She may be the most prominent face of Chilean wine, but Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle is far from your typical Chilean vintner. For starters, the chair of Santiago-based Lapostolle is French, from the wealthy family behind the Paris-based Grand Marnier liqueur brand. For another, she lives halfway around the planet, dividing her time between homes in Geneva and London.
Rarely does that second tidbit seem to be conveyed in glowing profiles that surface with impressive regularity in the wine press. "I have a very complicated life," said the chic 53-year-old, dressed in a grey herringbone Valentino business suit and Prada shoes for a Toronto publicity stop. One would barely have recognized her based on her pastoral winery-catalogue press portrait, galloping toward the camera on a horse, wearing jeans, vest and the Cordoban-style hat of the Chilean " huaso," or cowboy, a cloud of dirt rising behind her.
What one does read often is that she is a rarity in the wine business because she's a woman (not exactly true; female winemakers are common) and that the wine at her highly ranked estate in the Colchagua region is made by three local women (their boss is male and French, a fact sometimes omitted in articles).
Despite the manicured imagery, the married mother of two boys (aged 32 and 29), who invested in Chile in 1994, knows how to coax serious juice from the South American soil. Her top-end Clos Apalta, a Bordeaux-style red blend costing $100, was ranked No. 1 in Wine Spectator magazine's Top-100 list of 2008. She also may be Chile's best hope to raise the country's profile in a world smitten with bargain malbecs from neighbouring Argentina. (Argentina recently surpassed Chile in Canada, with annual sales of $43-million compared with $38-million, and is quickly closing the gap in the United States.)
"I am very optimistic. I always see the glass, how do you say, half full," she told me in a thick French accent before a media dinner, jacket sleeves folded up suavely to reveal a white Chanel watch.
A key strategy, she says, is to lure shoppers up to premium wines, building on Chile's success in the bargain aisles, where the country quickly made its mark in the early 1990s thanks to new investments and export initiatives undertaken as democracy replaced the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Paradoxically, her optimism was bolstered by the recent global recession. "I think that the future of Chile is in wine here," said Ms. Marnier Lapostolle, pointing to a bottle of her Cuvée Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.95 in Ontario).
"The people who were used to drinking a bottle of wine at $60, let's say, today they are saying, 'Okay, now I'm going to try wines at $30.' So it's our challenge to communicate, saying try those Chilean wines at $30. … We have really great quality now at that price."
I must agree about the quality. I recall buying two cases of Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre Merlot in the late 1990s. It was an insider's steal at $21, a steep price at the time. That merlot was the child of Michel Rolland, a globetrotting wine consultant from Bordeaux with a golden touch. Ms. Marnier Lapostolle hired Mr. Rolland soon after buying the Apalta estate near Santiago, in part to confirm her hunch that Chile was the place to be.
Intent on starting out with more-affordable wines, Ms. Marnier Lapostolle, who studied accounting at university in Paris, was in France for a company meeting in 1994 when King Midas rang with a question about expenses. "Michel Rolland was in Chile and he called me and he told me, 'I know it's not forecasted in the budget, but I think we have a wonderful vat and we need more French barrels.' " That vat, containing unusually complex and concentrated juice from a single vineyard parcel in Apalta, was the ideal candidate for extra coddling in new wood barrels, which add vanilla-like nuances and voluptuous texture. (French-oak barrels today cost about $1,000 apiece.) "And this is how Cuvée Alexandre was born."
Lapostolle now produces three tiers of wine: the entry-level Casa (which includes a cabernet sauvignon and carmenere, both recently launched as regular listings in Ontario at $15.95); Cuvée Alexandre; and Clos Apalta (a single-wine blend of carmenere, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot). The Casa wines are decent for the money, but the Cuvée Alexandre offerings, carried occasionally in most provinces, are standouts, with the cabernet 2008 showing textbook flavours of cassis and black olive, with subtle espresso and graphite overtones and considerable but supple, furry tannins.
Chile may be a new kid on the export scene, but it boasts a long history of French expertise. Following the late 1800s, when the phylloxera root louse began devastating European, and later global, vineyards, the country became a haven for out-of-work Bordeaux winemakers. Thanks to climate and the protection of the Andes mountains, Chile was spared. While producers around the world were forced to replant their European varieties on the phylloxera-resistant rootstalks of North American vines (whose grapes are unsuitable for good wine), to this day more than 90 per cent of Chile's vineyards are planted on natural European root systems.
Ms. Marnier Lapostolle believes those ungrafted vines, which tend to live longer and produce smaller but more concentrated grapes, represent Chile's greatest asset. They "have more constant quality and also provide better complexity because the roots are going deeper and deeper," she said.
Dry, disease-curbing weather is another Chilean advantage. The modern introduction of such equipment as temperature-controlled fermentation tanks and hose-drip irrigation, which permits planting on favourable hillsides rather than canal-irrigated valleys, makes for a triple play.
One advantage Chile arguably has lacked, though, is cachet with most serious collectors. Ms. Marnier Lapostolle concedes that earning blue-chip status will take time. But she insists it will come with proof that Chilean wines can age gracefully beyond a decade or so. She also knows that scoring favourable coverage in the media is as critical as wearing the right clothes on the job.
"The press is very important for us because the press can taste the wine and communicate to the consumer," she said. "So we need to go first with the press."
Call me complicit.