Wines of the Pacific
The far coast wines of California and Chile
In November, nine Chileans and five visitors from the US convened in Casablanca for the first annual Wines of the Pacific tasting. Mariana Martinez, the editor of planetavino.com, and I worked together on organizing the event, which was sponsored by Pro|Chile.
The idea developed out of another tasting Martinez runs with a partner in Argentina: an annual Wines of the Andes competition in which tasters from both countries assess the state of the mountain wines on both sides of the Andes. When I was traveling in Chile last year, Martinez asked me to help create a parallel tasting for wines grown along the coast.
I had just met Pedro Parra, the noted geologist and viticultural guru, who was floating the idea of dividing Chile’s viticulture in a more vertical way (by longitude, focusing on proximity to the coast or to the Andes) rather than in the horizontal bars following the river valleys that have long defined the country’s growing regions. He had a strong argument for the relative consistency of soil formations and climate conditions, and the latest wines I’ve tasted in Chile support his thesis. In a sense, the far coast plays its own game of natural selection, weeding out growers who might fall prey to laziness or greed. Between the climate and the scarcity of water, yields tend to be naturally restricted. There’s no economic model for inexpensive, generic wine. The question was, is there a “Pacific” character?
I agreed to join the project, and Pro|Chile, the government’s trade commission, hired me to organize the North American side of the tasting—to invite a group of high-level tasters from the wine trade, and collect what I consider the most distinctive and delicious coastal wines from California. Martinez was charged with selecting the Chilean tasters and wines, and we were to moderate the tasting together.
We reviewed maps and researched vineyards, agreeing to keep the wines to within 10 miles of the coast, unless there was a geographic formation (such as the Petaluma Gap in Sonoma) that created an extreme coastal climate farther inland. We each selected 12 wines from our respective the far coasts. I focused my California selections on stars from our W&S tastings, along with a couple recent discoveries from my travels through Sonoma and the Central Coast.
The blind tasting, held at Viña Indomita in Chile’s Casablanca Valley, included four flights by variety, with no indication of origin or vintage. The only category without a mix of origins was sauvignon blanc, where all the selections were from Chile; in California, the economics of growing grapes on the far coast do not generally allow for planting sauvignon blanc, which tends to sell for significantly less than the other varieties featured here.
As judges, we often found it challenging to discern the provenance of the wines in any particular flight: The influence of the Pacific had a strong imprint on the wines, whether Chilean or Californian. It is also important to note that the California wines traveled by air several days before the tasting: Hometown advantage can be a significant factor in blind wine tastings.
Each panelist ranked his or her top three wines and we tallied the results to select the three favorites in each category. I’ve listed them here in alphabetical order and assembled notes on each based on comments from the panelists, adding a bit of geographic context as well.
— Joshua Greene
We found a clear Pacific influence in the freshness of these wine, a combination of ripeness and acidity that”s distinctive and delicious.
Casa Marín 2010 Lo Abarca Cipreses Sauvignon Blanc
Casa Marín is one of the most extreme far-coast sites in Chile, its vineyard blocks rising on a hillside of granite within sight of the Pacific 2.5 miles west. This wine hints of tropical fruit, litchi and lime leaf, finely balanced with satisfying flavor from aroma to finish. It’s round and complex, with both ripeness and refreshing acidity.
Montes 2011 Aconcagua Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc
Aurelio Montes planted this vineyard in 2006, on a series of hills just inland (4.5 miles) from Zapallar, the Victorian-era resort town where Chile’s rich maintain their weekend beach homes. This is the first release from the vineyard, a wine that strikes a harmonious balance between the green notes of sauvignon and the mineral influence of the coast, with scents of green peas and earthy wet stones. Clean and fresh.
Morandé 2010 Casablanca Edición Limitada Sauvignon Blanc
Pablo Morandé is the godfather of Chilean coastal wines, having planted the first vineyard in Casablanca in 1982. He helped make fresh coastal sauvignon blanc famous in Chile before experimenting with this style. It’s a wine grown at his El Ensueno estate in northwestern Casablanca, fermented and aged in 2,000-liter oak vats. One taster described this as “the most polemical of the wines,” as it takes sauvignon in a different direction, concentrated by its time in oak. Floral, with luscious white fruit and hints of minerality, this is a wine sommelier Hector Riquelme described as a “gastronomic style, a good tool for blending with food;” it also has the potential to age.
This was one of the more confusing flights, given the interaction of oak with the wines. The best of the wines showed clean fruit and sparkling fresh acidity, providing elasticity or snap back to the wine.
