“We over deliver, and aim high to prove to the world that Chile makes exceptional wines,” asserts Aurelio Montes Sr., an ambitious man who’s passion is written all over his face. As he describes his journey from the early days, I could only imagine what it was like to start a Chilean winery back in the day. It would take courage and a daring, pioneering spirit to take on great risks and enormous challenges to execute the dreams of Montes. And Aurelio did just that.
I met him at his home in Santiago, where we talked about Chile’s storied past. The legend of Montes is a small yet significant chapter in the country’s winemaking history dating back 450 years—making it one of the older “new world” wine producing regions in the world. Aurelio affirms that from modest beginnings, his founding partners Pedro Grand, Douglas Murray, and Alfredo Vidaurre built Montes with a mission to make premium Chilean wine. And thirty years later, Montes continues to produce high quality wines that over deliver.
The story of Chile’s winemaking history started when vines arrived in the baggage trains by the Spanish conquistadors who entered across the deserts from the north of the country. South America had no native vines of its own, so colonizing invaders planted red and white grapes wherever they settled. The Pais (known elsewhere as the Mission) played a significant role in Chile’s early winegrowing days. Although most of the vines were ripped out (18,000 acres remain), its still used to produce jug wine. Other early “ancient” vines, Moscatel Rosada and Moscatel de Alejandria are still in cultivation, but nostalgic grapes Aceituno and Huasco are now long extinct.
In 1851, Chile went through a wine awakening. Landowner Don Ochagavia introduced new varieties and winemaking techniques, and brought in Bordeaux vine cuttings—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon blanc, and Semillon, and hired French winemakers and viticulturists to set a new direction.
Then, in the late 80s, Montes came to fruition, and their Cabernet Sauvignon hit the export market. A decade later, and Chilean wine hits the U.S. shelves—and it was exciting to try new, inexpensive wine. Unlike Napa reds, which could put you back $50, Chilean Cabs scoring 87+ points were best buys at $7 bucks a bottle. Interesting and spectacularly raw, Chilean reds were young expressions of a grape that hadn’t been exploited by the magic of modern winemaking. And it wasn’t long before other Chilean varieties found their way into millions of wine lovers’ hearts—from Chardonnay, to Merlot and Sauvignon blanc, these delicious libations were considered the new ‘cool’ kids on the block.
Then in 1997, the winery released Montes Alpha ‘M’ which was amazing, so I chased down some bottles to put on my wine list. It sold out quickly, so I ran out to find more. Years later, Montes released their Folly Syrah, and the Purple Angel Carménère. The later holds a special place in my heart. I can’t explain why, but this magical elixir makes its way into my glass at the most relevant, yet serendipitous times in my life. I was sitting at the bar with a wine sales representative sampling the Purple Angel Carménère and other reds. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a car racing uncontrollably towards our building. In a blink of any eye, the car crashed into a cement barrier just 20-feet from where we were sitting. We ran out to the scene, and although the car crunched like an accordion, the driver was thankfully ok.
Years later, Marc was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm that can cause sudden death. We wanted to live life to the fullest before he went into surgery, so we meet friends on the Oregon Coast to enjoy the sunset and share a glass of wine. My face lit up when our friends pulled out a bottle of Purple Angel from his jacket. I knew at that moment that Marc’s surgery would go well—and it did.
Then in 2017, I had the pleasure to dine with Aurelio Montes Sr. and a few guests at his home. When we arrived, he asked us to follow him to his cellar. His collection was immense, and everyone managed to find a wine to their liking—except me. I walked aimlessly like a lost puppy. As if he were on a mission, Aurelio offered to help me select a wine, walking directly to a specific area in his cellar.
“Grab that bottle right there,” he asserts.
I pulled it off the rack, to reveal its identity…a 2004 Purple Angel Carménère.
Aurelio wittingly smiled after a moment of silence and asked, “Did I find what you were looking for?”
I couldn’t help but secretly accuse him of knowing something about my past. While perhaps it was just another bottle of wine, it represented something more than that….like the ‘Field of Dreams’ when, “…all the cosmic tumblers click into place and the universe opens itself up a few seconds to show you what’s possible.”
So what makes this place so special? There is something enchanting… about the wine…about the place…and about Montes.
…and I was about to find out what makes this place so magical as I head to the vineyards with Aurelio…
VINEYARDS, WINES & FOOD
Our first stop was at the iconic La Finca de Apalta estate, which is the beating heart of the Montes operation, located in the Colchagua Valley. The semi-circle hillside represents the hopes and dreams of the founders, planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. More recently, they planted Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan. The grapes from the vineyard make the iconic Montes Alpha M and Montes Folly.
