By Ryan Arnold of VinDivino and Bill Bendelow of Lauber Imports
CASA SILVA: The Real Deal
In spending a week with Casa Silva a few things were made clear – 1) Chile is much more pleasant than the Midwest in January, and 2) we have a great producer in our book. I hope this will shed more light onto why Casa Silva is indeed a brand (I feel) that we should be proud to speak of and present.
First off, the quick history is both impressive and easy. The Bouchon family migrated from St. Emilion to the Colchagua Valley via Santiago in the late 19th century. They became the very first people to plant Vinifera varieties in that valley – Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, both in 1912 (these vines are alive and well and still in use today (the 1912 Sauvignon Blanc vines, at the home estate called Angostura, are included in both the Casa Amada SB/Sem and especially the Casa Silva Reserva SB). The Silva family married in and is now the owners of the winery. The winery itself started in only 1997, but has quickly become very well-known in Chile and is (according to various things I’ve read) the most awarded winery in Chile (when it comes to Chilean wine awards). Finally, the Silva family has made two great strides in expanding and perfecting the potential and in some ways the definition of the Colchagua valley as a whole – 1), their pride and joy viticulturally speaking is the Los Lingues vineyard, planted in the early 1990’s, and 2) the Lolol estate, planted in 1998.
Los Lingues is important as it was the first vineyard planted in the Andean foothills in the Colchagua valley (probably in the whole Central Valley of Chile, which is essentially the part of Chile that encompasses all vineyards in the country). This unique positioning gives them a very different microclimate (cooler at night), a very different soil type (a 1-8 foot layer of alluvial soils atop the typical Colchagua base of sandy clay mixed with quartzite gravel) and a much fresher, more consistent source of water (being closer to the snow melt run-off from the Andes).
The Los Lingues vineyard also has plenty of rolling knolls, hillsides and a few rivers running through it. The far side, closer to the mountains themselves, is cooler than the vines closer to the main road. All of these provide a wide range of variables to give complexity of the grapes grown there (mainly Carmenere and Cabernet, along with several others, some for blending, and some for experimenting). Los Lingues has become a well-known vineyard in Chile, much along the lines of the Apalta vineyard in the Santa Cruz area further west (but at a fraction of the price of those wines). Casa Silva’s dedication and focus on this vineyard’s nooks and crannies (i.e. planting vines in such a way as to even out sun distribution on canopies from dawn to dusk as the sun moves across the sky, and “microterrior” projects – essentially fine-tuning viticulture and winemaking to match each and every unique plot of each vineyard) is much like what is done at classified-growth Bordeaux chateaux — again, at a fraction of the price.
Los Lingues is the backbone of the Carmenere program at Casa Silva. This vineyard has proven to give not only what late- and unevenly-ripening Carmenere needs that is typical in Colchagua (a totally dry growing season through harvest – zero rain is the norm from late spring until early winter), but adds the bonuses of poorer, rockier soils and cooler nights. The cooler nights are essential in the perfection (or at least proverbial perfection) of Carmenere.
A vertical tasting of the Los Lingues Carmenere (’99, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’05, ’07) showed how Casa Silva is learning to play in a realm of Carmenere that is well above that of most producers. Rather than ripe and soft, with a variable of concentration, these wines had structure typical to that of Bordeaux wines from ripe years – acid, tannin, earth and fruit, etc. Winemaker Mario Geisse acknowledged that Carmenere is indeed troublesome when it comes to harvest – the difference of a week or a few days on the wrong side of ideal can result in “green” or “raisiny” flavors (or both if blended from different plots/vineyards). The earlier vintages showed a bit of both, and the more recent vintages were a little more fine-tuned: moving away from the green-and-raisin bookends of flavor and keeping the range of peppery, smoky black and red fruits that is Carmenere. Sitting with the wines open for about 15-20 minutes (after they were decanted) revealed how well these wines had and will hold up.
