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Casa Lapostolle

Published:  23 July, 2008

At first sight, Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle is an unlikely standard bearer for the wines of Chile. Yet the great granddaughter of the founder of Grand Marnier has been blazing a trail since she first visited the country in 1990.

Since then she has established Casa Lapostolle, with its three estates (two in the Rapel Valley at Apalta and Requinoa, and one in the Casablanca area), revolutionised winemaking in the country, won countless medals and is now extolling the virtues of Chilean wine with zeal.

Grand Marnier were looking for something different,' she says. We even looked at Belgian chocolate. But I told my family: "We have roots in Sancerre, that's where the family originated. I love wine, so why don't we extend the wine side of the Grand Marnier company?" We looked at different properties in France, but I had read a lot about the New World and wanted to see what was happening there. So we decided that I should start by going to Argentina and Chile and then on to California.

She had heard that in Chile there were some unirrigate pre-phylloxera vines derived from old French stock. I was interested to see how they had evolved, she says.' She went to Chile in 1993, and with the help of Grand Marnier's importer lighted on Apalta and its ancient vines. The tale then becomes almostCaesar-like - veni, vidi, vinci.

I love wine but I am not a winemaker,' she says modestly. So I asked Michel Rolland [a consultant to more than 100 wineries worldwide, especially in St Emilion] to confirm whether it was a good location or not. When he agreed that it [Apalta] was good, I asked him to be the consultant. He said "Yes, because I really believe in this place".' Rolland now consults in Chile exclusively for Casa Lapostolle.

Because the wines would be associated with Grand Marnier, we knew they had to be good. So we decided to try making the wine in 1994. If it was good, we would set up a new company; if it was not, we would move on. There was no real way of telling what the wines would be like without that initial vintage,' she says. Previously, the output had been sold in bulk for blending.

At the end of May 1994 Casa Lapostolle was founded, with Alexandra as chairman. Then in 1996 the company bought land next to the old vineyards and began planting vines.

But I want to remain a small winery, we don't want huge volumes,' she stresses. Today we make nine wines - the four Classic varietals, four in the Cuve Alexandre range and Clos Apalta. That amounts to 180,000 cases a year and our goal is 220,000 cases by 2010, when we will stop expansion and concentrate only on constant improvement to quality. The vines we planted between 1996 and 1998 are mature or reaching maturity. By 2010 most of them will be 14 years old.

But that was only part of the quest for quality. She began producing Clos Apalta, the super-luxury cuve that has been judged the best wine from Chile. We knew after the 2001 vintage, the fourth at which Clos Apalta was produced, that we had a great terroir, so we decided to build a winery specifically for that wine. This is a revolutionary idea, if you already have a winery, to build a separate one just for your top cuve. We were sure we had the quality in the vineyards. So we built the winery because we wanted to go even further.'

The spectacular design was commissioned not only to complement the landscape but also to allow the wine to flow through the production process propelled down its five floors (three underground) only by gravity. In all, 21 wooden vats were constructed to reflect the 21 differing plots that are used for Clos Apalta. We couldn't have done that if we had built the winery first,' says Alexandra. In addition, it contains the latest presses and fermentation vessels, highlighting to other producers what can be done in Chile.

Alexandra is the first to admit that she could not have achieved what she has without the backing of the family-owned Grand Marnier company. Financially, it takes a long-term view, but even so, Casa Lapostolle made an operating profit in year three and Alexandra is proud that it paid its first dividend to its French parent last year.

Through Casa Lapostolle's achievements. Alexandra is raising the profile of Chilean wines by encouraging other producers to raise their standards. She recognises that much of the market is price-point driven, but she refuses to accept that Chilean wines are commodities and established Casa Lapostolle as a premium wine company. Equally, by not setting aspirational' price levels (the Classic range retails from 6.99 upwards, Clos Apalta from about 40), she is confirming that Chilean wines represent value for money even at the very top of the range.

Chile is only 5% of world output,' she says. There are only 100,000 hectares planted, which is about the same size as Bordeaux, a single French appellation. So today, little by little, Chile is becoming more aware that it can produce a really interesting quality. Producers have to focus on this. Don't forget that only 5% of the land is suitable for agriculture, so we are never going to be a huge producing nation.

Since we have been permitted to use drip irrigation, which came in about five years ago, people have started to plant on really good soils - interesting terroirs - that have not been under vine before. You are going to see better and better things coming from Chile. But the basic fact is that Chile is still small production dedicated to quality locations. The future is going to be even more interesting than today.

It would be nonsense to suggest that a single producer can alter the outlook of an industry in just a few years, but change is taking place in Chile. People are following our example,' says Alexandra. They are looking at the land and what it can produce before building a winery. The first step is to find good grapes and good locations. We have led that evolution in Chile and there have been lots of improvements in the wineries. There are new appellations and the wines are going to be very interesting. And if more people make better wines, inevitably that will lift everybody else's efforts and will make the world consumer recognise what Chile can produce.'

Half of Casa Lapostolle's output goes to the US, with the UK the second-largest market, and Alexandra is greatly encouraged by the consumer's reaction. It was obvious from the London Wine Fair in May,' she says, that many people from all over Europe were very interested in Casa Lapostolle. So interest in quality wines coming from Chile is bubbling. The consumers are interested so the importers are looking for quality wines from Chile. Even in France, which is a small market for us, there are restaurants that are not just buying the wines because of the label but because they really like and appreciate the wines.'

Gentle expansion of Casa Lapostolle into other prime global markets is in the pipeline, but what more can Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle achieve? We will continue to seek quality improvements,' she says. Now I want to really take care of the new winery and explain the concept. Maybe next year I will go round [to other countries] and look, because we don't want to grow volumes very much. By 2010 we will be at our target capacity in Chile, so the only way to expand will be to look in other parts of the world.'