Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Santa Rita - Old World Chilean Charm

Chile has been defined as a New World country regarding its wines, but during my recent visit, I found notable examples of Old World appeal and sophistication in the wine country. Santa Rita, one of the country’s best-known wine estates, is an ideal example of that allure.

Founded in 1880, Santa Rita is located in the Alto Jahuel area of the Maipo Valley, about 45 minutes southeast of Santiago, the country’s capital city. While the Maipo Valley is famous for the class and breeding of its wines (especially red), it is this area known as the Alto Maipo that is home to the most complex, longest-lived Cabernet Sauvignons and other red wines. Vineyards here are situated at 1200-2000 feet above sea level and provide ideal conditions for full-bodied reds, given the naturally limiting yields and the cool temperatures that mean extra hangtime.

What I love about Santa Rita is the care and attention to detail the owners have brought to this estate. Stroll the grounds and you’d think you were in the 1880s, as you sit on the veranda of the hotel and take in the beauty of the 100-acre park with its array of chestnut, almond, olive and cedar trees standing alongside a marvelous collection of mythological statues and an impressive chapel. Few wine estates I have visited in the world offer an entrancing atmosphere such as this.

Additional beauty is found by simply driving into the estate alongside the vineyards. The Alto Jahuel Mountains provide a dramatic backdrop and many rows are fronted by huge red roses. How can you not have positive thoughts about the wines produced here when you experience nature in this fashion?

As for the wines themselves, Santa Rita has several ranges, all well made. The entry level is called “120,” which is named for 120 Chilean patriots who led the fight for the country’s independence. These are $8-$9 retail wines in the US and while there are several other Chilean producers that also make wines at this level, few do it as well as Santa Rita. Particularly nice are the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc with pleasant melon and spearmint flavors and the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon with good varetal character and a clean, lightly tannic finish.

I won’t go through all the wines here, but there are excellent examples in every category. For the Reserva line, the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca Valley and the 2007 Carménère from Rapel Valley are especially noteworthy. The Medalla Real wines, priced in the $18-20 category are especially elegant and complex; the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Maipo (much of it from the Alto Jahuel estate) and the 2007 Carménère from Colchagua are beauties; each displaying elegance, spice, complexity and a great deal of class.

Santa Rita winemaker, Andrés Ilabaca (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Winemaker Andrés Ilabaca deserves a lot of credit for crafting so many fine bottlings in so many categories. Of course, the agronomists and Mother Nature have a lot ot say in the final product as well, but it’s impressive what Ilabaca has done with all of these wines!

One thing I love about Santa Rita is their work with Carménère, a variety that should be better known. Cuttings of this cultivar were brought to Chile from Bordeaux in the 1850s and for over a century, most wineries thought this plant was Merlot. This mistake was finally recognized in 1994 and wineries have been labeling the wines made from this variety correctly ever since. But for those waiting to witness a new wave of excitement with Carménère, well, it just hasn’t happened.

There are two main reasons for this, the most important being the imperfect guesswork done with this variety. Much of the plantings were in zones that were too cool; now growers and enologists have discovered that Carménère works best in warmer zones, which helps promote ripeness and lessen the green, overly herbaceous character. A second reason has to do with marketing as some in the industry have recommended to Chile’s producers to focus on Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon and not worry about Carménère.

Well, I think this “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy is a dumb one, especially when you taste some of the best examples of Carménère from Santa Rita and other producers. The Medalla Real bottling from 2007 has aromas of black plum, molasses and tar and offers a rich mid-palate and a long finish with round elegant tannins. “Carménère has a lot of tannins,” says Ilabaca, “but they are silky and not overly aggressive.” Ilabaca has also produced a premium Carménère called Pehuén, blended with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and also uses Carménère in a gorgeous red known as Triple C, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère. Clearly Santa Rita is one of the leading proponents of Carménère in Chile; they should be commended for ignoring marketing suggestions and proceeding with the necessary research for this important variety.

Cecilia Torres, winemaker, Casa Real (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

One final wine from Santa Rita that deserves mention is the Casa Real, a Cabernet Sauvignon made from the oldest vineyards (average age 45-50 years) on the Alto Jahuel property. Winemaker Cecilia Torres led me through a tasting of four vintages of this glorious wine, from the current 2005 offering back to the 1995 bottling. She mentioned that the Casa Real wines of the 1990s were affected by the El Niño conditions which resulted in droughts throughout Chile (especially severe in 1999), yielding wines of a more powerful nature than normal. Torres told me that she always aims for “elegance over opulence,” so she prefers the recent releases. The 2005 (US retail, $75) is a gorgeous wine with beautiful red plum, cassis and cedar aromas, excellent depth of fruit and a beautifully structured finish; I look for this wine to be at its peak in 12-15 years.

Elegance is indeed the key to Casa Real and to the Santa Rita philosophy. How lovely a thought to consider while having your appetizers of local seafood on the patio at the estate's restaurant. You know, the people that run Santa Rita have got their priorities straight – wine and food provide harmony in our lives. Some wineries may live and die on magazine ratings, but not Santa Rita.

Text and photos ©Tom Hyland


  1. Great write up on Santa Rita, from its traditional beauty to the quality of its wines.. and that park really is stunning, isn't it? There were many of these estates built surrounded by their respective European style gardens in the mid-to-late 19th century. Fortunately, many still remain.


    Is one ot the best little articles about a chilean winery I've read.

    Keep up the good work.


  3. David:

    Thanks for the kind words. That is quite a compliment!