Chilean Sauvignon Blanc Is the Most Interesting Wine of the Year
Recently, I got an email from an American friend who lives in Chile. "I feel like I am missing the most pivotal movement in the U.S.," she wrote. "The scenes remind me of Santiago—on steroids."
I know what she means. As I participate in demonstrations sweeping the United States against structural racism and the police murders of Black Americans, I've been thinking a lot about Chile. The contexts may be different, but there's common cause in the struggle for justice, and the energy of young activists here recalls the mass protests I witnessed earlier this year in Santiago, where resisters were fighting against economic inequalities enshrined in a constitution that dates back to Pinochet, the murderous dictator that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. (Their protests had similar success to what we're witnessing here with new legislation and prosecutions against police brutality; in October, Chileans will vote on a referendum to rewrite their constitution.) The city was covered in the movement's graffiti, and nights brought marches by kids in face masks, shouting, "Free Chile! Revolution! End capitalism!" at cops in riot gear armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Read more: 7 of New Zealand's Best Sauvignon Blancs
I had come to Chile to drink wine, but wine does not exist in a vacuum, and every dinner, every tasting I had with Chileans was an opportunity to talk about politics and the need for change. There's no denying that capitalism is at the heart of winemaking, with its grand estates, its international owners, its global trade. In Chile, I visited some properties that had been founded under the neo-liberal policies of the Pinochet era. Yet, an energy has been kicked up in Chilean wine that, if not itself anti-capitalist, mirrors the country's political fervor. Chileans are in a period of awakening, including in food and wine. "It's the spirit of the new confronting the old," Rocío Marchant, a young winemaker and marketer, told me about the protests. "I think it's the same with the wine here in Chile. It's trying to do something different."
Some young winemakers are next in line to run established wineries, while others are startup bootstrappers. As a whole, they have been upturning old ways, eschewing conventional production for organic, low-intervention methods; discovering new terroirs; and forming new coalitions to market their wines.
"I think it's very important, the work this younger generation is doing," says veteran winemaker María Luz Marín, whose career spans 44 years in the industry. "They have a lot of passion, they've traveled, and I think that we have an interesting future. Chile is on the move and making a lot of noise and doing interesting things."
It may not be a revolution, but it is a transformation, and it's abetted by other contemporary events, as producers innovate in the face of COVID-19 and a climate change–induced drought. "Virtual tastings are more transparent," Sofia Araya told me when I caught up with her over Zoom. I first met Araya, 41, at Veramonte Winery, founded in the Casablanca Valley in the late 1980s. Its mall-like hospitality center sees busloads of visitors, but for now, as Chile reaches the top of its pandemic curve, Araya is holding virtual tastings for handfuls of consumers. "It's made us more approachable. You can talk to the winemaker directly very easily," she says.
Though she's worked at this establishment winery (now owned by the multinational González Byass) for a decade, Araya represents the new guard. In 2018, after helping the winery go organic, she was promoted to head winemaker. Now she's converting her 500 hectares to certified biodynamic. That's good for the environment, and it's good for the wine. "A conventionally farmed vine is a disconnected vine," she told me. "It's not reading the terroir. It's almost like having it in a pot. The soil is not rich or even alive. There's a certain balance in any biological system, and this is not in balance because it's a monoculture, so let's keep the grasses to bring the balance back."
I tasted that balance most markedly in her transporting Sauvignon Blancs. In fact, everywhere I went in Chile, the Sauvignon Blancs blew me away. The country's second-most planted grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon, used to be simple, straightforward, and boring. But as producers have pioneered plantings in cooler areas a stone's throw from the coast, up in the Andes, further south, and now, even on Chile's islands, the wines have gained layered complexity, acidic vibrancy, and textural lushness—along with serious aging potential.
Not only that, but with Chileans exploring a diversity of climates and soil types, their Sauvignon Blancs show a tremendous range of terroir-driven character. With summer upon us in North America, it's a great time to taste through them. Here are 11 to try from diverse terroirs.
2019 Veramonte Organic Sauvignon Blanc ($12)
From the Casablanca Valley's pioneering estate, Sofia Araya's everyday Sauvignon Blanc starts off with an herbaceous nose and finishes with a snappy—but not too sharp—acidity. In between, it goes down nice and easy. It's a juicy bargain for a summer brunch.
