One on One with Winemaker: Max Weinlaub of Viña Maipo, Chile
When I was invited to meet with the winemaker Max Weinlaub of Chilean winery Viña Maipo, one thing immediately caught my attention – Max was described as an advocate of the “new Chilean Syrah movement“. Syrah might be my all times favorite grape (secretly, of course – I would never admit it in public), so anything which has to do with the Syrah sounds interesting to me.
I couldn’t travel to New York on the given date, but Patricia Clough from Gregory White PR was very accommodating and managed to include me in the live conversation and tasting with Max with the modern wonders of technology (thank you Patricia!). I was able to listen to Max presenting his wines and even ask questions and make comments – and all of it not with my fingers (in most of the “virtual” tastings we use Twitter or similar mechanisms to “talk” to the presenters – this conversation was refreshingly different).
This was the tasting, of course, so I did taste the line of Viña Maipo wines, and in a word, the wines were stunning. But I will tell you all about the wines in the next post, as I reached out to Max with a bunch of questions, which he graciously answered despite being on the plane for the most of the time in the months, going around the world and introducing his wines. Max’s answers are great and well worth every minute of your time if you want to learn more about Chile and its wines.
Without further ado, here is our [now virtual] conversation with Max Weinlaub:
[TaV]: It appears that Viña Maipo was one of the Syrah pioneers in Chile, planting it in 1990. Are there any wines from those early vintages still around? Did you have a chance of tasting them? What do you think of them if you did?
MW: Even though the vines were planted around 1998, the grapes were blended with other red grapes. In 2005 the grapes were used to make Limited Edition for the first time. We still have bottles of that vintage. I have had the opportunity to taste it, but the style has evolved year after year. To me, the first vintages were bold and too ripe. In recent years, I have been turning to a fresher style with a better balance and great ageing potential.
(Side note for Anatoli: If you are truly interested I could find one of those rare bottles, and we can taste it together next time I’m in NY.)
[TaV]: Since starting at Viña Maipo almost 10 years ago, did you make any changes in the way Syrah grapes are grown or the way the wines are made?
MW: Since I started as chief winemaker in 2007 it has been an endless learning process in direct connection with understanding how the vineyard behaves under different climatic conditions and canopy management, and noting the changes as the vines age each year. Today, I have a better knowledge about our Syrah grapes to express the varietal’s maximum potential with a clear sense of origin: Syrah from Chile. If I compare the last 10 years, I definitely see a change in the style of Viña Maipo’s wines —building towards better elegance, power, balance, fruit expression and oak impact.
[TaV]: Why Syrah in Chile? Do you think that Syrah is the next big grape for Chile?
MW: Until the first half of the 90’s, Chile was known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Carmenere was re-discovered just in 1994. So the general perception of Chile was as a reliable producer of inexpensive wines but without many options to show (in terms of grape varieties). At the same time, Australia was living golden years with its Shiraz, so many winemakers thought that maybe Syrah could be introduced in Chile. Some clonal material (stocks) were imported and multiplied by a couple of nurseries in Chile and then, we neared the end of the decade, the first Syrah grapes were harvested with pretty good results. Thanks to a joint venture with one of those nurseries, Viña Maipo was one of the first wineries that planted Syrah in the country.
In my opinion, Chile has been and will be widely recognized as a great place of origin for Cabernet Sauvignon. But at the same time other grapes, especially those from the Rhône Valley, have adapted extraordinarily well to the Chilean terroirs — and Syrah is by far the best example of that. If you consider that nowadays the oldest Syrah vines are around 20 years old and already are producing high quality wines, then you can clearly see a bright future with this grape variety.
[TaV]: When making Viña Maipo Syrah, is there a region (Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas, Barossa, and Santa Barbara) or a wine maker (Guigal, Chapoutier, …) which you see as a hallmark and try to achieve some similarities with?
MW: The regions you mention (with their singularities) plus the talent and skills of those renowned family names have made some of the most iconic and unique expressions of Syrah grapes in the world. From those wines I learned that Syrah is able to make outstanding wines with a great potential for ageing even comparable with some Cabernet Sauvignon. My humble dream is someday to be part of that “Hall of Fame of Syrah” world, to be recognized as a previously-unknown Chilean winemaker named Max Weinlaub who made a jewel with Syrah in Chile, standing along with those big names.
[TaV]: You are blending Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon and vice versa, which is quite unusual. Why do you think these two grapes work together? Are there any other regions in the world where Syrah is successfully blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, or do you think this is purely a Chilean phenomenon?
