It was June of 2016 while attending the Descorchados NY South American wine event that I first met Felipe Ortiz. Felipe is Chief Winemaker for Casa Donoso located in the Maule Valley of Chile. I remember being caught up in his enthusiasm and passion as he introduced me to his very intriguing wines. Felipe said that the Maule Valley had a “multiplicity of characters” and then gave a general description of the wines. “White wines are very fresh with mineral traces, in particular our Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines with short maturity cycles show a very good balance between alcohol and acidity, like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. And above all, a nice and silky Carménère is a tricky and demanding variety which is hard to mature properly in other valleys”. One year later we met again at the same event. And once again, my palate was treated to Felipe’s expressive wines.
Felipe Ortiz 2016 Photo credit: Penny Weiss
We have stayed in touch throughout the last few years with the hope that I might visit Casa Donoso one day. I have not had the opportunity to travel to Chile yet, and now with travel on hold for most of us, it is unlikely that I will visit there any time soon. So, Felipe sent Casa Donoso to me with a bountiful shipment of wines and a candid long-distance conversation.
Photo credit: Penny Weiss
Chile is a long and narrow country bordering the Pacific Ocean to the west, and to the east lie the Andes Mountains, which is among the world’s highest mountain range in the Western Hemisphere. Chile spans 2700 miles running from north to south and is only 100 miles wide. Its numerous wine regions are then divided into sub-regions.
Due to the expansive range of terroirs, the style of wines made here has an equally wide range, with most of the climatic variations in the wine-growing regions running from east to west due to the influence of the ocean and mountains.
Casa Donoso is located in the sub-region of Talca, which is in the heart of the Maule Valley and is part of the DO Central Valley region. Maule Valley is the largest wine-producing region and also the oldest wine-growing region in Chile. Some of the countries’ oldest vines that were planted over 100 years ago still exist here. It is also one of the southernmost wine-growing areas of Chile. The soils throughout Maule Valley are of sedimentary origin, such as sandy and deep clay loam and the climate is Mediterranean. The main grapes grown here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Merlot, Carigñan, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Casa Donoso was created 30 years ago by a group of French investors who saw the potential of this unique terroir. They made it their mission to focus on the production of premium wines from the onset. They were among the first foreign investors to introduce modern technology to the winemaking industry in Chile. In 2014 the Selume family, a national group, took over. Felipe said, “They continue to follow the line of quality in the wines. We have a French heritage from the beginning as well as a new world winemaking vision, which allows us to generate high-level wines. Casa Donoso is a classic and elegant concept in the Maule Valley.”
Felipe Ortiz joined Casa Donoso in 2008.
Photo credit: my guide chile
I asked Felipe how he became interested in winemaking and where he received his training.
Felipe: “I think my first approach to the wine world was thanks to my father. He always showed me varieties of wine pairings with food when I was young. Then at the university, I studied Agronomy Engineering in Chile. To be a winemaker here, you must first study agronomy. During the last years of my studies, I leaned towards viticulture and enology, a branch of agronomy. In Chile, before I finished the university, I started working during the vintage season at Los Vascos for a total of four vintage seasons. Then I also worked at Viña San Pedro during another harvest season.”
Felipe graduated with a degree in Agronomy Engineering and Enology. From 2006 to 2008 he went on to develop his career working with wineries in California, Provence and Barossa Valley in Australia. It was the middle of 2008 when he joined Viña Casa Donoso where he is now the chief winemaker. Felipe is a member of the Chilean Association of Engineering Agronomists Enologists. (ANIAE)
Casa Donoso has 400 hectares of vineyards located throughout Maule Valley from central Maule to the coastal and pre-mountain zones. The altitude on average is 100 meters (328 ft) above sea level. One of their vineyards, La Oriental Estate, is in central Maule and one of the oldest estates in Talca with 123 hectares and vines that are more than 60 years of age. The Donoso portfolio of wines is diverse and has several different brands representing a range of traditional and atypical red blends.
When I met Felipe in 2016, the very first wine he poured for me was Sucesor Romano Limited Release 2015. Sucesor is considered “the avant-garde line of the Donoso group.” It is also a project that has inspired Felipe and allowed his creativity to shine through with these daring blends.
