I was interested to read your posts. You have obviously travelled extensively in Chile, know it well and have visited many wineries.
Regarding your remarks about large/small companies, we work with a few small companies including Matetic, Ignacio Recabarren, Koyle and occasionally Villard. Historically we have worked with Clos des Fous, Casa Marin, Kingston, Domus, El Principal, Haras de Pirque, Ventolera, Clava, Viña Leyda (when a small independent company), Gandolini, Tamaya, Quintay and Falernia. I have tasted many others which, for me, have not been of sufficient quality to purchase. There are a couple more I am considering.
I buy simply on the grounds of quality and have found a few good smaller wineries. I think Koyle are outstanding. However many of the best wines I have tasted in Chile come from Concha y Toro and Undurraga.
Your comments set me thinking about the relationship of size to quality and how it varies from country to country. At The Wine Society we often find our best suppliers are a similar size to us or smaller, where the value of our business matters more to them than it would do to a bigger company, but that is not always the case. There are some good big companies in New Zealand and Australia but few in France. In Burgundy generally the best wines come from small domaines. After a couple of years in charge of Burgundy I sacked our two biggest suppliers and bought much more from small domaines. However even in Burgundy there are good larger producers like Jadot, Bouchard Père who have extensive holdings of vineyards.
I have often wondered why there are, in my opinion, few good smaller wineries in Chile. I am not sure I know but I may have identified four factors that play an important role.
I learnt when a top wine company based in Europe bought a Chilean medium sized bodega they were surprised by the costs in Chile which were much higher than in Europe. It was partly to do with the extensive subsidies offered in Europe which are not available in Chile. Talking to a few owners of small wine companies in Chile its very hard to make money or even survive. The extra financial resources of larger companies is helpful in this respect.
2 Attention to detail in the vineyard less apparent in small producers in Chile
I see one of the great reasons for the success of small domaines in Burgundy is the attention to detail, especially in the vineyard. The scale is often so small that owners and a few hired hands are hands on and carry out all the viticulture including the pruning, debudding, ploughing etc as well as winemaking, cellar work, sales etc. Because the wines sell for high prices as little as 4 hectares can be sufficient to make a good living. The fine tuning in the vineyards where each vine is pruned according to its vigour makes a massive difference. The quality of the fruit is paramount. But in Chile even small producers have to have much more land as selling prices are generally much lower so I think more work is subcontracted. Perhaps I am wrong but I rarely see the same type of hands on owners in the vineyard in small companies in Chile than one sees in Burgundy. Cristobal Undurraga of Koyle is an exception and spends a lot of time in the vineyard, which is why his wines are so good.
Few large companies are able to simultaneously manage mass production, to make large volumes of high quality brands, and batch processes, necessary for small volumes of top quality wines. Penfolds is one and Concha y Toro is another. That is the challenge for big companies.
The wine business is very capital intensive and also necessitates many different skillsets and this may be easier for larger companies. It takes a lot of money and analysis to know how and where to plant, choose a trellising system and tend a vineyard, invest in winemaking equipment used just once a year, finance maturing stock, bottle wine and sell it. Few are able to do all aspects successfully. Hence some grow grapes and sell them, others buy grapes and make wine, some selling their wine in bulk according to their abilities. Concha produce roughly half their wine from their own vineyards and half is bought in, mostly as grapes I think. It is probably easier for well run large companies to benefit from economies of scale, invest and hire good people than small producers where the owner, and those who inherit the property, have to be a truly exceptional people, to manage everything well and over succeeding generations.
3 Small family firms inherit less good vineyards than in Europe
There are very few really good older vineyards in Chile. So in Chile few small family producers have inherited wonderful old vineyards from their parents or antecedents and few have the resources to plant high quality new ones. This contrasts with say Burgundy where a small domaine may have inherited superb 60 year old vineyards based on 800 years of empiricism.
The exceptions include some 70-80 year unirrigated old cabernet and carmenère vines in the western part of the Apalta horseshoe planted to a good density of 5500 vines/ha on maicillo soils with sufficient water availability, and some of the unirrigated bush vines planted in the 1950s such as carignan in Maule and cinsault in Itata. There a few plots of cabernet from the 1950s? at Alto Jahuel,Maipo, from which were made santa Rita’s Casa Real and Carmen’s Gold Reserve.The cuttings brought back to Chile from France in the 1860/70s included a lot of good cabernet sauvignon, the merlot turned out to be carmenère but the selections of semillon was less good. What people thought was sauvignon blanc turned out to be the inferior sauvignonasse or tocai friulano.
A large majority of the best vineyards are those that have been planted in the last 20-30 years based on soil analysis, new high quality plant material, rootstocks and drip irrigation. The latter has allowed cool, south facing slopes with poorer soils to be planted with the potential for lower yields of higher quality grapes. Previously flood irrigation necessitated slopes with less than a two or three per cent slopes and so some vineyards were on the richer soil of the flat valley floors which produced high yields of good average quality. That has required a phenomenal amount of capital, research and trial and error to know which rootstocks and varieties to plant where, how to manage the vineyard etc. The big companies have the resources to do this and the smaller ones find it more difficult
4 Ability to finance applied research and learn from it is greater in large companies
Chile’s history of quality wine is recent and there is much to learn and improve as mentioned above regarding planting new vineyards. The same is true regarding vinification. There are so many permutations to explore. Those with an appetite to learn, and the ability to finance research and experiments, where some will succeed and others fail, I think are making the best wines. The range and scale of larger companies means they can often learn more. Concha y Toro’s ability to learn is astonishing.
For such a big company Concha have a remarkable organisation of their production which enables them to keep many thousands of lots of wine apart. They separate parts of a vineyard, date of picking, types of vinification, types of tank, cooperage and age of barrels etc. Each year they are experimenting. They taste and learn so much about quality and character because they can compare and contrast. This open mindedness and capacity and wish to learn sets them apart. The applied research is necessary when making wine from new areas such as Casablanca, Leyda, Limarí and new grape varieties.
This allows them to grade by quality into different ranges, declassifying wines that do not make a certain quality level to the next tier down. It also allows them to blend which you cannot do if the good is lumped together with the bad in the same tank. Blending is just a tool. Depending on motivation it can done for good or for ill. At Concha it’s a technique to improve your wines. After 800 years of experience you know where the best sites are such as in Burgundy which produce complete, balanced wines. In Chile, when your history and experience is less extensive, you may have one wine with a great perfume but less good structure, another with less aroma but fine tannins etc and by blending them you get a much better wine. I am lucky to be able to taste and blend such wines with Concha’s superb winemakers Ignacio Recabarren, Marcelo Papa and Lorena Mora.