Behind the Bottle: Seña

The wine that brought international acclaim to its founder and put Chile on the wine map is still evolving, with a major announcement due soon, as Adam Lechmere discovers

Words by Adam Lechmere

Seña bottle shot

There’s a shrine to Seña at the headquarters of Viña Errázuriz in Aconcagua. A circular room is ranged with backlit bottles; books of hand-written encomiums from the wine dignitaries of the last 20 years sit on lecterns. Pride of place is given to a great tome recounting the history of the Berlin Tasting, the 2004 event which did for Chilean wine what the Judgement of Paris did for California.

Berlin 2004 didn’t have the drama of Paris 1976, but the fact that Seña and its sister wine Viñedo Chadwick were rated blind, by a roomful of international wine eminences, against the great wines of Bordeaux, Napa and Tuscany and found superior, certainly made the wine press sit up and take notice.

Eduardo Chadwick, the owner of Errázuriz, has repeated the tasting many times (Berlin Tasting re-runs have become something of an industry) and Seña consistently out-performs its peers. Twenty-five years after he and Robert Mondavi decided to bring Chile to the attention of the wine world, Seña is unquestionably accepted as an international icon.

eduardo chadwick of viña Errazuriz
Eduardo Chadwick: 'We finally decided on a name that means “sign”, as well as the “signature” of two families creating a great wine’

The origins of Seña

By the early 1990s, Chadwick had been running Viña Errázuriz, the winery founded by his ancestor Maximiano Errázuriz in 1870 and recently re-acquired by his father Alfonso, for a few years. He was keen to explore the possibilities of Chilean terroir and in 1991 he sought Robert Mondavi’s advice. The great Napa pioneer had launched Opus One a decade before, and he told the young Chadwick (Eduardo was then in his early 30s) that the way to put Chile on the map was to craft a wine in the classic Bordeaux tradition.

From the start, Seña was a grand experiment. Chile was emphatically not a wine country with any international profile – as Chadwick says, the most expensive Chilean wine in the UK would have been £5 at Victoria Wine. ‘When Bob came we were just trying to understand Chile. I had an idea of emulating the great estates of the world but not the full perspective of what we could do. It was Bob who saw the potential, and when he invited me to join forces it was like a dream.’

Valley floor in Seña Vineyard, Chile
Rows of vines with a backdrop of mountains at Seña Vineyard in Chile
Mondavi and Chadwick planted in the coastal Ocoa range in Aconcagua

If there was experimentation, there was also a consistency of vision. ‘From day one the concept was for a holistic approach,’ Chadwick says. The vineyard was laid out by the celebrated landscape architect Juan Grimm, the vines winding around ravines and creeks to echo the contours of the surrounding hills. The mirador that looks down on the vineyard was designed, by the architect Germán del Sol, to seem as if it had grown from the hillside itself. Hundreds of names were tried and rejected. ‘It took a year. We thought of the moon, of the land, of rocks, of symphonies. “Rocas” was one idea. We finally decided on a name that means “sign” as well as the “signature” of two families creating a great wine.’

The first vintages were well-received (Oz Clarke, writing in the current issue of Club Oenologique magazine, still rates the 1996 his favourite of the early Señas). It went down well in the US: as part of the Robert Mondavi Corporation it was sold alongside wines such as Opus One, Luce, Ornellaia and Robert Mondavi Reserve. By the early part of the new century, Chadwick was beginning to think that his wine might be ready to take its place at the high table.

The Mirador Viña Seña in Chile
Designed by Germán del Sol, the vineyard's mirador seems as if it has grown from the hillside

In 2004 – the same year that he took full control of Seña, following the sale of Robert Mondavi Corporation to Constellation Brands – he came up with the idea of a Judgement of Paris-style tasting for the 2000 and 2001 vintages, just to see if it could hold its own. The rest is history. ‘If I’d had ten wishes, not one of them would have been that it came out top. We took a risk and destiny was generous to us.’ A couple of years later Seña was taken on by the negociants of the Place de Bordeaux. Chadwick’s youthful ambition to make a fine wine that would rival the best of any country would now seem to be complete.

What goes into making Seña?

The idea was a Bordeaux blend with a difference – ‘a unique wine of the Andes’ as Chadwick calls it now. Hundreds of sites were surveyed until Mondavi and Chadwick decided on the eastern side of the coastal Ocoa range in Aconcagua for their vineyard. Seña – 45 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot – was planted in 1997; the first vintage to be sourced entirely from there is the 2005. The early vintages, 1995 and 1996, were made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère sourced from Errázuriz vines across Aconcagua, then a small percentage of Merlot was added (over the years Merlot was found to be inconsistent in quality and was discontinued, the vines replanted to Malbec).

Barrel room Seña Chile
Only a proportion of the Seña vineyard makes it into the blend

By 2000, Malbec came into the blend, and as the Seña vineyard began to be used, Chadwick and veteran winemaker Francisco Baettig settled on a blend of around 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 to 20 percent Carmenère and Malbec, and a balance of Petit Verdot and, sometimes, Cabernet Franc.

While the ties with Bordeaux have never been broken, Chadwick has gradually refined vinification to reflect the character of the terroir. ‘It was going to be a classic Bordeaux blend with Carmenère,’ he says, ‘but it became a classic Chilean blend.’ At first they used 100 percent new oak ‘because that’s what they used in Bordeaux’, but that has been reduced now to three-quarters new oak, with the rest of the maturation in huge Stockinger barrels. This is all ‘to refine the purity of Seña’, Chadwick says.

Seña bottle, navy background
For the 25th anniversary Maria Eugenia Chadwick redesigned the roundel, introducing etchings that recall artwork of Chile’s Mapuche people

How did the design come about?

The label, with its script work and artful roundel (is it supposed to echo the wax seal on a medieval charter) was created by the design department of the Robert Mondavi Corporation. Clark comments that at first there was ‘a slight element of corporate intention’ about Seña; perhaps there’s a vestige of that in the rather elaborate design. For the 25th anniversary Maria Eugenia Chadwick, Eduardo’s daughter, has removed the script work and redesigned the roundel, retaining the lapis lazuli and copper colour scheme (both elements are native to Chile) and introducing primitive etchings that recall the artwork of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people. It’s a great improvement.

Seña Vineyard gate and sign, Chile
A second Seña wine, Rocas de Seña, is planned for 2022

What’s next for Seña?

‘Today, I feel we’ve reached the core of Seña, in terms of a vineyard in full maturity and balance, and with so many trials and experiments behind us. I would never say that we have stopped evolving, but we are very happy with the blend and the vineyard as it is.’ That said, Chadwick intends to increase production. The vineyard sits in 350 hectares of unplanted land, so there is scope for expansion.

He also notes that only a proportion of the Seña vineyard makes it into the blend. The latest release, 2019, is 100,000 bottles. ‘In five years’ time I will expect to have increased by about 20 percent.’

Club Oenologique can also reveal that a second Seña wine is planned for 2022. Rocas de Seña (‘we have so many rocks, it’s part of Seña’) has been made from younger vines and is in barrel. The final blend will be decided within the next couple of months for release in September next year. ‘It will be about 20 percent the volume of Seña,’ Chadwick says. ‘Just like a classic second wine from a Bordeaux Grand Cru.’

Seña wine formats (2019)

Seña 2019, the 25th anniversary vintage, and Viñedo Chadwick 2019 have just been released by the Place de Bordeaux.