Felipe, tell me about Sucesor and its inception.
Felipe: “Sucesor was created with the need to seek oenological innovation. In 2013 we started working with Carigñan with a more friendly and assembled concept called Sucesor BLUE. Then in 2014, we developed Sucesor Romano, a challenging project made with the César noir grape that was almost extinct in the world. Jean-Michel Boursiquot is a renowned ampelographer, who rediscovered what is now Chile’s flagship grape variety, Carménère. He also discovered the César noir grape (Romano, colloquial name) in our fields in the ‘90’s. He later helped us with the information process to register the grape in Chile. We have just 0.5 hectares of this variety in our vineyard and we are the first winery in Chile to commercialize this grape. We continued our project with Sucesor RED, which is Carménère assembled with Malbec, also an unusual mix in Chile and the world. And, starting in the year 2019, we began developing a new project with Sucesor, using the grape, Portuagais Bleu. We hope to release this project in the coming year.”
What is the most challenging grape for you to work with?
Felipe: “I think with relevance to the Sucesor project, it is César noir. It is a very delicate grape, which we have to cut at the right time without losing freshness. Then in the winemaking process we try not to over-extract it too much. Finally, the wine rests for short storage in Spanish amphoras and another part in used barrels (not new), which increases its potential. César noir originates from Burgundy, strongly planted in the Irancy area, where history tells that it is mixed with fine Pinot noir to improve its concentration. In Chile, it is estimated that it arrived during the year 1945. But there is information that it may have even arrived earlier.”
Has climate change affected your approach to winemaking?
Felipe: “Undoubtedly! Ten years ago, the Maule Valley (160 miles from Santiago in southern Chile) was much colder and we had to wait longer than normal for grapes to mature. For example, Carménère harvesting took place at the end of May. Today climate change has affected an increase in temperatures where the same Carménère is harvested 30 to 45 days earlier. Unfortunately, together with climate change, we have had to adapt to drought and low rainfall over time. So we have to generate new ways to advance in winemaking. Each year is different; there are no recipes to produce good wine.”
Photo credit: Penny Weiss
D Icon Limited Edition 2015
This is an unfiltered, Bordeaux-style wine blended with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Carménère, 20% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Franc. Grapes are harvested from 70-year-old vines. Wine is aged for 24 months in French oak barrels, of which 25% is new oak.
Aromas of dark berries, spice and a touch of floral lead to a luscious palate of plum, blackberry, spice and vanilla. It is beautifully blended with silky tannins and a long finish. A trace of herbs and vanilla linger. Felipe: “It is a very elegant and aromatic wine, not very concentrated, Bordeaux style, but with a lot of character of our terroir. For me, it shows a very elegant and classic concept of Maule valley!”
1810 Super Premium Cabernet Sauvignon- Carménère 2017
The blend for this wine is 50/50. Grapes are harvested from 40-year-old vines and the wine is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, of which 15% is new oak. The name for this wine honors an important part of Chilean history. Talca was the site where the Chilean Act of Independence was signed in 1810.
Dark berries, plum and spice aromas segue onto the palate with notes of fig, toast and vanilla. This is a subtle and smooth wine with firm tannins and a lengthy finish. It is very elegant. Felipe: “It shows what is done with these two varietals in Chile, a lot of country image in this wine and another of our classic wines. It is of the classic line, but with a very marked concentration and intensity.”
Bicentenario Gran Reserva Carmenere 2018
This wine is 100% Carménère. Grapes are sourced from 30-year-old vines. 70% of the wine is aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrels and the remaining 30% is kept in stainless steel tanks. The name and label are a tribute to 200 years of independence for Chile.
Photo credit: Penny Weiss
Subtle floral aromas mix with fresh red fruit that gently spills onto the palate with notes of raspberry, dark berries, spice and soft tannins. It finishes nicely with a hint of toasted oak. Felipe: “This Carménère follows a line that is NOT overripe or high alcohol but is a very fresh Carménère. Red fruit, mild spices, and an elegant mouth. One of the characteristics of the Maule Valley is the freshness of the wines (different to other valleys in Chile)”
Photo credit: Penny Weiss
I love what the back label for the Sucesor wines says. “Sucesor is the disordered line of Casa Donoso Winery where our winemaker proposes daring and innovative blends that step out of the classic style of the winery. These wines have been created for all wine lovers who are each day bolder.”
