Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc- Reaching Greatness

Sauvignon Blanc Vineyard of Santa Rita, Leyda Valley
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

In the July 22 edition of the New York Times, Eric Asimov contributed a column entitled, “Summer’s Background Music.” Asimov, an excellent wine writer who doesn’t take himself or his subject too seriously, wrote about the simple pleasure of South American Sauvignon Blancs (primarily offerings from Chile) and how these attractively priced wines (many less than $16) make for nice “summer sippers.”

The article is fine and it gives readers a shopping list of some very good Chilean Sauvignon Blancs, many from the cool climate areas of Casablanca and San Antonio Valleys. Yet I have to take Asimov to task a bit here for what he did not say in the article.

Basically, what many consumers will take away from this article is that Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are nice wines, but little more than summer sippers. Yes, there are many examples of well made bottlings of this type of wine from Chile that are priced between $10-15 that are ideal for lighter fare and should be consumed sooner than later. Examples of this include the Montes and Veramonte, which scored well in the paper’s tastings as well as the Santa Rita 120 (I have no idea if this was one of the 20 wines tasted or not).

But one of the most exciting developments in the wine industry over the past five to seven years has been the dramatic increase in complexity and quality of Chilean Sauvignon Blancs. In fact, Sauvignon Blancs from the Southern Hemisphere have been quite a revelation lately, especially those from New Zealand (duly noted about everywhere) and South Africa.

Vintners in Chile have taken their game to the next level over the past decade, as they have begun to search for the proper microclimates in which to plant particular varieties. In this respect, they are similar to the vintners of California in the early 1990s, when areas such as the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey and Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County were targeted for Pinot Noir; these are now two of the most sought-after areas for this variety in California. (This is just one example- there are many in California and elsewhere.)

The same is now true in Chile, as Sauvignon Blanc is now being planted in the cool zones of Casablanca, Leyda and San Antonio Valleys. These valleys are west of Santiago and thus much closer to the Pacific Ocean, meaning the hot Chilean sun that ripens the grapes is moderated by the coastal breezes. Thus an ideal mix for Sauvignon Blanc with great flavor as well as vibrant acidity.

The Casablanca examples from wineries such as Pablo Morandé, Kingston, Santa Rita and Carmen are first-rate, offering lovely melon and spearmint fruit, usually unhindered by oak. These are from excellent sites and are farmed to low yields in order to increase concentration; while these are approachable upon release, these tend to drink well for 3-5 years.

The best examples from San Antonio and Leyda are the real revelations of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, as they are quite intense and offer beautifully structured finishes and lovely complexity. These characteristics come from the fact that yields here are generally quite low (less than 3 tons per acre and often less) and that the vineyards are within five miles of the Pacific. In fact, the Sauvginon Blanc vineyards of Casa Marin are within 2 miles of the ocean; she told me that others thought she was crazy to do this, but she has persisted and has become one of the world’s great producers of Sauvignon Blancs.

The EQ from Matetic and the Casa Marin “Cipreses Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc were tasted for the Times article and did score well. It’s great that these wines were included, if only to give them some notoriety. But I think that including them in a “summer sipper” article does these wines a great injustice. I actually have to wonder why the Casa Marin “Cipreses” bottling was included, as this is anything but a light, refreshing sipper. This is an intensely flavored, assertive, layered Sauvignon Blanc with piercing acidity and a lengthy finish. I think of summer sippers as something to accompany lighter fare, such as salads or simple sautéed shrimp, while this Casa Marin bottling is big enough to stand up to halibut, sea bass and even roasted chicken or pork medallions.

Maria Luz Marin has been producing this wine since 2003 from her vineyards and the style today if anything is a touch lighter than at first (she admitted to me that the initial 2003 offering was “too much”). In fact, if one were to choose a Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc for a tasting like the Times organized, the proper choice would have been the “Laurel Vineyard” bottling, which is more fruit-oriented and less forceful than the “Cipreses,” although it is still a big, complex wine. (I wonder if Tasting Coordinator Bernard Kirsch knew this when he selected the wines for this grouping.) I also think that the relatively conservative rating of 2 and 1/2 stars for this wine had to do with the fact that it is so robust in style; after all, if you’re looking for a summer sipper, you’re bound to be thrown for a loop with a wine like this.