MW: I do believe in the synergy between their different but complementary components when you blend the right way. This is the best evidence that winemaking is closer to an artistic expression than to math because 1+1 is more than 2. Syrah is a fantastic grape to make single varietal wines, but also for blending. Sometimes the Cabs are too classical, too serious for me. I used to define the Syrah variety as “fireworks in a carnival”…it has lots of color, intensity and rich flavors. So Syrah plays an important role shaking up or adding verve to a (sometimes) circumspect Cabernet Sauvignon. My aim here is to make a more distinctly South American or Chilean style of Cabernet Sauvignon.
In another style, I add a smaller percentage of Cab to Syrah to increase the structure or backbone of the wine. As part of its nature, Syrah’s tannins are soft but non-structural – so hence the need for the strength and structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. You can find this blend of Cab-Syrah or Syrah-Cab elsewhere and it works well for me, and I intend to keep perfecting it.
[TaV]: Pinot Noir seems to be fast growing in popularity in Chile. You don’t make any Pinot Noir wines – do you have any plans for it? What do you think overall about Chilean Pinot Noir?
MW: I think that finally there’s a bunch of very good Pinot Noir produced in Chile thanks to the better knowledge of the grape variety in terms of terroir, viticultural management, clonal selection and winemaking. Pinot Noir is a challenging variety that sooner or later many winemakers—who tend to thrive in challenges–try to produce his/her own version. I’m having a lot of fun and joy producing Syrah (among other grapes of course) so Pinot Noir will be in my “101 things-to-do-before-to-die” list for a while.
[TaV]: Many wineries around the world add sparkling and Rosé to their repertoire – do you have any plans for Viña Maipo to start producing sparkling or Rosé wines too?
MW: We produce sparkling and rosé too!!! As we have a limited capacity (in terms of volume), the production of sparkling is allocated to certain markets – so it is not currently part of our global portfolio. Our rosé is sold largely in Nordic countries at the moment. We could taste both wines next time I see you.
[TaV]: How old are the oldest vines at Viña Maipo?
MW: The Cabernet Sauvignon vines are the oldest planted in our vineyards. Today, some of them are reaching 40 years old….just like me.
[TaV]: Don Melchor is an uncontested flagship wine for Concha e Toro, with very high critic ratings (98 from Suckling, 96 from Wine Spectator). Do you think Alto Tajamar will beat Don Melchor’s ratings one day?
MW: By far Don Melchor is the Dean of all the renowned Chilean wines. It’s the Chilean wine with the longest and most complete vertical tasting starting in 1986. I truly admire its history and legacy. If someday Alto Tajamar receives as high ratings as Don Melchor has won, for me that would be an honor and privilege. One of my principles is “work hard in silence, do your best and the rest will come along.”
[TaV]: When it comes to the white grapes of Chile, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are, of course, well established and well known. Is there a next big white grape for Chile?
MW: Chile is a paradise for grape growing due to its diverse terroirs, stable weather and healthy environment. Even though Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are widely planted I’m sure there are new areas where some other white grapes could produce great quality wines, such as Verdejo or Godello, both grapes especially recommended for warm climates. There are some very interesting Rieslings and Gewürztraminer. But the problem with those grape varieties is the almost relatively little commercial success we’ve seen when are produced outside of their home countries. I have the feeling that the only white grape that could succeed (technically and commercially) is Pinot Grigio.
[TaV]: What are the biggest export markets for Viña Maipo?
MW: By far the UK and Nordic countries at the moment, but there are some interesting opportunities to grow in other areas especially in Asia. Asia is a great market with its own codes and tempo (rhythm). We’ve also been focusing on the U.S. to a greater extent and I am very much looking forward to spending more time in the market.
[TaV]: Continuing the previous question, how big is China, and it is growing, flat or declining?
MW: China is just awakening!!! And everybody is trying to get a space in China since the Dragon feels thirsty. They are starting drinking wine, more often for Gambei (heavy duty toasts) rather than for joy, learning or food matching, so there are some things to do in terms of wine culture and education.
[TaV]: Do you have a favorite vintage of Viña Maipo Syrah?
MW: Always the last one!!!… Because it’s better than the previous one. Maybe it’s because the vines are becoming older and I’m turning older too (and hopefully wiser)!!!
[TaV]: When you are not drinking your own wines, what are some of your favorite wines and winemakers around the world?
MW: More than follow a label, brand or winemaker, recently I have been discovering regions. I’m currently really intrigued by German Rieslings (especially old vintages from Mosel River) and some Spanish red grapes such as Garnacha (aka Grenache), Mataro (aka Cariñena or Carignan), Graciano, Mencia and Bobal.
We are done here, my friends. I really enjoyed our conversation with Max, and I hope that the next time we will sit across the table and taste his delicious wines together. You might be thirsty at this point, so I hope you have something to drink – and the next time I will tell you all about delicious Viña Maipo wines I had a pleasure tasting. I can only say that I would gladly drink those wines at any time… Until we talk again – cheers!