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.