For my own evidence, I tasted several excellent to outstanding Chilean Sauvignon Blancs on a recent trip there. Tasting notes are below. I had tasted most of these before and had fallen in love with the overall quality and distinctive style of these wines. On this trip I also discovered a great wine from a relatively new project called Maycas, produced by Concha y Toro from grapes in the northern region of Limarí Valley. There are a few other excellent Sauvignon Blancs from here, especially Tabalí, while Santa Rita has recently planted the variety here for their Sauvignon Blanc program. The Maycas is extraordinary Sauvignon Blanc (both the 2007 and the currently available 2008) and is a steal at $21.

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

2008 Santa Rita “Medalla Real” (Valle de Leyda)
Aromas of melon, bell pepper and Bosc pear; medium-full with a beautiful texture on the palate. Very good acidity and excellent fruit persistence. Quite delicious with wonderful complexity. These vineyards are only five miles from the Pacific Ocean and are quite shallow, ensuring low yields. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($16) Excellent

2008 Carmen Reserve (Casablanca Valley)
Rich aromas of spearmint, lime and grapefruit – nice varietal intensity. Medium-full, this has beautiful acidity and a light herbal touch. Quite delicious! Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. ($16) Excellent

2008 Maycas (Limarí Valley)
Intense aromas of green pepper, asparagus and spearmint. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Rich, generous mid-palate; long finish with vibrant acidity and beautiful fruit persistence. Gorgeous wine with great varietal character. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. ($23) Outstanding

2008 Casa Marin “Laurel Vineyard” (San Antonio Valley)
Beautiful aromas of gooseberry, lime and grapefruit. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Vibrant acidity and a long, beautifully structured finish with great fruit persistence. Lovely wine with great varietal purity. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($28) Oustanding

2008 Casa Marin “Cipreses Vineyard” (San Antonio Valley)
Persistent aromas of gooseberry and bell pepper. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Vibrant acidity and a long finish with excellent fruit persistence. This is an assertive style of Sauvignon Blanc and compares favorably with many of the top Sancerres and bottlings from New Zealand. This vineyard is less than two miles from the ocean- a razor’s edge climate that provides great intensity and pronounced aromatics. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($28) Oustanding

Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc - Laurel and Cipreses Vineyards (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I also recently tasted the 2006 Cono Sur “20 Barrels” from Casablanca Valley. Offering aromas of spearmint, honeydew melon and dried yellow flowers, this has great texture and richness on the palate and is aging beautifully; it’s great now and should offer pleasure for another two years or so. There are many more wonderful Sauvignon Blancs from Chile I’m excited to try- consumers should do the same!

Finally, a note to Eric Asimov. Having read your column for some time now, I know you love Sauvignon Blanc and I've enjoyed your defense of this grape with excellent columns on Sancerre and New Zealand. I hope you’ll try more of these upper tier Sauvignon Blancs from Chile and write an article about them. I’d love to see you spread the word that these wines are certainly more then refreshing offerings for warm weather - they’re among the finest white wines made today!


  1. I agree with your comments about these wines simply being regarded as "summer sippers". In our cellar, I have several Casa Marin Los Cipreses from 2006 and 2007. The wines drink beautifully still. We also did a vertical with Matetic's EQ SB that aged well although the style of that wine has changed dramatically under the new winemaker Paula Cardenas (more aromatic, less concentration than with Rodrigo Soto, a shame in my opinion).

    Other wines to look out for Undurraga TH made by ex-Leyda Rafael Urrejola, a prodigy; Morande Ed. Ltda; Ventolera; Catrala; Casas del Bosque. Ok, I will do the list on my blog but this is a great start to pointing out that Sav. Blanc in Chile is way more than summer skin deep.

    Take care, Liz

  2. Thanks for the recommendations, Liz!

  3. Once again this goes to show the diversity of Chilean wines... from light and easy summer sippers to the sophisticated beauty of complex, long-lived whites!

  4. Other Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that I really like:

    Garuma Vineyard from Vina Leyda
    Alto Vuelo, Casablanca, from William Cole
    Floresta, Leyda, from Santa Rita
    Amaral, Leyda, this is the Leyda branch of Vina Montgras
    Amayna, San Antonio, from Vina Garces Silva
    Terrunyo, Casablanca, from Concha y Toro.

    I would like to try Errazuriz, Sauvignon Blanc from Coastal Aconcagua and the new one from Casa Silva, from Coastal Colchagua. Also, the northern stuff from Limari (Tabali Maycas) ands Elqui (Falernia).

  5. Claude:

    Yes, there are many excellent examples of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. Thanks for listing these!