Behind The Legend of Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon

Don Melchor winemaker Enrique Tirado relaxing on the patio of Piperade in San Francisco
Don Melchor winemaker Enrique Tirado relaxing on the patio of Piperade in San Francisco

My reference wines for benchmark Cabernet Sauvignon are Napa Valley and Bordeaux, so when I had the chance recently to taste through a vertical of Don Melchor wines from Chile’s Concha y Toro with winemaker Enrique Tirado in San Francisco, they were going to have a pretty high bar to meet.  Based on the tasting of three decades of Don Melchor from 1989, 1993, 2006 and 2009 there was no doubt that the wine has all the bearing of one of the world’s greatest wines.

Based on our conversations with Tirado, I discovered that the absolute quality behind Don Melchor wines is influenced by its unique terroir, pedigree, attention to detail and world-class winemaking knowledge.


Location of Puente Alto Vineyard (Maipo Valley) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains
Location of Puente Alto Vineyard (Maipo Valley) in the foothills of the Andes Mountains

The drama of the terroir leads directly to the drama in the wine.  The Cabernet grows in the stony, well-draining soils from Andean erosion carried down by the Maipo River.  The vineyards are on the third terrace above the river, giving the vines just enough clay content to grow well.  Rising over 2,100 feet, the grapevines bask in high luminosity during the day but slow down ripening at night as the cold Andes air sinks down the mountain, allowing grapes to preserve acidity.

Pure Cabernet Sauvignon

An aspect of Don Melchor wines that distinguishes it from the others is the originality of its vines.  Due to its climate and soils, Chile is relatively phylloxera-free, allowing Don Melchor to use un-grafted vitis vinifera vines.  In fact, they’re selections of Cabernet Sauvignon that 19th century founder and namesake Don Melchor Concha y Toro brought over  from Bordeaux before the phylloxera outbreak there.

The precise fruit for Don Melchor comes from the tiniest, most expressive parcels of the Puente Alto Vineyard, meticulously farmed and hand-harvested with severe selection.

Winemaking Knowledge and Continuity

Enrique Tirado at Piperade SF
Enrique Tirado at Piperade SF

Today it’s very common for young winemakers around the world to train in other regions to gain expertise and perspective.  Concha y Toro began the practice in the 19th century when he hired noted French enologist of the day Monsieur Labouchere to make his wines.  Fast forward to 1986 when Concha y Toro Chairman Don Eduardo Guilisasti Tagle hired renowned Bordeaux consultant Jacques Boissenot to help make Chile’s first cult wine Don Melchor in 1987, and he continues to consult to this day.  In 1997, Enrique Tirado became head winemaker for Don Melchor and now consults for other Concha y Toro wines such as Trivento, the quality of such wine compelling me to write “The Case for Luxury Malbec“.

Tirado’s experience in crafting world-class wines remains at the cutting edge, working closely with Boissenot as well as Patrick Leon, Technical Director of Grand Cru Classe Chateau Mouton Rothschild, with whom Concha y Toro has had a joint venture in Vina Almaviva since 2004.

A Cru Winemaking Philosophy

Clearly, Tirado’s reference wines are grands crus, and he’s fortunate enough to work with grapevines with literal Bordeaux roots.  But the expression he seeks is always Puente Alto.  His winemaking philosophy also gives insight to the high quality of these wines.  We were discussing the recent spate of cool vintages, 2010 and 2011 being among the coolest on record in Maipo Valley, when he said he found cooler vintages easier to work with than warm vintages.  I assumed warm vintages would be more difficult for a winemaker due to high alcohol ferments but for him, it was about capturing the perfect balance in the fruit in the vineyard, where great wine is always made.

The Expressions of Don Melchor

Three decades of Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon
Three decades of Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon

I loved the vintage variations in the vertical.  The oldest Don Melchor was, in fact, the darkest, most powerful and in many ways, youthful, of the set.

  • The truly youthful, powerful 1989 (100% Cabernet) still had loads of black fruit tinged with earthy and spicy notes.  The hint of mint gave the wine extra lift.
  • The gorgeously fresh 1993 (100% Cabernet) was borne in a cooler and rainier vintage which made the wine more transparent in its plummy and cherry fruit, notable minerality and chocolate notes.  It has evolved beautifully with savory complexity.
  • The 2006 vintage began cool while the last two months were warmer but with huge diurnal swings, the grapes were allowed to hang on the vines longer for a late harvest.  The wine’s rich cassis fruit was wrapped in a meaty, spicy robe that paired perfectly with Piperade’s calamari “a la plancha” with fennel, olive, caper, mint, lemon and espelette pepper.
  • The fruit-driven 2009 (96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc as in the 2006) is filled with ripe cassis fruit with notes of characteristic chocolate.  Well-balanced with velvety tannins.

For more information, visit the Don Melchor website.