A great-value Chilean Malbec from the pioneers of a new cool coastal region.
From £13.95, $19.99, CA$29.95
‘For a long time (and maybe even now) we were considered crazy people, investing in a 200-ha [500-acre] piece of land near the coast to plant only red grapes … and in an area where only forest and legumes were produced’, wrote Maria Merani, La Roncière’s export director, who kindly helped us precisely locate the new Chile appellation when we were revising the World Atlas of Wine for its eighth edition. She had a front-row seat when the Orueta family (below) applied in 2014 for the creation of a new Licantén DO (denominación de origen), a geographical indication in the westernmost coastal subregion of Curicó (see this map of central Chile), which was finally granted in May 2018. (Maria also took the photo above and the first one of the vineyards below.)
‘As a family-owned winery since 1949, with vineyards in Colchagua and Cachapoal, we knew 12 years ago that the traditional valleys were affected (and are being more and more so as time passes) by global warming, so we needed to move from our comfort zone and find fresh areas if we wanted to produce fresh red wines. There was no other option. It took more than two years to find the right place.
‘People in the industry were somewhat sceptical that something good would result from this vineyard, but we knew that the future was there! There were no vineyards in the area, so there was no information about how good or bad the result would be, but we were so sure and confident about it!’
Their confidence is well placed, if this wine is anything to go by. Whereas many in Chile and especially Argentina have sought out higher elevations for freshness, in Chile the cooler coastal zones (as well as more southerly latitudes such as Patagonia – see Ferran’s comments on Austral in his recent article on southern Chile and Jancis’s 2017 article on Chile’s most southerly vineyard) seem to offer a whole new opportunity for fresher styles of wines.
Of the estate's 200 ha, 120 were planted in 2012–2013 with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenère, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carignan, using a range of clones and rootstocks for each variety. The rest of the estate is given over to native flora in order to preserve biodiversity, giving the site 'greater resilience in the face of climate change', as chief winemaker Juan Muñoz (further below) explained. They are still the only producer in the new DO – the nearest commercial vineyard is about 50 km away.
Expositions and slopes vary considerably because the vines are planted on the hills of the ancient coastal mountain range, ‘a mosaic of different types of soil [see the map below] with metamorphic character such as licorellas, shales (lutitas), gravel and some granitic loam sectors’. Irrigation water comes from the nearby Mataquito River (below). Licantén, incidentally, means 'precious stones / special stones / magic stones' in Mapudungun, the language of the indigenous Mapuche people.
The local climate is very important for the style of the wine: summers are dry, with no cloud cover, but maximum temperatures during the summer (typically 27 °C/80 °F in January) are up to 5 °C cooler than in many other Chilean winegrowing regions so that ripening is longer and slower. Most importantly, every day during the summer there’s a south-westerly breeze from the Pacific in the early afternoon, which cools the vineyards.
Muñoz told me that with so much variation across the estate, they planted 140 separate plots to discover the potential for the different combinations of variety, exposition and slope. To ensure full maturation of these red varieties, they have trialled a range of planting densities: 'We have planted in high density (8,333, 10,000 and 12,500 plants/ha) because we needed fewer kilograms per ha and plant competition for nutrients and water in order to be sure that grape maturation would be a success.'
All this careful and laborious, not to mention expensive, prospecting, preparation and planting (see the soil map below, for example) has resulted in red wines that are expressive of their place of origin, the holy grail for serious winemakers everywhere.
La Roncière, Idahue Estate Malbec 2017 Licantén is terrific value at £13.95/$19.99, combining the ripe bramble fruit flavours of the variety and the sunny climate with the impressive freshness and a slight pepperiness, a delicate stony quality, that results from this relatively cool location and longer ripening season.
When I tasted it in late 2019, I found the tannins still quite firm, chewy but supple, suggesting that you could drink this now with food and that it would still be drinking well in three or four years’ time (if stored well). My conclusion: ‘A complete wine with a long finish.’ I retasted the wine this week and already the tannins have become a little more silky and the wine as a whole more elegant, especially served a little cooler than room temperature.
While the front label states Malbec, it also includes 8% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc, the latter surely also contributing to the freshness of the fruit. The grapes were hand-picked, destemmed, macerated at 10–12 °C for 48 hours and fermented in small stainless-steel tanks at 26–28 °C over a period of seven days. The fermentation started spontaneously and was finished with inoculated yeast. The wine continued to macerate on the skins for a further 30 days, followed by malolactic conversion and ageing in French oak for 10 months (30% new). The quality of the fruit is such that the oak is a support not a dominant factor, especially now the wine has been in bottle for a couple of years.
In the UK the wine is imported by, and available directly from, Corney & Barrow, as well as from Vin Cognito (London SW15) and Hic! (West Yorkshire), at £13.95. There is a 10% discount if you buy a case of six from C&B (part of a wider offer in which full cases, 6 or 12 depending on the wine, benefit from this discount).
In the US, the wine is imported by SAWM Imports, who specialise in wines from Spain and South America. Francisco Astudillo of SAWM explained that the wine is currently available in Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC, North Carolina and Texas. 'We received this container right at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, therefore our markets from New York, New Jersey, California, etc could not order at the time, but they will be there at some point.'
He also sent this list of retailers: Wine Cellars of Annapolis, Annapolis MD, GrandCata, Washington DC, Tinto Wine and Cheese, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake VA, Chapel Hill Wine Company NC, Label to Table, Richmond VA, The Caboose Market, Richmond VA, Williamsburg Pottery Factory VA, The Wine Cellar, Charlottesville VA, The Big Kitchen, Richmond VA, Oxford Cellars, Richmond VA.
The wine is also available in Montreal via Activin (firstname.lastname@example.org). Other Licantén wines are sold by Kespro in Finland and Riba Smith stores in Panama. I haven't tasted any other wines from their range but Alistair Cooper seems pretty keen on their Cabernet Franc 2017 and Ferran has reviewed the Cabernet Sauvignon 2017. La Roncière's Chinese importer (for Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec) is Guangzhou R&J Development Co (No 3, Huidong Road, Dongsheng town, Zhongshan city, Guangdong province).