Errázuriz 2010 Aconcagua Wild Fermented Chardonnay
Eduardo Chadwick began this 600-acre vineyard project in 2005, in Quillota, 7.5 miles from the sea. Francisco Baett selects the fruit for this wine from 74 acres of chardonnay at the estate. Its high intensity tropical fruit and floral notes are tied to a sense of cold weather conditions by its vertical structure. Oak adds toffee and vanilla notes but doesn’t impinge on the clean fruit.
Flowers 2009 Sonoma Coast Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay
Joan and Walt Flowers planted this vineyard on a ridge two miles from the Pacific, with 21 acres of chardonnay that ripens above the fogline. The soils, once home to redwood and fir, are a combination of marine and volcanic rock. The wine strikes the sort of balance the far coast can give, between luscious fruit and freshness; oak in the background adds spice to the acidity. Full peach and orange flavors balance this chardonnay’s coastal freshness.
Gallo 2008 Sonoma Coast Two Rock Vineyard Chardonnay
The first choice of the three women on the panel, this also happens to be a personal favorite of its maker, Gina Gallo. An estate vineyard planted in 1993, Two Rock is in the Petaluma Gap right off of Highway 101. Made in stainless steel barrels (with six percent in French oak), the wine ranges in flavor from quince to raw honey, citrus and papaya. The acidity makes it feel ethereal.
The most challenging flight, with the most variation. The best of the wines showed sweet berry fruit flavors and firm, juicy acidity. They were, however, the least distinctly coastal wines.
Cono Sur 2008 Casablanca Coast 20 Barricas Pinot Noir
Freshness balances the wine’s sweet fruit, complex, earthy and warm, with enough fruit to stand up to the alcohol. This wine grows at El Triangulo, a vineyard in the eastern hills of the Casablanca Valley.
Drew 2007 Anderson Valley Monument Tree Vineyard Pinot Noir
This vineyard is 12 miles from the coast, a north-facing slope of dark shale and clay soils. Jason Drew produces this wine with some stems included, the style fruit-driven with sweet raspberry flavors. It is balanced and understated, its concentration balancing its warmth.
Littorai 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Ted Lemon blends this from the best of his press wine (declassified from his vineyard designates), as well as selected lots from far coast sources such as Platt and Hirsch. It reminded several tasters of Morgon from such top producers as Lapierre, for its electric acidity, peppery fruit-skin character and simple charm. Its fresh red fruit has an earthy tone, lending it vivacity and the backbone for aging.
While this flight was inconsistent in quality, the best wines were structured and evoked a lot of comments about cool Pacific climates.
Anthill Farms 2009 Sonoma Coast Peters Vineyard Syrah
The Peters family farms this vineyard eight miles from the Pacific on a site above the Petaluma Gap. They planted just over an acre of syrah for Anthill Farms in 2006, including 3 percent viognier. This is the second harvest. It’s a great New World syrah with scents of violets, pepper and beefy tannins. The wine has a cool-climate feel—bringing the far coast of the Atlantic to mind for one taster, who compared the cool-weather feel to caiño from Galicia.
Casas del Bosque 2010 Casablanca Pequeñas Producciones Syrah
This vineyard, in the southwestern corner of Casablanca, 11 miles from the sea, grows a syrah balanced between red and black fruit with some tarry notes. New oak structures it for now, but there’s plenty of minerality and fruit to outlive the oak.
Matetic 2008 San Antonio EQ Syrah
Grown at Matetic’s biodynamically farmed El Rosario Vineyard, ten miles from the Pacific, this wine’s complexity is based on zesty spice, from black pepper to dark Asian spices that bring hoisin to mind. Fruit brightens the wine with its fragrant blackberry notes. There are also meaty elements, the dark tone of blood sausages and bacon, along with the graphite of oak. As Vegas sommelier Lindsey Whipple notes, “You can talk to it for a long time.”
Talia Baiocchi, columnist, Eater.com and contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle
Mark Censits, proprietor, Coolvines, Princeton, NJ
Joshua Greene, editor, Wine & Spirits
Justin Hall, wine director, Bourbon Steak Miami
Lindsey Whipple, head sommelier, Cut Las Vegas; a Wine & Spirits Best New Sommelier in 2009
Roberto Carranca, enologist, Viña Indómita
Adolfo Hurtado, general manager, Viña Cono Sur
Felipe Marín, enologist, Viña Casa Marín
Mariana Martinez, editor, planetavino.com
Eduardo Moraga, journalist, El Mercurio
Pablo Morandé, director, Viña Morandé
Marcelo Pino, Mejor Sommelier de Chile 2011
Héctor Riquelme, sommelier and contributor to Descorchados
Héctor Vergara, Master Sommelier, El Mundo del Vino