Don Melchor – ‘One story, one terroir, one wine’

By Published On: March 17, 2024

As Viña Don Melchor celebrates the release of its 2021 vintage – its 35th – I had the opportunity to meet, taste with, and interview Enrique Tirado, the technical director (director of winemaking) and CEO of this iconic, singular wine for the past 27 years – at Napa’s Compline restaurant in January 2024.

Tirado launched his winemaking career at Viña Concha y Toro, beginning in January 1993 after completing his studies in agronomy Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in 1992 and spending a year in Bordeaux. In 1997 – after gaining experience making various wines in the portfolio – he became the exclusive winemaker of Don Melchor – which became an independent producer in 2019. “Over the past 27 years, my team and I have delved deeper into Don Melchor’s rich history – exploring our vineyard’s unique terroir and understanding every single parcel,” he said.

The 127-hectare vineyard (7 primary parcels, 151 micro plots) – originally planted in 1883 and located in Puente Alto on the northern bank of the Maipo River at the base of the Andes Mountains – lends itself to growing some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties in the world due to its elevation at around 2000 feet, protection from the Andes, the moderating effect of the river, and great diurnal range. The vines – 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.1% Cabernet Franc, 1.9% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot – are Massal Selection, with about 80% own rooted and the other 20% grafted – and range in age from 45 to 15 years. The vineyard is what Tirado described as “a mosaic of Andean soil” – an alluvial mix of stone, sand, and clay – with ideal drainage and nutrient restriction.

Photo Credit: Viña Don Melchor

Tirado’s winemaking philosophy is to capture this authenticity and achieve stylistic consistency vintage after vintage, resulting in the optimal expression of Puente Alto – a wine of incomparable elegance, finesse, and vibrance – a testament to its origin.

This is no easy feat. “Sustaining this uniformity and attaining its distinction necessitates an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the terroir. It also requires a highly dedicated team committed to this objective, ensuring that every vintage of Don Melchor stands as the finest expression of each season,” added Tirado. “Every new vintage presents a fresh challenge.”

To achieve such excellence and consistency, Tirado and his team conduct extensive research in collaboration with Viña Concha y Toro’s Center for Research and Innovation. “This collaborative effort allows us to thoroughly understand each of the 151 plots in the Don Melchor Vineyard, enabling a winemaking process focused on extracting the utmost quality,” remarked Tirado. “In this long history of more than 35 vintages at Don Melchor, we have already achieved great recognition, and I have no doubt that in the next 10 years we will see impressive results in the quality and expression of this exceptional wine.”

During our lunch gathering, Tirado, other guests, and I tasted the 2020 and 2021 vintages side by side.

2020 Don Melchor (James Suckling, 100 points)
After tasting this wine, I understood James Suckling’s 100-point score. A season of extreme climate (temperature variation and lower precipitation) meant an early harvest and exceptional intensity. After spending 15 months in French oak barrels (71% new and 29% second use) – and another year in the bottle since its release a couple of years ago – this blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot – is replete with juicy red fruit flavors and a backdrop of oak spice – a sumptuous sip of silky-smooth perfection.

2021 Don Melchor (Tim Atkin, 98 points)
This vintage – a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Merlot – is deeply concentrated – a result of a much cooler growing season. Rich and robust, it boasts dark fruit flavors, ample tannins, and just the right amount of toasty oak notes from 15 months spent in French barrels (68% new, 32% second use). “The 2021 vintage provided us with a very expressive wine, brimming with concentration – dense and long – that cast a spotlight on the fruit and textural quality of every variety grown in the Don Melchor Vineyard, displaying fine balance with extremely expressive flavors and aromas,” said Tirado.

I asked Tirado what he recommended as Don Melchor food pairings – I opted for Compline’s often-lauded, Calistoga-raised Angus beef burger that day. “Don Melchor has complexity, energy, and finesse, which makes it a wine that can be paired very well with a variety of foods. For me, a particularly good combination is a glass of Don Melchor with Patagonian lamb,” he shared.

As we concluded our lunch, I discovered Tirado’s three passions – wine, his family, and sailing – the latter which he likened to winemaking. “My passion is wines and deepening my knowledge of them. Among my other passions are my family – my wife and four children – and sailing, a sport I have practiced since I was a child,” he revealed. “At times sailing resembles the process of making wine, since both require meticulousness and working with uncontrollable factors of nature, such as the wind with sailing and the climate with wine.”

After 27 years overseeing Don Melchor (and decades of sailing), the winery is fortunate to have a winemaker like Enrique Tirado who has taken and maintained the helm, giving this wine its proper place in Chilean – and international – winemaking greatness and history.

About the Author: Elizabeth Smith

Avatar photo
Dr. Elizabeth Smith is a former college professor and wine club manager turned award-winning wine writer, copywriter, and marketer. Elizabeth is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento and Sonoma Chapters, the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at easmith.net/contact.