Concha y Toro is an enormous operation. I’m just looking through their latest accounts, and in the last audited quarter alone – the third quarter of 2010, just three measly months – they exported 5,999,050 cases of wine from Chile. That’s a few shy of 72 million bottles. Their UK subsidiary reported year-on-year sales rising by a vertiginous 52.6%, “due to improving sales of Casillero del Diablo, Isla Negra Reserves, Viña Maipo & Palo Alto, and as a result of securing new promotional activities in the Off Trade sector”. That’s one heck of an improvement. But evidence of these promotional activities is not hard to find. As you can see from the ad above, Casillero del Diablo now sponsor Manchester United, and are involved in next month’s masters tennis (that’s old players who aren’t up to playing on the main tour any more but still fancy the occasional pay-day) at the Royal Albert Hall. They also, a few weeks ago, generously took Gilad, a friend of CF’s, out for dinner with their chief winemaker, Marcelo Papa. And this is what he wrote about it…
What sort of wines would you expect to find in the devil’s cellar? Wine aficionados might expect it to be full of the kind of mass-produced swill that we are used to finding on our supermarket shelves. And, in a way, they’d be right.
Casillero del Diablo (literally, the devil’s cellar) is part of the Concha y Toro Chilean wine dynasty. Established in Chile in 1841 by Don Melchor and named after the rumour he circulated, in a bid to keep strangers away from his reserve, that the devil lived in his basement, it’s now a very familiar name in the UK. If you live in a British city, there is probably a bottle for sale within 500 yards of you right now.
This has been a good period for Chilean wine sellers in the UK. Retailers have been reporting a sharp increase in sales as sentimental buyers showed solidarity with (and raised a glass to) the 33 rescued miners. The drama of their rescue has supposedly put Chile on the world map but, in the wine world, Casillero were very much there already.
Mega brands of Casillero’s ilk (huge houses, producing huge volumes at low prices) are often regarded by wine lovers as the devils of the wine world. Yet Casillero has escaped that curse, enjoying a fine reputation for pleasing wines at very pleasing prices. At dinner with Marcelo Papa, Casillero’s affable head winemaker, Marcelo was quick to remind us that the wines from Casillero’s 8,000 hectares of land have landed an impressive tally of 80 international awards (including 8 gold and 18 silver). “Our owners make wine and don’t make anything else,” Marcelo opined. “That makes a big difference. And we’re particularly discerning about our varietals and suppliers. Not everyone is.” His point is, put simply, that the devil’s in the detail.
Dinner with Marcelo was hosted at the homely Gauthier restaurant in Soho, a charming venue but perhaps not the most fitting for Casillero. My selection of an eatery equivalent to Casillero’s wines would be Nandos – reasonably priced, easy to find and surprisingly tasty – but I was glad Marcelo selected differently.
Casillero’s signature is solid single-variety wines at competitive prices. Their sauvignon blanc is a case in point. The Casablanca Sauvingon Blanc 2009 (rrp £7.49) is a seriously zesty and citrusy number, pleasingly sharp yet refreshing and comparing favourably with similarly styled (but slightly pricier) kiwi sauvignon. It may be in shorter supply next year; February’s earthquake in Chile was a “disaster”, Marcelo sighed, for sauvignon.
Marcelo worked us through his range with vigour. Carmenere, Chile’s signature red grape, made a more than capable companion for mallard and the Reserva Privada Cabernet Syrah 2007 (a departure from Casillero’s usual single variety wines) was an interesting match with a cheesy Feuillete of Fourme D’Ambert, providing rich and deep berry flavours.
Perhaps most interesting of all though was Marcelo’s “battle of the Chardonnays”, when two wines he has crafted from the world’s most popular white grape went head to head. The CDD Casablanca Chardonnay 2009 was fairly fruity with a rich palate and pleasant finish, but it was clearly overshadowed by the evening’s most intriguing offering, the Maycas del Limarí Quebrada Seca 2007 (not a Casillero-labelled wine but from another Concho Y Toro’s winery overseen by Papa). With a remarkable nose – the whiff of heather in a summery meadow coming to mind – the wine oozes minerals with a clean dry finish and a surprising (yet welcome) lack of obvious wood for a wine that spent 14 months aging in French oak barrels. 300,000 cases of the Casablanca Chardonnay were produced but just 500 of the Quebrada Seca.
So, small really is beautiful. But I didn’t seek Marcelo’s comment on that. As chief winemaker for both the giant Casillero and the diminutive Limari, he really is between the devil and the deep blue sea on that one.