New World sauvignon blanc was my hang-up. Whether the wine was from Sonoma or Marlborough, I associated the variety with the scents of green bean and grass, and developed a strong aversion to the category in general...until I recently faced down a tasting of Chilean sauvignon blanc.
I’m an avid drinker of agave spirits and have spent a fair share of time in Mexico. So when I put my nose in these glasses of sauvignon blanc, I was taken aback by scents I associate with agave—bright, fresh lime juice and a rock-salt salinity. They reminded me, frankly, of Margaritas, and I was ready to move on. Then another taster suggested that agave, lime and salinity are precisely the terroir expression of Chile’s far coast, a sunny, almost desert-dry clime scented by the mist off the Pacific. Those green tones, along with the cooling acidity did give the wines a very specific character. I needed to know more.
As it turns out, Chile’s wine regions were long ago classified into six areas from north to south, but that premise recently has been superseded by newer east-west designations that consider the topographical influences as you move from the Andes down to the Pacific: Andes, Entre Cordilleras and Costa. Traditionally, most of Chile’s vineyards have been planted against the foothills of the Andes range (the Andes region) or the hot valley below (Entre Cordilleras, or “between the mountains”). The head-turning sauvignon blancs I had been tasting came from Costa, the vineyards nearest to the coastline.
Coastal vineyards didn’t exist in Chile until 1982, when Pablo Morandé, moonlighting from his day job as chief winemaker at Concha y Toro, planted sauvignon blanc in the Casablanca Valley. It took a while for people to start to realize he was on to something: Thanks to the Humboldt Current, the Pacific Ocean is especially cold here, and the strong, cool breezes it sends inland can stress the vines. Morandé’s wines showed that, in the case of sauvignon blanc, the cool climate was a good thing, and since then, winemakers have moved out to the coast, both south to San Antonio Valley and north into coastal Aconcagua and Limarí. Major producers such as Concha y Toro and Errazuriz have planted ever closer to the ocean, and a number of smaller projects have accessed irrigation rights to plant their own far-coast vines.
In the nearby San Antonio Valley, Casa Marín farms sauvignon blanc in calcareous soils on hills hard by the sea. Located in the small town of Lo Abarca, their Cipreses Vineyard is a mere 2.5 miles from the ocean, on steep, west-facing slopes and rolling hills. Each block is harvested and fermented separately, at low temperatures, then blended into a tart and succulent wine: The grass notes are fresh and dewy, while scents of smoked nopales (prickly pears) and fresh chive take sauvignon blanc’s pyrazines in a distinctive and complex direction.
Producers continue to test the potential of vineyards along the coast, moving farther north and south. Casa Silva has been exploring Colchagua’s far-coast chalky soils for its Cool Coast wine. The Paredones Estate sauvignon offers aromas of crushed white pepper and lemon verbena that lift its flavors of prickly pear and lemongrass, pineapple and ruby grapefruit. Into the Atacama desert to the north, Tabali planted the Talinay Vineyard, a patch of white limestone that looks like the kind of soil you might find in Champagne or in the Loire. These are pure, elegant and worthy wines for both the long-time sauvignon blanc drinker and, like me, the newly converted.
Cool Coastal Sauvignon Blanc
Tasting Notes by Patricio Tapia, W&S Chilean wine critic
Grown in the cool San Antonio Valley, this is light and tight, with a firm line of acidity highlighting rich, salty minerality and citrus and herbal flavors. Ideal for oysters. (92 points, $18; Vine Connections, Sausalito, CA)
From Lo Abarca, where vines rise up limestone-and-granite hills facing the cool winds off the Pacific, Cipreses is Casa Marín’s most pointedly tense sauvignon blanc. In 2017, the herbal aromas join tropical fruit scents that speak of the warmth of the harvest. (94 points, $27; Domaine Select Wine Estates, NY)
Some of Chile’s best sauvignons are emerging from the far Colchagua coast, a region pioneered by Casa Silva at their Paredones Estate. This svelte wine offers brilliantly tart white fruit bound by lemony acidity and mineral notes. (92 points, $20; Vine Connections, Sausalito, CA)
From a vineyard planted close to the Pacific at Las Dichas, this is defined by electric tension along with mineral and citrus notes, ending deliciously spicy. A classic. (95 points, $26; Excelsior Wine & Spirits, Old Brookville, NY)
Aconcagua Costa was first planted in 2005; the vines give refreshing sauvignons, delivering a totally new dimension to the Aconcagua Valley. You can taste the cold Pacific breezes in lime, mineral and herbal notes, the citrus and salt flavors following an arrow of acidity. (92 points, $23; Vintus, Pleasantville, NY)
Sauvignon shines in Las Dichas, six miles from the Pacific, where the vines are refreshed by cold winds off the sea. This wine’s aromas are timid, but the ripe fruit flavors and the penetrating acidity compensate for that aromatic shyness. (93 points, $22; Kingston Family Vineyards, Portola Valley, CA)