A Sense of the Sea - Wine & Spirits Magazine

A Sense of the Sea

illustrations by Mike Hirshon

Less than two decades ago, sheep grazed among the thorn trees of the Leyda Valley, on gentle coastal hills west of Santiago. For the people of Chile’s capitol, it was a place to drive through on the way to the coast, where many built houses in the seaside town of Santo Domingo.

These sleepy hills began a radical transformation in 1998, when the agricultural entrepreneur Luis Alberto Fernández connected the Maipo River to an irrigation system for his vineyards—at his estate that would become Viña Leyda.

In the context of Chilean wine, Leyda was not a novelty. Pablo Morandé had planted Chile’s first coastal vineyards in Casablanca in 1982. By the time Fernández started planting vines in Leyda, nobody treated him as insane, as they had Morandé.

But while both Casablanca and Leyda are considered cool areas in Chile, the differences between them are important. Leyda runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean, at an average distance of eight miles across the valley. Because of this, it receives the direct and constant influence of the sea, with cool breezes throughout the day. Casablanca runs west to east, a valley within the coastal range, so only the westernmost portion is strongly influenced by the sea. That western district produces the best of Casablanca’s whites.

Leyda’s proximity to the Pacific, along with its soils of granite and clay, have proven well suited to sauvignon blanc. Today, the variety makes up close to half of the 5,000 acres of vineyards planted. And the majority of the wines hew to a style that is vibrant, rich in acidity and refreshing in herbal and citrus notes. It’s in this style that Viña Leyda excels—particularly with Lot 4.

Lot 4 is a 3.7-acre vineyard planted in 2008, on an east-facing slope, protected from the afternoon sun. The wine is herbal and citric, its grassy tones set off against its soft, creamy texture, supported by strong acidity. It’s a record of the cool morning sun, sea breezes and granitic soils.

Lot 4 represents the paradigm in Leyda sauvignon, a style in sync with other vineyards in the valley farmed by Undurraga, San Pedro and Montgras, among others. Amayna takes its sauvignon in a totally different direction, focused on getting the maximum maturity of the grapes and the nuances of extensive oak aging.

While the wine-growing traditions of Leyda are still taking shape, the sauvignon’s style falls under the influence of the Port of San Antonio, where croaker, sea urchin, sole and other specialties from the Pacific make landfall. It’s in the company of this intensely flavored, rich seafood from the cold ocean waters that Leyda sauvignon, whether oaked or not, truly comes into its own—a classic combination with a distinctly local accent.

Leyda: Can You Taste It?

“Veramonte was the first Chilean sauvignon I ever tasted, some ten years ago,” says Sarah Looper, most recently of Mas [farmhouse] in NYC. “It was so fruity, so accessible.” Veramonte grows in eastern Casablanca, on the inland side of the coastal region. The sauvignon blancs from Leyda, close to the Pacific coast, south of Casablanca, are different. “None of these have that passion fruit intensity,” Looper notes. Mariko Kobayashi, of Vintry Fine Wines, agrees. “It’s not Loire, and it’s not New Zealand. ‘Restrained’ is the word I kept using.”

Josh Greene, who’s been traveling regularly to Chile since the 1980s, points out that the Chileans themselves have positioned their sauvignon in the middle, “between Sancerre and New Zealand.” The marker he looks for in sauvignon from the granitic hills of Chile’s far coast is grapefruit. “No passion fruit,” he says, as that would likely be from a warmer climate accentuated by selected yeasts.

“There’s a purity to the best wines. It’s so easy to grow fruit in Chile; the coast adds a more challenging dimension. If they can just take the fruit and make it into wine, you get this very pure wine.” That’s what we were looking for as we tasted through the following batch of top Leyda sauvignons. —Tara Q. Thomas

Leyda 2014 Leyda Lot 4 Sauvignon Blanc
Mundo Vino/The Winebow Group, NY

The panel agreed with Tapia that the cool vineyard site for Lot 4 created the most distinctive wine in the tasting. “It’s really white-grapefruity,” says Kobayashi. “While it’s lacking the iodine and salinity I’d expect,” says Looper, “it’s clean and fresh. It’s not as hot or thick as New Zealand sauvignon, but has plenty of fresh, peppery flavor mixed with white grapefruit. There’s none of that jalapeño jam.” The wine feels complete and very much of a place—even to those tasters who’ve never been to that place.

Santa Rita 2014 Leyda Floresta Sauvignon Blanc
Palm Bay Int’l., Port Washington, NY

Andres Ilabaca develops the complexity in this wine through different winemaking regimes: For 40 percent of the wine, he presses whole bunches and ferments it spontaneously; for the other 60 percent, he keeps the free run juice separate from the press wine, and blends it to taste. He ferments 40 percent in barrel, and ages that lot in barrel for six months. The result is a sauvignon with an almost oily intensity of flavor that pads the wine’s acidity, while maintaining a restrained fruit profile.

San Pedro 2014 Leyda 1865 Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
Shaw-Ross Int’l., Miami, FL

This comes from Las Gaviotas, a new vineyard 2.5 miles off the coast, the closest vineyard to the sea in Leyda. Of the wines in this flight, the 2014, from a warm vintage, comes closest to a New Zealand style in its ripe, round, limey flavors, yet it has a distinctly spicy, peppery acidity that keeps the flavors buoyant. It’s an intense style. “If you think of the wines with the seafood you get in Chile—the scallops, crab, sea urchin or the pico rocos,” Greene says, referring to the local barnacles, “then this style of sauvignon makes sense.”

“It makes me wonder if they’ve tried growing any sylvaner or Müller-Thurgau; I like both of them on granite. It might be really interesting to see what other possibilities there are.” —Sarah Looper
Undurraga 2013 Leyda TH Sauvignon Blanc
Testa Wines of the World, Oyster Bay, NY

Undurraga makes three sauvignons; the Leyda bottling is part of the Terroir Hunter series, which explores Chile’s lesser-known areas. Grown on granite soils close to Viña Leyda, this wine is the most herbal of the bunch, although not exceedingly so; “everything is in the middle,” Kobayashi comments, the herb notes balanced by the Leyda hallmarks of grapefruit and peppery spice. The overall feeling is cool and fresh, a wine for seafood from the cold waters of Chile’s coast.

Amayna 2009 Leyda Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc
Vine Connections, Sausalito, CA

The Garcés Silva family began planting vineyards in Leyda in 1999, seven to eight miles from the ocean. Their first vintage of Amayna was 2003. As Tapia points out in his story, Amayna takes a totally different approach to Leyda with this ultra-ripe, buttery, barrel-fermented sauvignon. The wine is as golden in flavor as its color suggests. “This is reminiscent of the older style of Chilean whites,” Greene says, “full, rich, ripe and oaky.” Despite the richness, the coolness of Leyda’s climate shows through in the wine’s strong acidity.

This story was featured in W&S Fall 2015.
illustrations by Mike Hirshon

is the author of Descorchados, an annual guide to the wines of South America, and covers Chile for W&S.

This story appears in the print issue of fal 2015.
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