When you think of Sauvignon Blanc, a few regions probably spring to mind: New Zealand’s Marlborough region, Bordeaux, Sancerre, and even California. All of these are likely to have taken root more deeply in your mind than Chile. In the past you may occasionally encountered a bottle or two of Sauvignon from this long, narrow country and been underwhelmed by the characteristics in the wines, as I have been. However, I benefited not long ago from an opportunity to reorient myself to Chile’s Sauvignon Blancs by way of a tasting of releases from 2020 and 2021, and I’m glad to report that this category now includes wines that should entice you with fresh and alluring profiles, a range of interesting styles, and excellent value.
Sauvignon Blanc is widely planted in the Chile’s Coastal Region and Central Valley zones, accounting for 40% of the white wine grapes in the country and making up 13% of all wine produced in Chile, red or white, in 2021. Since the 1990’s, acreage devoted to Sauvignon has been on the increase, and that—combined with improved vineyard and winemaking practices—bode well for the variety’s future.
The Coastal Region encompasses distinct D.O.s that sidle up to the Coastal Range, including Casablanca Valley (with sub regions Lo Ovalle, Rosario Valle and Las Dichas), San Antonio and Leyda Valley. Also included in the Coastal Region are Atacama Valley and Limari Valley that are north of Santiago – remember that in the southern hemisphere, north means closer to the equator, so generally warmer temperatures are in play in these valleys.
In the Coastal Region, two factors have a large influence on the wines. The Humboldt current runs south to north along Chile’s coastline, bringing cold ocean water from the south Pacific (think Antarctica, not Tahiti), cooling the air from the coastline as far as 50 kilometers east into the Coastal Range of mountains south of Santiago and also carrying a moisturizing fog blanket most mornings. Combining these factors with varied vineyard locations relative to the Coastal Range of mountains means that all kinds of expressions are possible. Add in the soil type differentiation found at different elevations along sloping vineyard sites and in the desert valleys…and the stylistic possibilities start seeming endless.
To apply these factors generally, you can infer that the vineyards that get the fog blanket for the better part of the day will ripen more slowly and evenly, preserving pleasant green aromas and flavors like asparagus, jalapeño and cut grass while also holding citrus fruit notes and fresh acidity. On north and/or east facing slopes, where the fog might creep in early but recede more quickly, green characteristics are tempered a bit, allowing fruit notes that are more tropical in character express themselves.
Of course, generalization doesn’t always cover the nuances that can stem from a specific micro-climate based on exposure, diurnal temperature swings, elevations, etc. A tasting of a selection of wines of the different areas bears this out, as you’ll see from my notes on seven delicious wines, running from north to south:
Ventisquero Wine Estates (Valle de Atacama, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “Grey” Longomilla Vineyard 2019
($25, Austral Wines): This comes from 350 miles north of Valparaiso. The Huasco Valley runs east/west at the 28th parallel through the Atacama Desert, so the coastal influence can rush in to the Longomilla Vineyard, which sits 14 miles east of the coastline. “Grey” means glacier, so the vineyard’s river influenced soils are calcareous, and the winery reports no rain at the site in the last 50 years. The wine is unique in profile, showing lemon, lime, green chili and sea spray aromas that translate well as palate flavors that linger through a complex finish. Some subtle wood tones add nuance. 93
Viña Tabalí (Valle de Limari, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “Talinay” 2021
($24, Biabio Cru): This wine is sourced from glacially carved limestone slopes in a desert climate just 7 or 8 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Lime zest is dominant here, with evident salinity and dried herb character that makes for quite a complex mix. The finish shows great push and harmony of all the elements. Any seafood will work here – this is very serious wine for twenty-four bucks. 94
Viña Morandé (Valle de Casablanca, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc Gran Reserva 2020
($20, International Wine & Spirits): This is a delicious wine that shows a fine balance between notes of fresh citrus, lively asparagus and grass, all giving the fruit lift without overpowering it. Aged partially in foudre, its medium-bodied, textured midpalate leads to a mouthwatering finish that pulses with full integration of flavors. It’s a serious thirst quencher, and it shows a spot-on expression of what you’d expect from Casablanca while maintaining pleasant green notes. 92
Casas del Bosque (Valle de Casablanca, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “Botanic Series, La Cantera” 2020
($18, Southern Starz): This comes from a vineyard 11 miles from the Pacific at 820 feet of elevation in red sandy loam soils. The relatively high elevation translates into significant diurnal temperature swings, which leads to the tighter style here, one more focused on minerality, with lively mixed citrus and faint green tones. This will certainly befriend a plate of oysters. 90
Matetic (Valle de Casablanca, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “EQ Coastal” 2020
($20, Quintessential): I’ve never tasted a wine that expresses the sea as clearly as this one. Its full throttle ocean aromas and flavors put the citrus and papaya notes in the background, and it seems to beg for ceviche as a partner. 87
Viña Koyle (San Antonio, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “Costa La Flor” 2021
($18, Winc): This shows a more richly-bodied style of Sauvignon Blanc, with the aromas and flavors of peach and ginger presenting as somewhat subdued and elegantly layered. Saline minerality and freshening acidity drive the finish in this soothing soloist. 20% fermented in concrete eggs. 89
Montes Wines (Valle de Leyda, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “Limited Selection” 2021
($15, Kobrand): Full-throttle asparagus aromas kick things off, and they follow through on the palate, riding a stony core and tempered by tangy lemon and a little white pepper note. It’s quite bracing, and the pineapple fruit combined with the green notes will keep your interest. 89
Viña Garcés Silva (Valle de Leyda, Chile) Sauvignon Blanc “Amayna” 2020
($25, Vine Connections): This wine shows a prominent pomelo vibe – think the floral side of grapefruit – and it works perfectly against the saline minerality and mild green chili pepper notes. Bright acidity delivers it all in layered, refreshing fashion from start to finish. Pairing wise, I’m thinking a tossed green salad with red bell pepper, grapefruit sections, and a blue cheese vinaigrette is the ticket to pleasure here. 90
A question was raised during the Zoom-based tasting of these wines, namely, how best to present these pathbreaking wines to a global audience that tends to typecast wine regions (and entire nations) to make a famously complex subject more manageable. There’s little doubt that the typecasting of Chile in export markets pegs it as a source for inexpensive, everyday wines, so the question is a good one. It is also true that most consumers have yet to think of Chile by regions rather than as a monolith. That will change gradually, but as the Coastal Region becomes better known, it won’t be easy to simplify the regional signature with Sauvignon Blanc. That is a challenge for which there is no simple or simplifying solution, but perhaps it would be best to just embrace the reality: Wine lovers often love wine because of its diversity, so what’s not to like about a region that offers interesting internal variation even with a single variety like Sauvignon Blanc?
A single case in point is only a single case, but when I poured the same set of wines for a group of six guests in the aftermath of the press tasting, the group was very favorably impressed by how differently the wines showed. Moreover, out of those six individuals, four different wines emerged as personal favorites—favored to a degree that led most of those present to photograph labels for future purchase. Based on the reactions I witnessed, I have no doubt that they will indeed buy these wines…and they might find me right next to them in the checkout line.