, Argentina’s Mendoza area and Chile’s Colchagua Valley are becoming the twin baby Bordeaux of the Southern Hemisphere.
Winemaking in South America is hardly new, having arrived with Spanish conquistadors who started growing grapes at their missions to produce sacramental wine. The continent’s commercial wineries were born in the late 19th century, when aristocratic Chilean landowners, who had grown rich from mining and cattle, imported French vines and viticultural practices. Shortly thereafter, European immigrants in Argentina began making wine using techniques from their homelands. In a historical irony, vineyards in France were soon to be destroyed by the phylloxera root louse, an ineradicable pest. The vines already transplanted to Argentina and Chile escaped the plague, which means South America’s vineyards are the direct descendants of 19th-century French vines, resulting in what many wine experts consider to be more complex, nuanced wines than modern French vintages. In addition, South American vines grow on their own roots, while European vines must be grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
“What everyone in the wine world agrees on is that older vines always provide more consistency and also more complexity,” says Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, the French owner of Chilean winery Clos Apalta. “That’s why I went there. The Chileans didn’t realize how lucky they were.”
On a brilliant autumn morning, a dramatic tongue of fog is rolling down from the mountains across the rusty red vineyards of Colchagua Valley. At the end of a long dirt road lies an unexpected outpost of modernity in the wild foothills: a gorgeous wooden lodge and four luxurious guest casitas, perched between the valley and the mountains—a billionaire’s retreat. This is Clos Apalta, which Marnier-
Lapostolle, a member of the family best known for producing Grand Marnier, purchased in 1993. “For a French winemaker, it’s a beautiful place,” she says. “You know how when you go into a house and you say, ‘Ooh, I like this house; I feel good here’? I had the same impression. It’s as if I knew this place in another life.”
In 1999 she invested millions in a cutting-edge, new facility, a five-story building that plunges 115 feet into solid granite bedrock. Inside the structure, a spiral staircase carved from local stone descends six floors to a barrel-aging room as stark and elegantly spare as an abbey; here, tastings are offered atop a huge glass table that appears to float in the darkness. At the touch of a concealed button, the glass retracts at one end to reveal another staircase that drops into the “wine library,” where Marnier-Lapostolle keeps 30 cases of each vintage for posterity. “You expect to see James Bond in his tuxedo waiting inside,” observes winemaker Andrea Leon.
Marnier-Lapostolle visits from Europe five times a year—“If I could, I’d stay even more”—and regularly hosts parties and dinners there. Vineyard owners stop by more frequently these days, and even chic Santiago residents who aren’t in the business have started building weekend homes in the area. “It’s like Napa 20 years ago,” she says.
The ruggedly beautiful landscape of the Colchagua Valley is also home to Viña Los Vascos, the Chilean winery owned by Eric de Rothschild. Proprietor of France’s storied Château Lafite, Rothschild bought his 4,000 acres in the Colchagua Valley back in 1988 when he was looking to diversify the family’s famous but limited production in Bordeaux. Land in Chile was remarkably cheap at the end of the Pinochet era, and the winery’s workers were so impoverished that they came to work barefoot.
“When we arrived, it was a desert, a social desert,” recalls Rothschild, who visits annually. But in recent years, Chilean landowners who once managed their estates from offices in Santiago have become a common sight in the campo. The Los Vascos team keeps up the social obligations of a Rothschild property. At this year’s harvest, Christophe Salin, the urbane president of Rothschild’s global holding company, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), managed the estate’s affairs, including hosting dinners for local vintners and visiting wine consultants, and amusing guests with anecdotes from the early years of Los Vascos. In retrospect the stories play as comic episodes: The vineyard’s original Chilean winemaker, for instance, quit during the first harvest because he was convinced that the unfamiliar winemaking techniques employed by the new French owners would lead to ruin, and “he didn’t want to be part of a vinegar company.” (He probably regrets it now, as Los Vascos produces a premium wine, Le Dix, modeled on the style of Château Lafite and priced at $50 per bottle.)
The hacienda Rothschild built on the estate is truly baronial: an adobe hunting lodge filled with fine French antiques and, in the foyer, a giant Alaskan moose head that serves as a hat rack. Rothschild merrily reports that he continues to buy pieces for the house, including, most recently, a French sculpture from around 1900 that he is shipping over. “When I retire, I will go there more,” he says. “It’s quite extraordinary.”
“Baron Eric,” as he is known on his domains, is not the only Rothschild with a showplace winery in Chile. In 1996 his cousin Philippine de Rothschild, owner of Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux, joined forces with the historic Concha y Toro winery, the country’s largest, to create Almaviva.
“We have a new spirit,” declares Isabel Guilisasti, a Chilean who runs Concha y Toro with two of her brothers, “but it is rooted in France.” Indeed, a guest at Concha y Toro could be forgiven for believing he has actually detoured unexpectedly to the French countryside. The estate’s neoclassical mansion, surrounded by lush gardens, dates back to 1875, when the winery’s founder, Don Melchor Concha y Toro, built it for his Francophile wife. Concha y Toro is credited with having made Chile’s first ultrapremium wine—named Don Melchor to honor its founder’s pioneering gusto—in 1997 with the help of a French consultant, and now Almaviva is winning kudos as well. Wine Spectator awarded the 2003 Almaviva 95 points, and Robert Parker called it “the finest Cabernet-based wine I have ever had from Chile.” The Guilisastis are also owners of Viñedos Emiliana, which produces wine from organic grapes. Al Gore sampled G, their premium product, while in Chile last year.
As connoisseurs increasingly take the measure of these new South American wines, tourism to Chile and Argentina will inevitably rise. “It feels very European,” says Audebert of Mendoza, a lively city of more than 100,000 residents, where restaurants proclaim national commitment to grass-fed beef and the inky wines from local Malbec grapes, and squares and promenades preserve a hint of a wealthy colonial past. It’s the night after his party, and the Frenchman is relaxing over dinner at Francis Mallmann’s elegant 1884 restaurant, which is known for its wood-fire-grilled bisteca grande that literally stretches across two place settings.
“They have a connection,” he adds about the local vintners. “It is important to them that they are close to the French wine world. They are snobbish in that way.”