Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Chile’s Wine Visionary, in India to Uncork Taita, Shares His ‘Very Happy Story’

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
Aurelio Montes at one of his two feng
shui-compliant wineries in Chile. On his
first business trip to India, Montes is all
set to release his most prestigious wine,
Taita 2007, of which only 100 bottles
have been allocated to India

WHEN Chile’s celebrated winemaker, Aurelio Montes, says Lord Ganesha has been “very kind” to him (he’s taking two statues of the elephant-headed god back to Chile), he isn’t overstating his case.
Divine goodwill may be partly responsible for it, but Montes Wines, which was conceived of as a “retirement project” by four good friends, has done phenomenally well in the 25 years it has been around. Its wines are drunk in 105 countries, including India. It manages vineyards in three nations: Chile (where its two showpiece wineries are feng shui-compliant), Argentina (Mendoza) and U.S.A. (Napa Valley; Paso Robles; Santa Rita). It has won several gold medals in international wine competitions and romped home with 90-plus ratings (including most recently a 93 from celebrated critic Robert Parker for Montes Alpha M 2009). And today, Montes, who’s also famous for facilitating the rediscovery of the “Jurassic Park” wine grape Carmenere in 1994, is the international vice-president of Wines of Chile, the national organisation of his country’s wine producers.
Montes is on his first business visit to India; last year, he was here on a personal tour of the Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan. And his mission is to promote his most prestigious wine, Taita 2007, in Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai. Just 3,600 bottles of this luscious red wine (85 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest, says Montes, is “my personal recipe”) have been released and they’ve matured for two years in new French oak barrels and spend another four in the bottle. Taita was unveiled this past June at the wine trade’s most prestigious international outing, Vinexpo in Bordeaux. After India, South Korea is Montes’s next pit stop. South Korea is the second biggest market for Montes wines after the United States.
“All great wines must have a story behind them,” says Montes, as he relates how Taita came about. It started with a request to Montes from Pedro Parra, a Ph.D. student in Paris specialising in terroir studies (“he’s a terroirist, not a terrorist,” chuckles Montes) to sit on the committee that examined his dissertation. When the young man got his Ph.D., Montes invited him over to Chile to profile the micro-terroir of the vineyards that his company owned.
One of the vineyards, Marchigue, is in a particularly rugged location and Parra found a plot of land that is remarkably different from the rest of the vineyard — it has well-rounded rocks, such as those that would be left by a retreating glacier in the Ice Age. The soil was just the kind that Montes loves — “I play the music and the vines dance for me,” says the winemaker. It stresses out the vines and gets them to work very hard to extract the best nutrition from it. Of this very special wine produced on a speck of land in one corner of our planet, India has an allocation of 100 bottles, compared with 60 for the U.K. — “consumers there only look for bargains,” Montes complains, explaining the disparity in the allocations. Taita, incidentally, won’t have a 2008 vintage (the year wasn’t good), but the 2009 has already spent two of the mandatory four years in the bottle.
Taita’s name is equally special. The word means ‘beloved father’ in a Spanish dialect common in Chile. It is also used to signify ‘wisdom’. It is in honour of Douglas Murray, one of Montes’s three founding partners who looked after the company’s marketing strategy. Murray’s family had migrated from Scotland to Chile two generations ago, hence the un-Latin American name, and he was very closely associated with the Taita project. Unfortunately, he died even as the wine as maturing in the bottle.
Till Montes enrolled for a degree in oenology at the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, he hadn’t really given a serious thought to becoming a winemaker. An outdoorsy guy, he had always wanted to be a cattle rancher. As a student, he fell in love with winemaking and he realised Chile is “a paradise for growing grapes”. After graduating, he started making wines for big companies, only to realise that no one wanted to take that grand leap of faith and do something original, so he set out to do something different. “It can get boring to produce more of the same,” says Montes. “We have been drinking wine since the time of Columbus, but Chilean viticulture was getting tired.”
Montes and Murray teamed up in 1987 and they were joined in the following year by Alfred Vidaurre and Pedro Grand. Together, they introduced new, virus-resistant clones, started planting on hillsides where the soil was poor and rocky to stress out their vines and get the best, and plant new varieties in regions that were not known to grow them. At Apalta in the Colchagua Valley, when they planted untested Syrah in the highest slopes of their estate where the incline was more than 45 degrees, requiring “acrobats” with muscles of steel to work on the vines, other winemakers lamented their “folly”.
Montes and his partners (two have died and one has sold his share) named their “wild wine” Folly, got a “mad English painter” named Ralph Steadman to design its funky label and its ‘drunk angel’ logo, and it went on to become a global sensation (despite its limited production of 9,000 bottles). Unsurprisingly, the barren, rocky hill slopes, abandoned by all, that Montes would spot from his plane (he’s a trained pilot as well) and buy for US$1,000 a hectare 20 years ago, are now selling at US$100,000+ a hectare. Montes has put Apalta and Marchigue on the world wine map.
Today, 95 per cent of all Montes wines are sold outside Chile — “no one makes money,” says Montes, “selling his wine in his own country”. India contributes a drop to this ocean. Yet, Montes is hopeful of a wave sweeping across the country, powered by the slow but smooth growth of gastronomy. “I am balancing myself on my board,” says Montes, using surfboarding argot, “to ride that wave.” We can trust Montes’s instincts. After all, back home in Chile, he has planted vines and grown varieties in places where no winemaker had dared to tread.