The Lolol (pronounced just like the chorus of the famous Kinks song) estate is another vanguard if you will. The Casablanca Valley, far to the north of Colchagua (straight west of Santiago, basically) has become famous for being “Cool Climate Chile” and is known for Chard, SB, and Pinot Noir. Casablanca is very similar to Santa Barbara in that it opens up almost directly to the ocean, allowing cooler breezes and fog to come in (the entire Central Valley of Chile is basically the space between the “Coastal Range” and the Andes). The issue us that fog is problematic during harvest time and is (at least in the case of Casablanca) not as consistent and reliable as other areas (resulting in inconsistent affect on sunlight and temperature). The Lolol estate in Colchagua solves this problem by being closer to the ocean and farther south (making it cool as well) but free from fog as it’s still protected by a lower part of the Coastal Range (keeping harvest fog and hence moisture-free).
This project started only 10 years ago but has already made believers out of many people, including those who used to proudly proclaim that Colchagua as a whole is only good for red wines. The reality is, Colchagua is as diverse as Sonoma and Napa combined. Several other producers have raced to get land in this area since Casa Silva has had so much success; the best site has already been secured by our supplier.
Lolol is planted mainly to Syrah, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. The SB is a fresher style and compliments the 1912 vines from warmer Angostura very well. But the real show here is with Syrah and Viognier. The Lolol Syrah is very much a “new world take” on northern Rhone, with great white pepper and pure Syrah flavors on a non-flabby frame needing air to show themselves. Even with the youth of the vines, this wine shows the property’s great potential. The Lolol Viognier is maybe even more head-turning, not only is it a great wine but it also happens to be Viognier from Chile! This is a white that really needs to be decanted. With air it shows great pure aromas of flowers and white peach in that heady but not heavy way that can be so elusive with this grape. I took a bottle of it out last summer and it got better and better as the day went on — even the next day! Not many new world whites costing $10 wholesale can do that, and especially not Viognier. Lolol will continue to provide better SB as time goes on. We also tasted a 2007 Pinot Noir in the Reserva range that was mainly Lolol fruit — we were all impressed at how good it was for vines so young and for the price – way better than anything from anywhere I’ve ever had in this price range. This should be in export-level production soon.
As for the future, they have another project that holds great promise, another vineyard (that is actually in the coastal range at a high altitude and even closer to the ocean) near the famous surfing town of Pichilemu. This is 2 years old, planted to mainly SB, Viognier and PN and should be great – cool, sunny, breezy and very dry. Like Los Lingues and Lolol, Pichilemu is looking to prove to be another place where Casa Silva went first, only to have many others follow.
Overall, Casa Silva has taken 5 generations of learning viticulture seriously and since bottling their own wines starting in 1997 has made great strides toward quality, especially at the price points when compared to other New World producers. The future can only get better as far as Casa Silva’s quality is concerned.
A quick wine summary:
First of all, according to them ALL of their grapes are harvested by hand, even for the cheap stuff. They hire 500+ additional people during harvest, which in all their vineyards can span over a month. This additional expense is necessary due to large parts of the properties that are definitely NOT tractor-friendly, and can be easily tasted when comparing other Chilean wines at the same price points.
Casa Silva Reserva Range – these come from a blend of fruit of the 3 vineyards they own:
*SB Reserva – mainly Angostura (with the 1912 vines), with Lolol; GREAT value and unique style that isn’t trying to mimic NZ, more like a firm dry Bdx white
*Chard Reserva – very little oak, actually needs air to open up; Angostura with Lolol
*Carmenere Reserva – great wine to lead with; Los Lingues, Angostura and Lolol shows their more serious approach to this grape
*Cab Reserva – Los Lingues, Angostura and Lolol; a lot of wine for the $ also
*Merlot Reserva – Angostura and Los Lingues
*Syrah Reserva – Lolol and Los Lingues.
Casa Silva Gran Reserva Range – vineyard designates; give ‘em air and they get better and better
Quinta Generacion – a blend of typically Carmenere and Cab with Syrah and Petit Verdot. Compare it to many wines costing at least twice as much – decant it to let it strut its stuff.