April 17, 2021

Uncorked: French approach taken with Chilean wine

Emmanuel Riffaud has made more than wine in Chile.

The winemaker at Escudo Rojo, founded in 1999 by legendary French producer Baron Philippe de Rothschild, has a collection of feelings and images that extend well beyond the vineyard and tie him to the land.

“You can sometimes see wild horses running by the Maipo River,” Riffaud said. “In the afternoon, you can feel a light breeze coming in from the Pacific Ocean, and as you walk through the vineyard, you can breathe in the natural smell of the vines, as we use no chemical treatments. It is even more impressive during flowering, when you can smell the aromas of the vine blossom. It’s absolutely wonderful.

“These are the impressions that really strike you when you find yourself in the Maipo vineyard,” he said. “At the very beginning of winter, as the first snowflakes begin to fall, the bodega offers a marvelous view of the sun setting over the Andes Mountains. It’s an amazing sight that I will never tire of.”

While the location is different, Chile’s Mapio Valley region isn’t a First Growth Bordeaux from Paulliac, like Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a highly sought after, collectible wine, Riffaud has taken the same approach.

Escudo Rojo drinks like a luxury wine where painstaking efforts are made in the vineyard and cellar to ensure the quality of the wine. It can be enjoyed at a fraction of the cost of Rothschild’s other wines.

Which was Riffaud’s goal as he brought practices used in France by Baron Philippe de Rothschild to the company’s Chilean winery.

“The Baron Philippe de Rothschild mindset is the same in Chile as in France,” Riffaud said. “It’s underpinned by two key concepts: exacting standards and a quest for perfection. The pursuit of excellence and seeking the purest expression of the terroir are common goals.”

Of the two wines sampled, the most compelling was the Escudo Rojo Gran Reserva 2018 ($21.99), which had black olive, coffee grounds, cedar, cinnamon stick and tobacco on the nose. Flavors of plum, hot stone and licorice emerged. A wild, meaty mid-palate was an enticement begging to be found in each subsequent sip.

A blend of 40% cabernet sauvignon, 38% carmenere, 20% syrah, and 2% cabernet franc, it offered the perfect mix of fruit and spice.

With carmenere being one of the last grapes to ripen, Riffaud dialed in the best locations for carmenere in the vineyards. While cabernet is known for its structured tannins, syrah its meaty flavors and cab franc its acidic green note, it’s carmenere that added an extra dimension to the wine.

“Carmenere needs good soil hydrology and high temperatures, which limits the best zones for growing it,” Riffaud said. “It is a variety that has a lot of pigments, especially in the leaves, which is what gives the magnificent red and yellow colors in autumn that are so typical.

“Carmenere is picked at full maturity to avoid any hint of unripeness in the wine,” he said. “When they show good balance between fruit and acidity, the grapes bring roundness to the blend, as well as smoothly rich and succulent tannins.”

On the Escudo Rojo Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($17.99), there were dusty chocolate nibs and black cherries all hung on a stout scaffolding of easily accessible tannins.

Both wines were bargain priced but didn’t cut corners when it came to quality. They had New World approachability along with the complexity and nuance of their French winemaking roots.

“The only difference lies in the expression of the terroir,” Riffaud said. “We use a French approach when making our wines, so here it is a quest for the purest expression of Chilean terroirs but with Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s French style.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.