Wine Club: Peak practice makes perfect

Take a breather at the ski resort of Portillo when crossing the Andes
Take a breather at the ski resort of Portillo when crossing the Andes
  • Christine Austin braves the hairpins over the Andes to Argentina to sample the delights of Kaiken’s vineyards.
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If you think you have a difficult commute to work, spare a thought for Aurelio Montes and his team who regularly set off from the Montes’ Chilean winery and head over the Andes to their Argentinian operation.

As the crow flies it is just over 100 miles from Santiago to Mendoza, but the jagged, majestic mountains, which rise to almost 7,000 metres, create a formidable barrier. Thankfully the Túnel del Christo Redentor cuts through the peaks at a mere 3,185 metres, so once you have navigated the 28 or so hairpin bends which climb up the terrifying slope from the Chilean side, stopped for a coffee alongside a sky blue glacial lake at the mountain resort of Portillo, dealt with the officious border guards who require all kinds of paperwork and slowly descended the long road into Mendoza it can take anything from five to seven hours.

It is hardly surprising that when Aurelio was looking for a name for his new wines he came up with Kaiken, after the Caiquenes wild geese which fly over the Andes as part of their migration.

But with a successful business already established in Chile, why would anyone set themselves such a challenge of starting another winery on the other side of these mountains? “I just love the terroir in our vineyards in Argentina,” said Aurelio. “We are at a high altitude here, around 1,000 metres, which gives us clear sunshine with a high UV factor. This has an extraordinary effect on developing tannins, colour and flavours. We also have really old vines here. Some are 80 years old and were almost abandoned before we bought the vineyard. It means that the vines have sunk their roots deep into the soil and produce small quantities of really concentrated grapes.”

It can be confusing talking about Aurelio Montes because there are two of them. Aurelio Senior is the man who in 1988, with three business partners, took the big step from being a very respected winemaker at other wineries to establishing his own company. From a standing start, he has created one of the most highly regarded names in Chilean wine. Aurelio Montes Junior is his son, very much in the same mould, driven to seek perfection in all that he does. And when I visited Kaiken in Argentina last November it was Aurelio Junior who was in charge of the vineyards, winemaking team and markets for Kaiken wines.

At present Kaiken owns vineyards in three distinct locations in Mendoza, each with variations on the theme of altitude, soil type and most importantly the average ripening temperature during harvest. One of the key vineyards is in the Uco Valley, at Vistaflores at the foot of the Andes, where overnight temperatures drop as soon as the sun goes down, retaining fresh flavours in the grapes. Stones are a feature here with vines squeezed in between large boulders.

“We have already moved 2,500 truckfuls of rocks from here, but it has hardly made any difference, the rocks just keep on appearing from the soil,” said Aurelio. Another vineyard in Vistalba is run on biodynamic principles, without fertilisers or insecticides, and the phases of the moon are vitally important when cultivating the vines. Grapes are also sourced in Salta, a two-hour flight north of Mendoza where Torrontés vines grow at even higher altitudes, giving clear, bright, distinct flavours.

Just like the whole of Argentina’s wine industry, the real signature of the Kaiken range is Malbec. Originally established from cuttings that were sent over from Bordeaux over 150 years ago, this variety has settled in so well in Argentina that it has become the benchmark for Malbec wines around the world. With dark, damson and mulberry fruit, supple yet structuring tannins and soft, ripe textures, Argentinian Malbec is a fabulous wine to serve with the famous local meats that are usually presented at the end of the day as a massive “asado”, grilled over hot coals.

Kaiken wines are well distributed amongst the independents in Yorkshire and a couple are available by mail order from Tesco. You can also find Kaiken on the wine list at Gaucho in Leeds. Here are some of my favourites.

• Kaiken Reserva Malbec 2011, around £8.99, Bon Coeur, Latitude and Corking Wines: A terrific introduction to the Malbec grape with dense, dark fruits on the nose, edged with spice and vanilla. A core of freshness running across the palate keeps this wine light and appealing.

• Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2011, around £14, Bon Coeur, Halifax Wine Co, Latitude: A distinct step up in quality, showing immense concentration of damson, mocha and sweet spice flavours, lifted by violets on the nose. This is a wine that can be drunk now, especially with red meat, but it has the freshness and structure to age for another five years.

• Kaiken Mai 2011, £38.45, Corking Wines: Mai means “first” in the language of the Pehuenches who inhabited the Mendoza area and it is the first icon wine made by Montes in Argentina. The grapes come from 80-year-old Malbec vines, and it is a powerful, intense, concentrated wine, full of dark, mulberry fruit, overlaid with chocolate and mocha and structured with firm, ripe tannins. It needs at least five years to really show its best, but by that time it will all have been drunk, or will cost twice as much.

• Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, £8.99, Bon Coeur: A delicious introduction to the Kaiken range with juicy cassis and blackberry fruit, spice and vanilla tones and ending with a long, supple finish.

• Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, around £14, Halifax Wine Co, Latitude: A real favourite from the tasting, with chewy, dark, forest fruits wrapped in supple, ripe tannins and backed by clear freshness, lifting the finish and adding length and excitement.

• Kaiken Terroir Torrontés 2012, £8.99 Bon Coeur: From the beautiful, remote, clean air and high altitude of Salta, this has all the aromatic spice and rose petal notes expected in a Torrontés, but there is a clean streak of minerality and just a hint of bitterness on the finish which makes it perfect with grilled fish. I drank mine with eel, but it would be perfect with Whitby mackerel.