There’s something particularly winning about a winemaker who tells you that he doesn’t like his own wine very much. Ultimately it might not be considered a particularly wise tactic – winemakers, or at least those of them that I come across, are employed with two tasks in mind: to produce wine and then to sell it. Telling people their wine’s not very good suggests a basic failure in task one, and more or less guarantees failure in task two.
And if Marcelo Papa doesn’t like his wine, it’s a serious problem. He is, after all, chief winemaker at Casillero del Diablo, who stick their label on 4 million cases – near enough 50 million bottles of wine – every year, which works out at around 250 million glasses of the stuff or, to put it another way, approximately enough to invite the entire populations of the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy round for a drink. And in his spare time he also controls Marques de Casa Concha, described by Concha y Toro, who own both brands and pay Papa’s wages, as “the most famous and traditional wine range in the Super Premium segment not just at the Company, but also in Chile”.
And it’s Marques de Casa Concha that has been the problem, because “super premium” is wine code for “red wine made using very ripe grapes and lots of new oak”, and increasingly winemakers – including, now, Papa – are backing away from that kind of thing.
“The style we’ve been doing in the last 10 years,” Papa says of his cabernet sauvignon, “was lots of flavours, lots of oak, lots of everything. Everybody was doing it. Ten years ago even Chablis people, will all the experience they have, started to make it oaky. Brunello, everybody went in the same direction. And you can push cabernet a long way, and we did it and I think it was a mistake. I just think we followed a little bit the fashion. Four years ago I realised I never drink Marques at home. I realised it’s because it’s too heavy. I drink wine every day, and I want a lighter, fresher wine. More, I’m 47 and I want to make the wines that I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market.”
And so that is what he is doing. “With Marques in 2010 we did a quite interesting way, we picked one block of cabernet sauvignon very early, maybe one month, and tried to make a wine as we made it in the 70s: no oak, 12% alcohol. And it was a big success. Then every year we’ve picked earlier. We’ve reduced alcohol by 1% naturally and still we get cassis and good fruit.”
Not only is he now picking earlier, he’s also moving away from small barrels. Traditionally, his wine (and very many others) aged in heavily toasted (charred on the inside for extra flavour) 225l barrels; now he is moving towards what the Italians call botte, massive 5,000l casks, and older ones too, so the resulting wines are much less oaky. He has also experimented with the origin of his wood – French oak, German, Slovenian – and the location of the coopers, and has finally settled upon botte made in Piedmont using mainly French oak. He showed me two wines made from the same grapes, from the same vineyard, picked on the same day in the same way, one aged in barrel and the other in cask, and the error of his old ways, and of many others’, was immediately apparent.
“In Chile, we’re a young country and normally you follow rules,” he said. “For cabernet you have to use Bordeaux barrels, you have to pick mature. But now in my approach to wine I really want to show the origin, the place. If you pick ripe, sweet, fruit and put it in high-toast barrels, you get more sweetness but you lose the origin, you lose the place. After 20 years making wine, now I’m following my feeling. It takes time, but we are moving.”
But what of all his happy customers, the ones who have bought his heavy, oaky, critically-acclaimed wines for a decade or more and are perfectly happy to drink them as they are? “Well, they will move to other wines,” says Papa. “And we will capture a new audience, and be much happier.”