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Intoxicating Prose: WINE: Innovation at Chile's Oldest Wine Producer

The sleek tasting hut of Carmen, Chile’s oldest producer – under Santa Rita Estates’ mantel – is framed by canals carrying pure Andes melt-water to fledgling Cabernet Sauvignon, a variety driving the firm’s investment in the Alto Maipo. Inside, a glass table etched with a map describing Chile’s slender form is laid with glasses showing the five ranges of Sebasti n Labb , winemaker since 2005.

In Carmen’s vineyard in Apalta (Colchagua), a blackberry eagle holds steady over 70 year-old Carm n re. It was here in November 1994 that vine expert, Jean Michel Boursiquot identified Bordeaux’s long lost grape. Does Labb approve this inheritance? ‘I’ve tasted lots of bad Carm n re,’ he admits as ‘Mind Mischief’ seeps from speakers of a tough truck. ‘But, if you did a tasting 10 years-ago, eight were bad, now it’s the other way. The trick is to get grapes to ripen early, and blending helps. I have faith.’ He offers a revelation. ‘The Japanese chill it with seafood.’

Labb is proud of the new Wave Series, focusing on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from fruit sown seven miles from the sea in Leyda granite. ‘When I m not making wine, surfing is my way to connect with nature,’ he says. ‘Some Sauvignons from New Zealand can feel over the top. Fortunately, consumers are adapting to the lighter style we’ve mastered. We can do some damage!’
Labb believes it essential to define Carmen’s style and quality at this approachable level to entice customers to ‘climb the ladder’ to the Gran Reserva.

He appraises other varieties seen in the balanced, Premier 1850 range. ‘Chardonnay wasn’t damaged in Chile like elsewhere and is coming back into fashion.’ Meanwhile, Syrah remains a tough sell. ‘You can make great Syrah, but you’d be drinking it alone. We’re increasing our Petite Syrah, though – exclusive to our group in Chile.’

Courage

Labb shows me a less restrained pour, proving the bravery of the traditional producer. Unfiltered Semillon with wild yeast from 85 year-old vines has proved popular with UK young-gun restaurateurs. I ask Labb if he has concerns over Chile’s vinous future. ‘Our biggest predator is soccer, which can affect logistics of picking!’