Sucesor Blue Limited Release 2015
This is a blend of 60% Carigñan, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. Grapes are harvested from 80-year-old vines in the coastal vineyards of Loncomilla. 30% of the wine is aged in Spanish amphoras for 18 months and 70% in French oak barrels for 15-18 months.
Photo credit: Penny Weiss
Lush dark and red berry aromas leap out of the glass with a touch of floral and dark cherry added. This wine is smooth and delicious with berries, plum and mocha dancing on the palate. Subtle notes of minerality blend well with this refreshing red. Felipe: “This shows the Carigñan in another face from the normal. it is a fruity, fresh wine style, assembled with Cabernet and Cab Franc. It also does not pursue a lot of alcoholic degrees and is a very friendly concept of Carigñan. Part of its aging is using Spanish amphoras, which reflects a very powerful fruit.”
Sucesor Red Limited Release 2016
This is a blend of 80% Carménère and 20% Malbec. Grapes are harvested from 40-year-old vines. 30% of the wine is aged in Spanish amphoras for 18 months and 70% in French oak barrels for 15-18 months.
Heady aromas of floral mingled with red fruit and spice spill onto the palate to reveal notes of strawberry and cherry that blend nicely with spice and a trace of red plums. Silky tannins and a long finish with vanilla and spice lingering will make any palate sing. Felipe: “This wine shows a very different face of Carménère mixed with a Malbec. It has floral notes and generates a very interesting nose. In the mouth, there is a bit more concentration and intensity but without losing the elegance of the Carménère (soft tannins). Sucesor plays with amphoras in the aging, which is characteristic of the line.”
Sucesor Romano Limited Release 2018
This is the first time I have tasted a wine made with César noir. It is a blend of 90% César noir and 10% Carménère. Grapes are harvested from 70-year-old vines. 50% of the wine is aged in Spanish amphoras and 50% in French oak barrels for a period of eight to ten months.
Photo credit: Penny Weiss
Seductive floral aromas with notes of red fruit, raspberry and spice set the stage for this delicious wine. Floral notes continue onto the palate with layers of rich berries, spice and plum. Minerality, hints of herbal and nice acidity add depth to this juicy wine. The finish is long with violet, vanilla and mocha lingering on the palate. Felipe: “Cesar noir has been a rediscovery of this variety in Chile, which we found in our fields. It is a project that started in 2013 and the first vintage was 2015 and introduced around the world (USA, EU, ASIA, Brazil). We were the first winery in Chile to show this wine. It is a very fresh wine, red fruit, medium body and characteristic juiciness of this Maule Valley. It is a very different proposal and an invitation to the innovation of all this Sucesor line.”
After tasting through these wonderful wines, I’m eager to know what the Donoso Group has in the pipeline for the future.
What goals in winemaking are you still looking to achieve?
Felipe: “I think to continue doing work with grapes that are little worked on or lost in the world such as Cesar noir and Portugais Bleu. The innovation side I think is very challenging as a winemaker. Also, Donoso Group supports these developments and I feel very pleased about it. My pursuit is to make wines that fully reflect the terroir that they come from, always generate a unique character independent of the variety and finally make wines that the consumer remembers and enjoys always.”
Of course, I can’t end this conversation without asking what your personal favorite wine is to drink?
Felipe: “I think my favorite wine depends on the moment. For example, for a barbecue I look for wines with a higher concentration such as Cabernets or mixtures based on cabernet, it can also be a Carigñan. If we talk about seafood, what better wine than a rich Sauvignon blanc from the Maule foothills. For milder or spicy foods there are many alternatives such as Carménère, Romano, Malbec, among others.”
Felipe has definitely captured the essence of the terroir in these wines and sipping them has brought me a tad closer to Chile. However, I can’t wait until the doors open once again for traveling. I’m looking forward to a 360-degree tour of Casa Donoso and another wine tasting with Felipe!
Featured image: Felipe and Penny in 2017 / Photo credit: Felipe Ortiz