Winemaker Marcelo Papa from Concha y Toro launches new label Etiqueta Negra and looks to Chile’s wine future with optimism. By June Lee
Marcelo Papa of Concha y Toro
The first vintage of Etiqueta Negra was birthed in early April 2016, a wet, cool year that saw a slight dip in harvest yields. With El Niño playing havoc with the weather that year, winemakers like Marcelo Papa had a tricky task deciding when to pick these grapes in Puento Alto, south of Santiago. Too early and the grapes lose the chance to reach physiological ripeness. Too late and heavy rains could ruin the crop.
Papa is the man in charge of two heavyweight Concha y Toro brands, Casillero del Diablo since 1998, and Marques de Casa Concha since 1999. A lot has changed in 20 years, and part of it has been getting the wines' alcohol levels down by picking earlier, and also changing the style from the brash, opulent wines favoured in the 1990s to a more elegant style befitting the terroir it comes from. Papa, 51, doesn’t seem particularly pushy, but underneath his cheerful, open demeanour is a steely conviction that bodes well for the wine industry in a country that’s the fourth most significant wine exporter in the world.
A lucky break
Papa’s four grandparents were from Italy, while his parents were born in Chile. Though no one in the family made wine, a bottle of red was usually on the dinner table, where it might sometimes be mixed with a kind of soda. His interest was further piqued when the family visited an uncle in Miami, who introduced the then teenager to wines from around the world. It was enough to inspire Papa to study agricultural engineering, then winemaking, at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile from 1986 to 1991.
At first, things didn’t look well for Papa. Chile was in an economic crisis in the early 1980s, and wine consumption was down. Not many students took up agronomy or enology, as the job market was so slim. Then the opposite happened – Chile began exporting its wines in earnest, and by the time Papa graduated, his cohort was in high demand as there weren’t enough new graduates to join the field.
Working under legendary mentors like Rafael Guilisasti and Ignacio Recabarren when he joined Concha y Toro in 1998, Papa was privy to the exciting phase that Chilean wines was undergoing. Plantings of Chardonnay in Casablanca and then in Limari for instance became iconic. “We’re not a mature industry,” he muses, compared to the Old World, “but we’re clearer now than 20 years ago on where to grow grape varieties.”
Champion for appellation
The name of Etiqueta Negra, the latest labelling from Marques de
Casa Concha, translates to black tie, denoting its premium status.
But what it really espouses is right on the label, where its location of Puento Alto takes pride of place over its varietals – a first for Marques de Casa Concha.
“It’s like Barolo or Bordeaux,” notes Papa, where consumers prize the appellation (Barolo) before the varietal (Nebbiolo). As Chile doesn’t have an appellation system, there are no official tiers of quality based on terroir. However, more wineries are starting to make a distinction of place on their labels, especially in areas where the grape and the
terroir are well established. In the case of Puento Alto, Chile’s top bottlings of Almaviva and Don Melchor are also located here, and do include the vineyard on the label.
The Etiqueta Negra blend is also unusual, with a high percentage of 32% Cabernet Franc in its first vintage. Papa credits this to the quality of the bright, silky Cabernet Franc, and having more freedom to experiment due to the label’s smaller production. In fact, he’s looking to push the percentage even higher in future, if vintage conditions permit.
Papa added the title of technical director to his portfolio in 2017, giving him an overview of the wines, grapes, barrels and more that concern the quality of the wine. “We have a beautiful opportunity to export Chile to the world, and put more value in what we do.” There are other grape varieties to explore, such as those from Italy – which he’s partial to, given his roots – like Pinot Grigio and Fiano, or Spanish Garnacha. Having settled in the Maipo Valley himself, together with his food writer and artist wife Gloria and teenage son Gianluca, Papa – like all good fathers – has a long-term view of the industry, and how to get there.