Grapes and soul under the cork

Do you ever wonder why some high achievers would still be high achievers if their chosen direction was no longer an option? How a wonderfully talented actor like Robert Downey Jr. can perform a great lead vocal act with Sting. How Jimmy Fallon can jump onstage at Madison Square Garden, as he did on July 22, and really sing with Bono and U2.  How talents like Kevin Bacon, Bernie Williams, Michael Jordan and the late journalist Daniel Pearl could easily make a career out of their plan B.  It’s not only talent but passion, inner curiosity and restlessness that drive someone to greatness.

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting Argentine winemaker Aurelio Montes Jr., dining with him and tasting his wine selections. Aurelio is young, passionate about life and possesses many talents. He is a former boxer, rides off-road motorcycles, jumps from planes at great heights, with more than 300 parachute jumps to his credit, and knows his way around his kitchen like a classically trained chef. A year ago, I met his father, Aurelio Montes Sr., in Manhattan. Aurelio the elder worked as a winemaker in his native Chile and began to test the boundaries of what was expected from Chilean wines. He wanted to start emphasizing quality over quantity, making single-plot, handcrafted wines. The owners of the winery weren’t happy and pink-slipped him. But Aurelio Sr. was confident he was on the right path of helping to steer Chilean wine production to a much higher plane. He found a couple of partners and built Montes Wines, which is one of the few winemaker-owned wineries in all of South America.

Aurelio the younger learned all about wine and winemaking, traveling to wineries around the world. Father and son decided to set up shop on the other side of the Andes Mountains in Argentina where they purchased an underperforming estate and began building a business plan similar to Montes Wines there. The winery is called Kaiken, named after a species of goose that treks the Andes between Chile and Argentina. This project began in 2001 with the purchase of an estate in Mendoza, the expansion of the winery and the vineyards and very scrupulous attention to detail, from bud break to bottling. Kaiken has bought many planted plots at higher elevations with some of the vines more than 100 years old.

The winery has adopted a sustainable and biodynamic philosophy in its vineyards. It has eliminated or reduced most pesticides and herbicides. Aurelio Jr. has introduced grazing animals like sheep and cows to “mow” the lanes between the vines and to help with the fertilization. Kaiken plants, prunes and harvests within the cycles of the moon and, to help in harmonizing the wine, plays Gregorian chants and chiming bells in the feng shui-ed winery and barrel aging cellar. It sounds a bit flaky, but I am seeing more and more of this and those that are attuned to the rhythms of the plants, earth and galaxy insist it makes a difference.

But, you ask, how are the wines? We tasted a Kaiken Brut, a lovely and lively sparkling wine, made in the traditional method. At 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay, it showed a fresh citrusy approach with a delicious yeastiness.  It should be in the U.S. soon and will be attractively priced around $20. The brand new 2015 Kaiken Sauvignon Blanc showed a clean minerality with a crisp, tart lemon zinginess kept in check by a hint of French oak.  Another white we tasted was the 2015 Kaiken Torrontes.  I am a fan of well-made Torrontes, largely for the surprise factor.  I know what to expect from a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, but like Riesling, every bottle of Torrontes shows a different flavor profile. Kaiken’s was aromatic and floral with notes of orange peel. Both of these wines retail for $17 and are excellent.

Next we moved on to Kaiken reds. We tasted a couple of Cabernet Sauvignons, three Malbecs and then three barrel samples of different Malbecs that will become the signature Malbec, Kaiken Mai. Sourced at 100-year-old vineyards and priced at $60, it delivers big. The 2010 is dark, deep, bold, rich and saturated, with plum and cherry flavors jumping out of the glass. Decanting this wine will show additional benefits. Most of Kaiken wines can be found in the $17 range. The 2012 Kaiken Ultra Cabernet Sauvignon shows great spice, leather and dried plums with soft and silky tannins. At $25, it overdelivers. Southern Hemisphere wines are harvested in March and April so the vintage date on the bottle is actually six months older than a Northern Hemisphere wine harvested in Septemeber. This matters especially with recent vintages.

Aurelio leaned in and said to me, “If you want to make great wine, you must add your soul to it. The time we put in, the attention to every detail — part of my soul is in every bottle.”  And that is what passion is all about.

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