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Chile Success Story

Once known for mass-market wines, Chile is now turning out premium bottles, helped by renegades like Aurelio Montes. Over a family lunch of grilled sirloin and caramel crêpes, he explains why.

A half dozen cars clog the driveway in front of Aurelio Montes's Santiago home. Out back, the winemaker's entire family—his wife, Bernardita Del Campo Correa, their five grown children with their respective husbands, girlfriends, kids and nannies—assembles for a leisurely lunch. As the group gathers on sofas around the quincho (barbecue hut), Montes uncorks a few wines from his 2,000-bottle cellar, starts the fire, preps multiple platters of meats, then takes a moment to balance a glass of the 2001 Montes Reserve Malbec in one hand and a crostini topped with grilled chorizo in the other. As he cooks, eats and chats, he never once stops moving.

Montes's friends call him "El Dorado," The Golden One, a nickname derived from, depending on whom you ask, his name (aureolus means "golden" in Latin), his blondness or his seeming Midas touch. After 30 years in the wine industry—the first 17 as a winemaker for the value-conscious Viña Undurraga and the enormous Viña San Pedro, and the rest for his eponymous label—he has, at the age of 53, earned worldwide fame for his superlative wines: Bordeaux-style Cabernet blends, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

In the 1980s, when wineries in Chile were happy producing inexpensive mass-market wines—and when exports, under the Pinochet regime, were virtually nonexistent—Montes and his partners decided to aim higher. They harvested a pair of vineyards in Curicó and Colchagua, two adjacent valleys about 100 miles south of Santiago in the heart of Chile's Central Valley. Then, in 1988, they released 7,000 cases of, well, forgettable Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Montes was 39.

Montes and his company spent those early years struggling with anonymity. "We were small and had no recognizable name," Montes says. At the time, Chilean winemaking was dominated by remnants of nineteenth-century wine dynasties. (The Spaniards introduced winemaking here in the sixteenth century, producing wine for church services from Mission grapes; in the late 1800s, aristocrats made dramatic improvements, importing French fruit, French techniques—even French architects to design French-style châteaus.) The son of an insurance executive, Montes stumbled into his career after taking an oenology class as part of his undergraduate agronomy degree. Montes wines, in other words, had no history.

So there were a lot of naysayers. And the Montes company's decision to plant its vines on the Apalta Valley Estate—a 1,730-acre, granite-filled swatch in western Colchagua with only 321 plantable acres—did nothing to dissuade skeptics. The land differed dramatically from the high-yielding terrain with northern exposure that Chile's winemakers typically favored.

Montes first spotted the Apalta patch in 1972. Based on his studies of soil conditions in college, he was confident—despite prevailing wisdom—that the estate would be ideal for producing top-quality wines. Once the land was his, he blanketed it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot vines. He selected the best fruit, aged the wine in new French oak for 18 months and, despite the difficult 1996 vintage, unveiled Montes Alpha M, a concentrated, voluptuous red that retailed for $54, the highest price ever for a Chilean wine.

Around that time, competition was heating up, driven in large part by foreign investors—Miguel Torres, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the Marnier-Lapostolles and Robert Mondavi among them—who entered Chile's wine industry. Montes, meanwhile, continued to stand out. He racked up several awards for Alpha M and the rest of the Alpha line, then started planting Syrah, unheard-of in Chile at the time. He made another risky move when he decided to grow the vines on windy 45-degree slopes. The harvesting, Montes likes to say, is done by acrobats.

Nevertheless, in 2000, Montes released a blockbuster Syrah, named, appropriately enough, Montes Folly. He imported special bottles from France, commissioned the British artist Ralph Steadman to design a whimsical label and gave the wine a $70 price tag. Montes Folly didn't turn out to be such a folly after all: The 1,100 six-bottle cases sold out.

Despite his successes, Montes isn't about to slow down. These days, he's working 1,200 acres of Montes estates. He's also consulting for more than 10 Chilean wineries, making wine in France (Sanctus, a St-Émilion grand cru), experimenting with organic vines, building a second winery and considering expansion elsewhere in Chile or in Argentina. But on weekends he still manages to set aside a few hours for his family's epic luncheons.

Midafternoon back at the Montes house, after everyone has snacked on chorizos around the quincho, the party moves to the dining room. Plates are piled with impossibly juicy steaks, Merlot-marinated pork chops and lemony avocado and celery salad, a Chilean classic. Bottles of the 2000 Montes Alpha Syrah and Montes Alpha Cabernet are passed around, and talk jumps from one daughter's upcoming wedding to, of course, wine.

The subject is inevitable: Montes's future son-in-law is a sales manager for Viña San Esteban, his younger son is studying to become a viniculturist and his eldest son, Aurelio Jr., is a winemaker for the upstart Viña Ventisquero. Montes had asked Aurelio Jr. to join the family business, but the son, displaying his father's rebel instinct, decided to strike out on his own. "He already wants to be famous," says Montes with thinly disguised pride. "When people ask him if he is the son of Aurelio Montes, he says, 'I am Aurelio Montes.'" Whether or not he will ever succeed in getting his sons on his payroll, Aurelio senior won't have to face anonymity ever again.

Connie McCabe lives in Santiago and writes about South American food and travel.

Published October 2002
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