2018 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc ($17)
"We wanted to express different things besides aromatics and acid, so we started picking later and focusing on mouthfeel because that's hard to achieve here," says Sofia Araya of this lush Sauvignon Blanc from normally racy Casablanca. A portion of whole-cluster, concrete-egg fermentation, plus lees stirring on the fruit days of the biodynamic calendar, helps achieve the desired result. The touch of oak from some barrel fermenting almost evokes Chardonnay. The wine resolves, however, in the citrusy bittersweetness you expect from Sauvignon Blanc.
2017 Montes Alpha Special Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc ($40)
Grapes grown in the Leyda region less than two kilometers from the Pacific are macerated for this Sauvignon Blanc on their skins, resulting in a bit of brine on a crisp finale. On the way there, the wine gushes with peachy, lychee-like exuberance. The maceration—and the three years of age—bring a velvety mouthfeel to this bottle from Aurelio Montes, the new generation at eco-friendly Viña Montes.
2019 Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc ($14)
Aurelio Montes makes this wine using late-ripening grapes grown in Zapallar, seven clicks from the ocean, where a gap in the coast range sends chilly wind coursing in nearly around the clock. With plenty of herby pyrazines on the nose but a breezy, tropical mid-palate and an acidic punch on the finish, it's all about the freshness.
2016 Mako Sauvignon Blanc ($22)
Founded 11 years ago and now 30-some wineries strong, MOVI, or El Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, was Chile's first independent winemakers' association. Third-generation producer and MOVI member Maurizio Garibaldi launched his own label in 2013. The Casablanca grapes for this bottle spend a whopping 18 months on the lees, the wine gaining mouth-coating texture and wild, pineapple and mixed tropical fruit flavors. It's heady stuff.
2019 Lapostolle Grand Selection Sauvignon Blanc ($13)
Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, of the family that owns Grand Marnier, built an organic- and biodynamic-certified estate in the Colchagua Valley near Santa Cruz, the Chile equivalent of the town of Napa, 180 kilometers southwest of Santiago. There, her showcase winery corkscrews into the hillside for natural temperature control. Her Sauvignon Blanc is flinty and, as per her background, quite French, made with clones imported from Sancerre and a touch of Semillon. This warm-ish site yields baked apple and banana flavors and a roundness in the mouth, but with a lip-smacking acidity on the finish.
2018 LabeRinto Sauvignon Blanc ($18)
In 1998, Rafael Tirado planted Sauvignon Blanc far to the south, in the Eastern Maule Valley 1,800 feet up into the Andes foothills. There, volcanic soils and cold nights bring the "electric nervousness" he sought. The name comes from the way he planted his vines, in a labyrinthine pattern that allows him to blend many small blocks with different exposures and micro-terroirs. The wine smells like bouquet garni and tastes like smashed apples on hot dirt. It ages beautifully. Put it away and drink it in six years—if you can resist opening it.
2018 Garcés Silva Amayna Leyda Sauvignon Blanc ($26)
At this family winery in seaside Leyda, the Humboldt Current that chills the Pacific brings a diurnal swing that refreshes the grapes and slows their ripening, bringing polyphenolic complexity to the wine. Rested three months or more on the lees, this intriguing bottle smacks of dusty stones, herb gardens, and bouquets of flowers tucked into corners.
2018 Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($14)
From a family estate on the sea-blown hills of the Colchagua Valley, this stainless steel–fermented Sauvignon Blanc offers a brisk acidity, minerality blended with tropical fruit, and some New Zealand-style bitter herbaceousness. It's a classic profile for a seafood pairing.
2018 Casa Marín Cartagena Sauvignon Blanc ($11)
Chile's first woman winery owner, María Luz Marín, had a long history of winemaking behind her in 2002 when she pioneered Casa Marín in the tiny town of Lo Abarca in the San Antonio Valley. Located just a few kilometers from the Pacific, the town's cold nights yield to foggy mornings, and Marín figured the huge, crisp heads of lettuce grown in fields there reflected superior terroir for grapes. Her gamble paid off in this entry-level wine with superlative texture and earthy minerality.
2017 Casa Marín Los Cipreses Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
There are several reasons for the vigorous energy in this bottle. Firstly, the winemaker plants on slopes facing in all directions, micro-vinifying blocks for the optimum blend. Secondly, the vines are on native rootstock, so they fully respond to the terroir. Thirdly, she's responsive, too, eschewing leaf picking nowadays, for instance, so the canopy can protect the grapes from the climactic shifts that are warming to her once-chilly coast. The result is a wine with laserlike minerality that bespeaks the chalky, calcareous soil, and then yields to delicious, citrusy undertones.