Santa Carolina - Quality on the Rise

Feb 9, 2010

For many wine buyers, sometimes it makes sense to buy the cheaper wines. 

Santa Carolina's introductory line of varietal Cabernets, Sauvignons, and Chardonnays are an  especially easy purchase. They're easy to drink and easy on the wallet. The fruit is good, the quality reasonable.

But when it comes to the Reserva line, it's harder to justify a purchase. 

Like many Chilean wineries, the firm's roots begin in the nineteenth century.

The winery was first founded in 1875 by Luis Pereira Cotapos in Macul in what is now central-eastern Santiago. When the city expanded, the firm gradually sold off vineyard land to accommodate the capitol's rise in population. Over time, this left the winery with one estate in Maipo and vineyard lands in Cachapoal and Colchagua with a presence in Casablanca via the subsidiary of Viña Casablanca.

The firm's headquarters remain in downtown Santiago while the majority of vinification takes place in Colchagua and Curicó. 

Today, Santa Carolina is owned by by the food and drink group, Empresas Watts (formerly Empresas Santa Carolina) which also owns Finca el Origen in Argentina.

Peter Richards notes in The Wines of Chile that Sanata Carolina "lost its way during the nineties." 

The main problems  came from a lack of investment in the vineyards and the infrastructure. The winemakers for the longest time depended on a basic wine making approach, using formula instead of innovation to shape their wines. Many of their techniques remained old-fashioned, severely out-dated compared to major players like Concha Y Toro and Santa Rita. 

From poor irrigation systems to shoddy oak handling, the resulting wines lacked fruit, character and complexity. Something had to change.

In 2004, Santa Carolina finally fell under new management. An investment plan came into the works and by 2005, two new head winemakers were put in the driver's seat at both Santa Carolina and Viña Casablanca. 

Sven Bruchfeld, now head at Santa Carolina knew he had no time to waste and with colleague  Andrés Caballero and viticultural consultant Pedro Izquierdo, they took a backward glance at previous vintages to see what they needed to do. 

Going through Santa Carolina's wine library, the trio discovered some "descent stuff" but for the most part, the lack of quality disturbed them. New policies were put into place. They found new coopers to craft their oak barrels. They bought small, unused vinification tanks and installed them with temperature control. They also revamped their vineyards, urging the growers to pick later in the season to ensure more sugar and bigger flavour.

The 2006 vintage marks the beginning of Bruchfeld's innovations. He knows it will take time, maybe five years at the most before consumers will note a difference in Santa Carolina's wines. The following wines are on the way to success but the road is a bit bumpy.


Santa Carolina Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua 2008
After doing my research, I now understand why I had always been a little indifferent to the winery's Reserva line. I had the 2007 vintage last year and found it solid but lacking in character. It reminded me too much of the basic Cab. The 2008 vintage is good but I too found it a little muted. There are notes of red currants, green pepper with a nice smoky herbal touch. Sadly, I had a strange feeling this wine had already hits its peak.

Santa Carolina Reserva Merlot Colchagua 2008
The Merlot has a stronger varietal character compared to the Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. Taking a sniff, I right away got lush notes of blueberry, chocolate and coffee. On the palate, I found the wine to be also muted but with a gentle richness. The wine was especially smooth. Unlike the Cabernet, the wine survived the next day. 

Santa Carolina Reserva Carmenere Rapel Valley 2008
Of the three varietal Reservas, I found this wine the most appealing. Carmenere is not an easy wine to make but when it is grown in the right conditions and harvested at the right time, the variety can offer consumers a delicious alternative to Cab or Merlot.

The 2008 Carmenere is a pleasure to drink with rich cherry, roasted herb and a light vegetal/earthy note. The wine has more going for it but like the others, suffers from a restraint in character.  

Overall, I liken these wines to the different stages of waking up in the morning. Whereas the Cab is still blinking its eyes and yawning, the Merlot is making coffee, while the Carmenere is the brightest and most alive of the three.

Richards, Peter, The Wines of Chile. Mitchell Beazley, London 2006.


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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