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!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Recent Pleasures

I've been working on four articles lately, so I've been a bit overwhelmed. I need a bit of a break, so this post will be a light one- just a few words about some wines I've enjoyed lately.

Cline Cellars in Sonoma has an unusual mix of wines available; instead of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (what I like to call the vanilla, choolate and strawberry of the wine industry - put them in any order you wish), they feature offerings such as Pinot Gris, Viognier, Mourvedre and some wonderful old vine Zinfandels from Contra Costa County.

Two summertime wines I tried from them recently that offer great pleasure are the 2008 Marsanne/Rousanne and the 2008 Mourvedre Rosé. The Marsanne/Rousanne is a particularly delightful wine with exotic aromas of lime, orange peel, apricot and papaya (no oak- thank you!) and it's got nice acidity which gives this wine a freshness that makes it appealing on its own or with a variety of dishes from chicken salad to Oriental cuisine. There are a lot of BYOB Thai restaurants in my hometown of Chicago (and probably a few where you live as well); this would be perfect for an occasion like this!

The rosé is one of my favorites I've had from California in some time; it's medium-full, dry and has good depth of fruit. You'll find the usual cherry and strawberry fruit flavors along with a touch of watermelon. I'd love this with salmon or perhaps as a contrast to grilled chicken. Both of these offerings from Cline retail for $16 and are ideal summertime wines.

A different type of summertime wine is the 2007 Colle Massari "Melacce," a white wine made entirely from the Vermentino grape. This variety is grown primarily in Sardinia and Tuscany; this particular example is from the Montecucco area near Montalcino in south central Tuscany. It's a lovely dry white with no oak and aromas of red apple, quince and even a touch of sweet pea. 2007 was a superb vintage and this wine still has a lot of freshness. This is ideal with most seafood, especially shellfish, but would also work well with risotto. At $21, this is a wonderful value. 

Finally from South Africa comes the 2008 Sauvignon Republic Sauvignon Blanc. This wine project, headed by a few friends in northern California (including Chef John Ash and winemaker John Buechsenstein) produces three different Sauvignon Blancs each year from various sites around the world; these are from Russian River Valley in Sonoma, Marlborough from New Zealand and this one from Stellenbosch from South Africa. (They have recently added another Sauvignon Blanc from Potter Valley in Mendocino County.)

The South African bottling is my favorite of the 2008s from this producer. It's got beautiful aromas of gooseberry (classic for cool climate Sauvignon Blancs), lime and yellow pepper; it's medium-full, delicious and quite rich in the finish with excellent acidity. This is a wonderful example of a Sauvignon Blanc that combines pure varietal fruit with just the right touch of herbal characteristics. I can think of dozens of food pairings for this, from grilled shrimp to ceviché to mussels in their own broth. Best of all, this is a great value at $18!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Check these out!

A few recommended new posts from my blogging brothers and sisters out there:

At Eat Wine, Liz Caskey, an American who now lives in Chile, normally addresses local foods and wines. Her new post (read here) is about three wines that her husband and she recently enjoyed. They include a gorgeous Maipo red, as well as a lovely Albariño from Uruguay (a surprise to many of us, but not to Liz) and a beautiful Ribera del Duero from Spain. Nice descriptions of the wines as well as some excellent food recommendations.

At The Blend, Alonso Cevola addresses a timely issue - some great rosés for summer (read here). This one's all about Italian rosés, from Piedmont to Sicily and there are got some great choices, including the 2008 Centine from Banfi. Alfonso, I've got a bottle at home and based on your recommendation, I'll try it tonight!

At The Wine Camp Blog, Craig Camp discusses his thoughts on all the new wine blogs out there and finds that it's a good thing! This one's about a month old, but it's definitely worth looking into (read here.)

Finally at, Jeremy Parzen has posted his translation of a letter from the Consorzio in Alba that promotes Barolo and Barbaresco. The letter was sent to my friend (and Jeremy's blogging partner) Franco Ziliani in Italy; it has to do with a defense of the 2006 vintage in the Langhe. As influential producer Bruno Giacosa is not bottling any Barolo or Barbaresco from the 2006 vintage, doubts have been raised about the vintage. You can read the letter here; this is a fascinating issue that may not go away for awhile. I can attest to dozens of very good to excellent examples of Barbaresco from 2006 that I tasted in May in Alba (I'll taste the 2006 Barolos next year).

Falletto Vineyard of Bruno Giacosa, Serralunga d'Alba
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

We may never know the complete story as to why Bruno Giacosa made the decision not to bottle his 2006 Barolo or Barbaresco (he did bottle his 2006 Barbera and Nebbiolo d'Alba), but I see no reason for speculating on it- what's done is done. It is a shame that some "journalists" out there have put their own spin on this by claiming that this is a clear message that 2006 was not a succesful vintage in the Langhe. It was indeed - just try the wines! Kudos to Franco and Jeremy for reporting on this!

If you want to read more about the 2006 vintage in the Langhe, Franco Ziliani has just written an article for the Association of Italian Sommeliers site (read here).

This is an excellent article (in Italian) with comments from several producers of Barolo and Barbaresco. A few excerpts: Sergio Barale, a first-rate Barolo producer speaks of "the beautiful structure and color" of his 2006 Barolos and Barbaresco. Maurizio Giacosa of Fratelli Giacosa in Neive, talks about the aging potential of his 2006 Barbaresco, mentioning that they "are not inferior to his 2004 or 2005." Tino Colla of Poerdi Colla says that "2006 is in line with the two years that preceded it and with the two following years." In other words, 2006 is an excellent vintage!

A typicallly excellent article from Franco Ziliani and one that should clear up confusion about the quality of the 2006 Barolos and Barbarescos. Grazie, Franco!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tuscan Wine Reviews

Andrea Cortonesi, owner/winemaker, Uccelliera, Montalcino
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)


Earlier this year, I visited several of the major wine zones of Tuscany, from Chianti Classico and Montepulciano ot Montalcino and Bolgheri. I have just put together a collection of my reviews of the latest wines from Tuscany. These reviews can be found in a special Tuscan issue of my newsletter, Guide to Italian Wines; this is a 30-page pdf document. This issue contains reviews of 50 different Brunellos from the 2004 vintage, as well as reviews of wines from six different estates in Bolgheri (including three vintages of Sassicaia), as well as 40 new bottlings of Chianti Classico, a dozen examples of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and even a couple newly released bottlings of Vin Santo.

The price for this special issue is only $10 US. I will mail the issue to you upon payment (either check or Paypal), so if you are interested, please email me and I will reply with payment instructions. This is a must for a Tuscan wine lover!