Picking up bottles of Chilean MONTES Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at my local supermarket for £6.99 (normally £8.79) other day reminded me of many happy times in Cyprus tasting and enjoying Montes with the local cuisine. These are two of Montes staple range; classic interpretations of their grapes – a happy blend of Old and New World styles. My first encounter with these and the medium-price Montes Alpha and the premium lines was when they were launched on the island in 2002, when one of Montes’ founding partners, Douglas Murray came over for the occasion. In the ensuing years I had the pleasure of meeting several representatives of the Company, culminating in 2010 when Aurelio Montes himself spent a few hours with us. He is a founding father and the doyen of the Chilean wine industry and one of the world’s great winemakers and personalities. The feature below was one I published in Cyprus Gourmet after his visit. This will be followed shortly with an update on Montes globally and in England. Patrick Skinner
In a long life I have met and worked with or for a number of highly successful people. People who work hard and play hard. To ordinary mortals, according to one’s beliefs, their talents are either God-given or just lucky. Some, of course, are absolute bastards and I have had to endure several of these. But many of these supercharged persons also are charming and courteous, treating those who come to interview or simply seek an autograph as if they are of considerable importance. One of these is Aurelio Montes, who seems to have so many business interests that you might think he is a workaholic. Not so. This globe-trotting master winemaker from Chile flies his own aeroplane, has his own stables, rides regularly and sails his own yacht. He has a fine family life, too, with three girls and two boys, all well settled. He gave me one of his few hours and I asked him whether family money had a bearing on the formation and growth of Montes wines.
“There are three hundred wine companies in Chile”, Aurelio says. “Many of them have been set up either by wealthy families or business corporations as a hobby – one which allows you to bring your friends and contacts to a country environment ideal for entertaining. They are not seriously in the wine business. I had worked for 17 years as oenologist-winemaker for several wine houses including the well-established Viña San Pedro and I knew where the best vineyards were and I knew where the best places to make the wine were. Towards the end of the 1980s I felt it was time to make my own wine”.
Viña Montes was created by Aurelio and three partners, all of whom he knew well and whose various finance, sales/marketing, logistical and production skills complemented his winemaking genius.
“We bought in the grapes we wanted”, he says, “We made the wines in somebody else’s winery. So many others begged or borrowed the money to buy vineyards and wine making plants before they made any wine. We concentrated on wine, marketing it and building our own capital. As for selling the wines, we started in the local market and our wives and daughters did the selling – firstly to friends and relatives and then onwards. They did a wonderful job” The rest is history. Douglas Murray, the sales man, who had a marvellous export record at Viña San Pedro, put Montes wines on the global map in a few years, including Cyprus in 2002. Sales success enabled expansion. In Chile acquisition of land to plant vines, some of the locations utterly daring and the building of a state-of-the-art winery.
Montes rapidly became a major force in the quality sector of Chilean wine. Wider horizons beckoned. Argentina, to Chile’s east, was flexing its muscles as a wine country – Aurelio visited, saw and created KAIKEN, a range of modest to medium priced wines using both Argentine and international grape varieties. This under Montes’ belt, it was next stop California and vineyards, a winery and a new Montes brand, NAPA ANGEL.
Montes on Montes
The borderline between having pride in what you have done and boastfulness is a narrow one. I contrasted the 15 or so minutes Aurelio Montes talks to audiences about himself and his wine with the 45 minutes of self-praise of another winemaker who visited these shores (Cyprus) for a promotional tour. Aurelio Montes tells how it was to create a world-beating winery from very little, starting just 22 years ago. He tells it factually and with an under-stated pride. In a one-to-one encounter, he is as good a listener as he is talker.
Now 62, he embodies all that is good in wine. It’s his lifetime’s work, and now in terms of global reputation, sales success and awards, he is reaping his reward. There is, of course, much more than luck, skill and sheer genius involved. Hard work was, is, his credo. He studied oenology and practised it with success for a large winery owned by bankers who were more interested in the balance sheet than the calibre of the wine. In 17 years he had learned enough to believe he could make wine for himself. At that winery, Viña San Pedro, a colleague had successfully marketed the wines in Chile and many export territories. Despite the Scottish name, Douglas Murray, was of a Chilean family and not only did he and Aurelio get on incredibly well, but they had dove-tailing talents.