Along the way, we sampled the Montes lineup:
2014 Montes Alpha Chardonnay, Aconcagua Costa, Chile ($20)
This is a “new world” style with green apple and apricots. It’s a dancing beauty that is bright and elegant, finishing clean with undertones of butterscotch.
2014 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($20)
Very pretty and complex, with notes of red and black fruits, finishing with enticing black pepper and tobacco; good structure, aggressive tannins.
2014 Montes Alpha Malbec, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($20)
A pretty and feminine style with red fruits and violets; appealing grainy tannins leads to an elegant, spicy finish with black pepper and tobacco.
A visit to Chile wouldn’t be complete without wine and food pairings, and Montes resident Chef Jorge Luksic prepared a number of seafood dishes, including king crab, which is abundant at the southernmost tip of South America. Seafood is a staple of Chile, and his dishes paired beautifully with the Montes wine.
Next, we visited Marchigüe vineyards in the Colchagua Valley. It is a rolling, strangely moon-like landscape integrated with tall, long-limbed cacti. Marchigüe, meaning both the place of wind and of witches in Mapuche, is significantly cooler than the rest of the valley, allowing their Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Syrah to ripen a little slower to reach optimal ripeness.
“The land is beautiful, but what makes it so special for grapes,” I said.
“Most producers in this area went south in search of cooler growing conditions. I decided to go west—and I was attracted to Marchigüe because it is a cool climate region, and we don’t have problems of rot that the wetter, southern vineyards do,” replied Aurelio. “And our wind is our best protector against the fungicide.”
Lastly, Zapallar is in close proximity to the country’s famous beaches of Viña del Mar. Although the 110-acre vineyard sits in a windy, cloud-prone region, Aurelio believes that this challenging coastal region has potential.
“Zapallar has good soil and climates to explore,” explains Aurelio.
The winds and challenging growing conditions inhibit the vines’ growth, which in turn, produces concentrated juice and outstanding, concentrated Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, and Pinot noir bottled under the Outer Limits label.
2016 Montes Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc, Zapallar Coast, Chile ($25)
Aromatic and intense with wonderful layers of passion fruit, peach, and pineapple. The finish is clean with good acidity and balance.
2015 Montes Outer Limits CGM, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($25)
A fruit driven Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre (CGM) blend that is bright and spicy with licorice, black pepper and dark chocolate. Finishes long and strong with hints of red fruits.
2012 Montes Alpha M Red Wine Blend, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($98)
Beautiful eucalyptus, black fruits and mint flavors intermingled with lovely grainy tannins. Lovely balance, tannins; Delicious!
In March 2017, Montes opened a new restaurant, Fuegos de Apalta, situated behind the winery among the vineyards. Argentine celebrity chef Francis Mallmann is at the helm, with a menu that has a mix of beef and fish dishes cooked over an open fire.
Francis Mallmann specializes in Patagonian cuisine. His style of cooking with fire is obvious once you approach the restaurant, with an open pit fire that plays central stage in the dining area. He has been featured on numerous international television programs, as well as on the Netflix original series Chef’s Table.
…and with this beautiful meal, we drank some very special wines made by Montes—”Taita”
In 2007, Aurelio separately vinified Cabernet Sauvignon from 50 acres of Marchigüe estates’ stony, labyrinthine soils. The wine was unlike any other Cabernet that Montes produced, and notably structured, powerful and exuberant. Rather than using it for blending, they decided to make a new label, “Taita,” to represent a wine that surpassed everything that they had produced.
In Chilean Spanish, Taita is a term of endearment for a father, or wise elder. The name was chosen because it summed up and captured all of the years of experience and knowledge that led to the evolution of the wine…and Taita materialized into a sub-label appropriately titled, “Wisdom in Wine.” Only three vintages exist — ’07, ’09 and ’10. All three vintages were absolutely gorgeous:
2007 | 2009 | 2010 Taita Cabernet Sauvignon, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($249)
Opulent, luscious and harmonious; concentrated and complex with black, blue and red fruits finishing with beautiful truffle, mocha, and nutmeg notes; sweet spices and silky tannins.
…and after tasting so many wonderful wines, and learning about their storied past, it was sad to leave this magical place. Yet, if it’s one thing that I’ll take away from this trip, it’s that Montes has been a great ambassador for Chile. Aurelio’s vision and pioneering spirit set the gold standard for Chile’s wine scene, guiding the region to focus on quality. And their years of wisdom, paired with passion and spirit is what makes this place so special. And for that, I raise a glass to Montes.
It’s now time to say goodbye to Montes, and head to Mendoza for another bucket list worthy trip—crossing the Andes!