1 Feb 2016

WINE: Innovation at Chile's Oldest Wine Producer

The sleek tasting hut of Carmen, Chile's oldest producer - under Santa Rita Estates' mantel - is framed by canals carrying pure Andes melt-water to fledgling Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety driving the firm's investment in the Alto Maipo. Inside, a glass table etched with a map describing Chile's slender form is laid with glasses showing the five ranges of Sebastián Labbé, winemaker since 2005.

Motivated by the good surf, Labbé learnt how to craft cool clime wine in New Zealand and today focusses on 'hunting terroir' to 'plant the wine' at Carmen.
Outside, winery dogs, Negro, Shakira and Merlot jostle among palms. Despite Carmen's history (1850), Labbé tested 250 new vinifications last year, using innovative multi-spectral photographs to determine the best time to harvest. Improved technology also allows Carmen to define, measure and manage their environmental footprint alongside considered treatment of the community.
In Carmen's vineyard in Apalta (Colchagua), a blackberry eagle holds steady over 70 year-old Carménère. It was here in November 1994 that vine expert, Jean Michel Boursiquot identified Bordeaux's long lost grape. Does Labbé approve this inheritance? 'I've tasted lots of bad Carménère,' he admits as 'Mind Mischief' seeps from speakers of a tough truck. 'But, if you did a tasting 10 years-ago, eight were bad, now it's the other way. The trick is to get grapes to ripen early, and blending helps. I have faith.' He offers a revelation. 'The Japanese chill it with seafood.'
Labbé is proud of the new Wave Series, focusing on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from fruit sown seven miles from the sea in Leyda granite. 'When I’m not making wine, surfing is my way to connect with nature,' he says. 'Some Sauvignons from New Zealand can feel over the top. Fortunately, consumers are adapting to the lighter style we've mastered. We can do some damage!'
Labbé believes it essential to define Carmen's style and quality at this approachable level to entice customers to 'climb the ladder' to the Gran Reserva.
He appraises other varieties seen in the balanced, Premier 1850 range. 'Chardonnay wasn't damaged in Chile like elsewhere and is coming back into fashion.' Meanwhile, Syrah remains a tough sell. 'You can make great Syrah, but you'd be drinking it alone. We're increasing our Petite Syrah, though - exclusive to our group in Chile.'
Labbé shows me a less restrained pour, proving the bravery of the traditional producer. Unfiltered Semillon with wild yeast from 85 year-old vines has proved popular with UK young-gun restaurateurs. I ask Labbé if he has concerns over Chile's vinous future. 'Our biggest predator is soccer, which can affect logistics of picking!' 
First published Harper's Wine & Spirit