So with two other partners, Alfredo Vidaurre (finance) and Pedro Grand (technical), in 1988 with a lot of know-how and contacts, with an eye on the grapes they wanted to buy and a place to make wine, but not a lot else, they started. Not borrowing money was the smartest
things they could have done. ‘We didn’t need to’, Aurelio Montes says. ‘We made our first wine, and it was good and we sold it’. Prudent housekeeping saw money ploughed back into increasing production, creating marketing programmes, and, eventually, buying vineyards and building wineries.
Sadly, Douglas Murray passed away on 1st July this year – and it leaves a big gap not only at Viña Montes but in the whole Chilean wine scene. It is very evident Aurelio misses him greatly. We had the pleasure of Douglas Murray’s company for a few days in 2000 when Alexis Nicolaides had signed up with them to sell their wines in Cyprus. A nicer, friendlier and more capable man you couldn’t find.
Montes on Family
‘My older son Aurelio III has studied oenology at the Catholic University of Santiago – as I did – and he’s now in Burgundy, “hands-on” working and studying Pinot Noir. He has also had practical experience in Australia, South Africa and California. I don’t want to influence him about how he sees wine and his role in Montes. Of course, we talk a lot together about wine, and, yes, we do have disagreements!
‘My younger son, Mathias, is studying agronomy, specialising in viticulture, about which I am very happy’.
Aurelio’s three daughters, together with their mother played an important part in the start of the company. ‘We started with the On-Trade (restaurants, hotels etc.) and we owe a great deal to the girls of the family for the sales effort they made at the start, to establish the brand in the catering trade, and of course, their customers. ‘My daughters are naturally interested in the business, but don’t work in it. They are happily married to a professor, a doctor and a lawyer’.
Montes on the future.
‘Tomorrow, early, we leave for London. Then to Germany, Denmark, Finland and Ireland. After that, Santiago’. What stamina, I thought. Physical and mental – hundreds of hands to shake, greetings to make, lunches, dinners, tastings, meetings…. An interminable round of answering the same questions from trade people, journalists and others. You need to be special for that.
‘At the moment, we are very happy with what we are doing in Chile, Argentina and Napa Valley. I have been delighted with the California experience, so now we are looking at vineyards in the Central Coast area south of Monterey’. Thinking of how much I have enjoyed Pinot Noir from around Monterey, and just how good (and reasonably priced) Montes Chilean Pinot Noir is, I asked Aurelio whether this grape might figure in future thoughts for this new move. ‘No, the red grape will be Syrah, I think’.
Any plans for Europe? ‘I am fascinated by Portugal – the Douro is making some fine full reds and I would love to make wine there’.
Montes on Cyprus
‘I am impressed at the high standards of hotels and catering here and have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the wines I have tasted, at the Hotel (The Londa) and at one of the wineries (Argyrides of Vasa). Overall I was very impressed by the country, and peoples’ knowledge of wine.’
Montes on Alcohol
‘Yes, alcohol levels of wine are going up. The process started when New World countries with more sunshine than France or Germany started to produce big, fruity accessible wines that both wine commentators and consumers liked. There was more body in these wines, too, because whereas the old world wines ranged from 11% to 12.5% alcohol by volume, 13.5% and 14% became the custom. This doesn’t worry me too much’.
Clearly Montes as a company is aware of the influence of people like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator as forces persuading the wine industry to make big, powerful wines, but it is also aware, as Eduardo Sark (Montes’ Export Manager, who was accompany Aurelio on the trip, indicated), the market as well as pressure groups are concerned with high levels of alcohol in wine.
At this point Aurelio surprised me by saying: ‘We are now picking grapes by night. Because of the natural 24-hour cycle, the grapes are cooler, fuller and therefore with less sugar. This means a reduction of half-a- per cent alcohol by volume in the wine. I think this is much preferable to using some of the new technology to reduce the alcohol level of the wine. I don’t like machinery of this nature in the winery’. So the subject is clearly under careful observation and I have to say for what my tiny opinion is worth, I think he is right.
Montes on Montes Wines
‘From Chile with pride! Enjoy’!
Above left: Aurelio Montes during my interview. Middle photo: A wine of which I wrote ‘A delicious aroma assailed my senses which I will only describe as Essence of Pinot. As I sipped it I thought: “There are a fair few winemakers in Burgundy who would like to have made that’. Right: the very readable story of Montes wines (available from Amazon)