Don Melchor: 1989 to 2009

(by peter)

Back in early December, before the ice and snow had entrenched itself across northern Europe (seems a distant memory now), a handful of press and UK trade members were privileged to take part in what was the largest ever UK tasting of back vintages of Concha y Toro’s iconic Chilean red Don Melchor.

It was also winemaker Enrique Tirado’s first visit to the UK for a decade.

For those who don’t know him, have a look at the video below. Enrique has a twin – Rafael (long the winemaker at Veramonte, now at Via) – and both are disarmingly similar both in looks and character: engagingly gruff and notably rangy, with a thoughtfulness and directness that bodes well for their wines if not always for their marketing departments. (This, in my view, is almost always a good thing.)

Enrique has been in sole charge of the wine since 1999 and admits to “living and dreaming” Don Melchor.

(If you’d like to see a much more professional video of proceedings, click here, or for a photo gallery, click here.)

Don Melchor is famous for being one of a select group of long-running Chilean Cabernet Sauvignons (Santa Rita’s Casa Real and San Pedro’s Cabo de Hornos are perhaps its closest points of reference).

Over the years, the style and nature of the wine has evolved (see tasting notes, below). It has always been built around a backbone of Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the prime gravel-loams of Puente Alto, now increasingly hemmed in by the rapacious urban sprawl of Santiago’s suburbs. This site is what gives the wine its tannic finesse and fine acid balance. These days some Cabernet Franc is routinely added, and Merlot may feature again in the future as well as the likes of Petit Verdot.

Though an established Chilean classic, Don Melchor benefits from some impeccable bordelais breeding. Early in the project, the opinion of the great French wine man Emile Peynaud was initially sought, and his successor Jacques Boissenot later went out to Chile to help define blocks and put the final blend together.

The relationship with Boissenot continues to this day, with up to 150 samples from each vintage sent to his laboratory in Lamarque, Bordeaux, where the final blend is decided.

This might strike many as being strange, but Concha y Toro is well acquainted with the bordelais way of doing things. Its Almaviva joint venture with the Rothschilds of Mouton is sold on the Bordeaux place. In fact, Almaviva’s very existence owes much to Don Melchor. Apparently it was the quality of Don Melchor that first prompted Baron Philippe to get in touch. A 42-ha portion of the Don Melchor vineyard was duly hived off for the new project, whose first vintage release was 1996.

The logical next question is: did the arrival of Almaviva have an impact on the quality and character of Don Melchor? Given my marks for the 1995 (8/10) versus the 1997 (7/10) and 1999 (6.5/10), I’d say it might well have done. But, going on my marks since the turn of the millennium, I’d add that any initial imbalances have been more than rectified since.

The vineyard now averages between 25 and 35 years of age. Yields are kept around 4 tons per hectare. After hand harvesting, the grapes go onto a selection table followed by a traditional red fermentation comprising 8-10 days of alcoholic fermentation and 2-3 weeks of post-ferment maceration. The wine then usually spends 14-15 months in barrel, 70% new and all French oak.

The tasting was interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we got to taste seven individual parcels within this 114-ha vineyard site, mostly planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, with 7 ha of Cabernet Franc, all from the 2009 vintage. It showcased the startling variety that can exist within the same (albeit fairly expansive) terroir, and also the skill of the blender.

Enrique duly strutted his stuff, wielding a pipette and calibrated blending tube to create what he termed, “the London blend”. I include my notes on these different parcels and the resulting blend after the main tasting notes below.

As for what I make of this Chilean institution, my feelings are somewhat mixed. Don Melchor is undoubtedly an increasingly sophisticated Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon made in one of Chile’s prime Cabernet terroirs. It’s faithful to its origins, is ageworthy, and has a firm sense of identity.

Good on it for that.

But it all too often lacks wow factor. I often find this with resolutely single varietal Cabernet Sauvignons: while they tick many of the right boxes, they can also tend to lack the charm, rough edges and filigree depths necessary to really beguile the attentive drinker. It’s all a bit Keanu Reeves when you need Heath Ledger.

In this sense, it’s good to see Enrique talking about more blending in the future as well as an increased focus on the details in the vineyard. Because what Don Melchor really champions is its origins. And it’s great to see that, in the latter vintages especially (eg 05-07), the winemaking is notably restrained, eschewing all-out extraction and ripeness to allow full rein to the mint-tinged earthy cassis beauty that is the hallmark of this site.

It’s also good to see the quality getting better by the vintage.

So who knows what this wine will eventually become. In the meantime, look out for back vintages of Don Melchor, which should be coming onto the UK market quite soon (the winery is opening up its library reserves).


Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 1989, 13.9%: deepish with ruby-brick rim; very menthol-minty with resinous red fruit edge, perfumed dried fruit though fading now, some liquorice; opens up with some creamy red fruit and tobacco; palate attack is juicy and earthy, with tobacco hints. Good acid structure underneath it all, though tannins are becoming a bit dusty now. Interesting leathery development. Ultimately, interesting, still alive (just) but lacks real complexity and depth. Needs food. Lacks real elegance and depth on the finish. Touch rustic. 6.5/10

Enrique’s notes on 1989: warmer than average. A special year for Enrique, then a winemaking student, who nails Don Melchor in a blind tasting. He’s hooked…

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 1991, 12.7%: mid ruby with brick hints; dusty initially then opens up with leathery dried fruit. Seems like there’s less to it than the 89, aromatically at least. On the palate, initially it’s creamy dried red fruits and hints of earth and tobacco. Tannins firm. Good finish, though, elegantly bittersweet and holds itself together better than expected. In this sense i prefer it to the 1989: it’s more drinkable, trying less hard. Some graphite notes come through. Linear but engaging. 7/10

Enrique’s notes on 1991: low sunlight levels so lower alcohol. Tannins are “nervous”. Tasters note the “trademark liquorice and molasses of DM” even though it’s a cooler-vintage style.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 1993, 12.5%: mid ruby with just a vague hint of garnet; elegant initial nose of minty red and black fruit with a note of dark chocolate. With a swirl, it’s complex and inviting, cassis and redcurrant with notes of tobacco, leather and coffee. Tannins are firm; acidity seems a bit on the low side, though. Pity. Was building up nicely. Just lacks that complete harmony that it promised on the nose. Still elegant and remarkably young, though. Ageing well. But lacks length and definition on the finish. 7.5/10

Enrique’s notes on 1993: cooler than normal and lots of rain, mostly after the end of harvest. Less hot than normal but “very good”, says Enrique, who also notes the “grainy tannins, fresh fruit, minty note again”.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 1995, 13.3% (includes 3% Merlot): garnet ruby; nose is herbal and with a distinct leaf edge over red and black fruits, roasted green pepper – a cooler vintage? Palate is juicy initially, with excellent acidity here (contrasts starkly to the 1993) as well as a warming spice of alcohol on the finish. Flavours that linger are coffee, tobacco and dried bittersweet fruits. Engaging. Not super complex – i don’t think any of these are, really – but a lovely expression of Chilean CS in the 1990s. A notable step up. 8/10

Enrique’s notes on 1995: 3% Merlot for the first time. “Fantastic vintage: easy to make”. Big day/night temperature fluctuations. Close to normal in weather terms. Round, soft, full body.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, 13.9%: garnet ruby; immediately aromas of caramel and cream, evolves into creamy plum and dried dark fruit with menthol hints; palate is good but ultimately a bit light-weight in the context – lacks depth and complexity. Seems like a lesser vintage. But still shows excellent textural elegance and persistence. Just a bit too hot on the finish, exacerbating the lack of harmony? Yes. Perhaps also trying too hard on the extraction front: a bit more angular and thus not so easy in its skin. 7/10

Enrique’s notes on 1997: warmer and drier than the previous vintages. For him, the wine has a great concentration and density.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 (includes 7% Cab Franc), 13.9%: medium deep ruby with brick notes; initially quite reticent but there’s ripe dark fruit in there, some herbal notes with hints of dark chocolate and coffee, very slightly spirit but with an engaging evolution to it; tannins are hard and firm (a bit much so) and acid is balancing but the tannins slightly overwhelm it. Finish is hot. Something of a macho style, a body builder: too much extraction and alcohol here for me. And, while it’s softened, it’s not fundamentally in balance. Lacks beauty and elegance, which is what great Cab needs to be great. 6.5/10

Enrique’s notes on 1999: very dry season: usually get 380mm of rain, this year was 95mm. Quite warm. In the end we picked the grapes two weeks earlier than normal. But he likes the wine: it has a great concentration, ripe tannins, long finish.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 (inc 9% Cab Franc), 14%: little sign of age in the colour; nose is very fresh, too – creamy ripe cassis and plum, with a slight leafy and jammy character, toasted popcorn; glossy dark fruit, very good grip and refreshing lift of acidity (the Cabernet Franc?). Still doesn’t show total harmony, it’s a bit wild and punchy in structure and lacks grace. You get the sense of a style in transition, in evolution, but isn’t quite there yet, despite having many redeeming features. I’d back this one to age well, though – certainly better than the 1999. 7.5/10

Enrique’s notes on 2001: cooler than normal.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (inc 5% Cab Franc): young deep ruby. Seems a tight, young nose with ripe cassis and floral notes. Doesn’t give much away: cream, dark chocolate. Just a hint of molasses. Initially, it’s firm, tight and savoury. Very well balanced. This is the first of the modern era that really comes together for me: it’s integrated, firm, deep and young. Dense yet savoury. Yes it’s warming on the finish, and hardly a wallflower, but it has elegance and real harmony. Warming finish. If you could make this at a degree less alcohol, I’d be drinking a lot more of it. Very good. The best so far. 8.5/10

Enrique’s notes on 2003 and 2005: both warmer than normal but great day/night flux. Very little rain.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (inc 3% Cab Franc): very deep and young in colour. Nose is reticent: dusty ripe dark fruit. Palate is similarly reticent. Difficult to decipher, this one. But the tannins are firm, the acid refreshing and in balance. The finish is savoury and long. All seems to bode very well. But it’s not opening up just yet: testament to this wine’s ability to age. Needs time. (8/10)

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (inc 4% Cab Franc): deep ruby; creamy dark cassis with hints of coffee and chocolate. Palate is juicy, firm, structured. Good refreshing lift on the finish. Tight, dense, round tannin. Maybe slightly less weighty than the 2005 but very similar style: dense, ageworthy yet round, savoury, warming, impressive. Classic DM style and needs to evolve and open. (8/10)

Enrique’s notes on 2006: cooler than normal initially then at the end warmer than normal. Very late harvest. Wines show a lot of freshness and fresh fruit. Ripe tannin.

Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon 2007: opaque ruby. Creamy and dusty on the nose initially. Glossy dark fruit. What’s impressive is the harmony of fresh acid, ripe firm tannic structure, and long persistence. It’s all there, but also well integrated. Savoury finish. Good dense core. Looks impressive but too young to really be open yet. I think this may be the best Don Melchor yet. (8.5/10)

Enrique’s notes on 2007: a great vintage, one of the best in my life. So balanced. Winter warmer than normal. After that spring and summer close to normal. Big day/night flux. Naturally low yield (2.5 tons per ha, usually around 4) and small bunches. Berries very small. Great wine for Puente Alto expression, good tannins, balance, long finish. Great potential.

PARCEL TASTING (all 2009, barrel samples)

Lot 1 – Cabernet Sauvignon (CS): deep; engaging ripe red and black fruit, glossy, with savoury spice edge, some dried damson and floral notes; on palate it’s juicy but structured, with fine tannin and good integrated warmth. Bit too hot for me, stands out, but lovely structure and backbone. Solid. Warm. Their blurb says “ripe fruit, complex yet refined, sweet tannins, lingers smoothly.” For Enrique, this is soft, round, elegance.

Lot 2 – CS: deep; herbal edge here, seems leaner, more leafy and plummy red fruits, some green pepper; softer and richer, more plump, yet also with a lovely fresh acidity, red fruit lift and some attractive greenery. Still highish in alcohol but i prefer this one, edgy. Cooler area? Lift. Greenery. Their blurb: “black fruit and choc; occasional hints of menthol”.

Lot 3 – CS; restrained; some sweet spice and roast pepper and glossy blackk fruit; very Chilean; lively, lifted, structured, with fine firm savoury tannin, seems like a backbone kind of wine, lovely structure, probably old vines, warming but integrated, very good. Backbone. Lift. Blurb: “red and black fruit, firmer tannins, more powerful than most”. Enrique: powerful, lot of tannins.

Lot 4 – CS; leafy ripe red fruits, hint of mint; quite lean in attack, and lean in tannin. Grippy, probably less alcohol, would provide freshness and grip and lift to a blend. Seems to have less depth than the others. But still attractive in its freshness – and less alcohol! Blurb: “Red fruit, excellent acid-tannin balance, adds elegance and depth”. Enrique: soft but concentrated.

Lot 5 – CS: jammy leafy Chilean red fruit, odd combo but quite typical; smooth texture, fresh acidity, tannins are quite grippy. Bit hot on the finish and somewhat disjointed. My least favourite so far: too forced, perhaps younger vines here? But some wildness and good grip. Blurb: “jammy and spicy, smooth tannins”.

Lot 6 – CS; choc, baked herbs, quite reticent really, bit spirit; quite high-toned, full on the mid-palate but broad, spicy and hot on the back palate. More stolid than 5 and equally as unimpressive. Where do these two fit into the blend? Will be intriguing to find out. But that said, there is some good rounded tannic charge here and solid mid-palate weight. Blurb: “ripe fruit, a complex wine; hints of red and black fruits and conserves; really deep, dense wines”.

Lot 7 – Cab Franc; good graphite and ripe dark fruit; attack is fresh and lifted, with ripe round tannin and refreshing red and black fruit; really lovely freshness here and density. Falls away a bit on the back palate (hence the dominance of CS I guess in the final blend) but it’s impressive. Dark chocolate. Freshness. Grip. Slight graphite edge. Blurb: “wild berries and ripe tannins; adds a smoothness and round character”.

“The London Blend” representing the vineyard surface area (Lot 1 = 22%, Lot 2 = 4%, Lot 3 = 13%, Lot 4 = 17%, Lot 5 = 20%, Lot 6 = 18%, 7 = 6%): glossy black fruit with attractive savoury spice note, warm earth and baked herbs emerge; firm and structured but with sweet ripe tannins. Good depth of flavour. Warming spice on the finish. Hotter than I’d like but it’s complex, long, structured and with an attractive savoury edge. Smart winemaking. Glossy wine. Should develop well, but will always have a lot of alcohol. (Enrique mentions that this blend lacks press wine, which commonly accounts for anything up to 10% of the blend and which gives mid-palate weight.)

Enrique’s notes on 2009: One of the best vintages. At the beginning, difficult. But at end very happy with quality: good concentration and ripe, high quality tannins.