Good to Great: Rethinking Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

“Good wine, great value” — that’s been Chile’s wine reputation for many years. And while this isn’t a bad thing by any means, it is a bit of a self-limiting category. “Great wines” might be a more desirable label, or maybe “great values, great wines.”  But things are changing in Chile. Is it time to rethink Chilean wine?

A Tale of Two Tastings

This post is inspired by a pair of tastings of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The first was in London at Decanter magazine’s headquarters, where a team of four experts tasted 80 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wines for a report just published in the June 2012 issue. The tasters included Peter Richards MW, Mel Jones MW, Juan Carlos Rincon and Annette Scarfe.

The second tasting, a much more casual affair, took place 4500 miles away at our house in Tacoma. Sue and I were joined by three of my University of Puget Sound “Idea of Wine” students for a tasting of wines supplied by Wines of Chile. We tasted five Sauvignon Blancs (see wine list below) that were sent to us along with three Chardonnays that we tasted separately.

I was very interested to hear what my students would have to say about these wines. Abby and Marina studied abroad in Chile, so they brought some regional focus to the group. Ky is a quintessential Millennial wine “newbie” with a refreshingly open and thoughtfully candid attitude. They were the perfect tasting team to balance the experienced Decanter experts.

Upward Trajectory

Sauvignon Blanc is an important factor in the Chilean wine industry, as this table from the Wines of Chile Strategic Plan 2020 makes clear. Sauvignon Blanc is now #2 in the export dollar league table behind Cabernet and ahead of Merlot and Chardonnay. Exports of Sauvignon Blanc almost tripled in dollar value between 2002 and 2009 — much faster growth than Cabernet, Merlot or Chardonnay. Why?

One theory is that Chile has ridden New Zealand’s wave. Certainly Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has opened doors and minds to Sauvignon Blanc, to the benefit of producers in South Africa, Chile and elsewhere.

But the Decanter tasters have a better theory: the wines themselves have improved as winemaking practices have caught up to the global “best practice” standard. Decanter’s team recommends buying the most recent vintage of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc not just for freshness but because they believe the quality of the wine making is improving every year.

That said, stuff sometimes happens and the Decanter team reported a few bottles that suffered from too much sulfur or excess acidity. We had the same problem — one of our five bottles pushed acidity to the borderline in our opinion.

Common Ground

Of the 80 wines that the Decanter team judged, two earned 5-star honors, twelve received four stars and 50 were “recommended” 3-star winners. Fifteen wines were judged “good values.” Is this a good showing?

Yes! A review of 121 Argentinean Malbecs in the same issue produced three 5-star wines, sixteen with 4-stars and 55 “recommended” 3-star wines. Twenty were declared good values.  Adjusting for the number of wines sampled, I think you’d have to declare it just about a dead heat between Argentina and Chile (a statement that is likely to provoke a response on both sides of the Andes!).

We enjoyed the wines and commented upon the French stylistic influence which made them a change from the New Zealand wines we often drink. How did they compare to the wines you drank with your homestay families in Chile, we asked Marina (upper photo) and Abby (shown with Ky in the lower photo)? We didn’t drink white wines, they both replied. Always red.

Good to Great

“At the top end, I think New Zealand is still ahead of Chile, because the experience it has counts for so much,” according to one of the Decanter reviewers. “But the very best Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are fantastic wines that can more than hold their own in a global context. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic value for money next to New Zealand, South Africa and the Loire, and that is its forte”.

Overall these wines were very good — we will certainly enjoy them with summer meals — and our ranking of individual wines matched very well to Decanter’s point scores. Yet we a little disappointed. Good, no question, but not great.

Or not yet great. If quality continues its upward trajectory, “great wines, great values” may soon be within Chilean wine’s grasp.

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Thanks to Wine of Chile for supplying wine, olive oil and spices for the tasting. Here is a list of the Sauvingon Blancs we tasted along with their U.S. suggested retail prices.

Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Colchagua Valley ($25.00)

 Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($13.99)

 Cono Sur Visión Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($14.99)

 Viña Casablanca Nimbus Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($12.99)

 Veramonte Ritual Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Casablanca Valley ($18.00)

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6 responses

  1. Mike,
    Was the first SB actually from Colchagua? That’s mostly an area for reds, so I would imagine that it lacked some acidity (natural).
    You should also check out some of the wines from the newer appellation of the Leyda Valley, it’s closer to the coast than all the other growing areas and greatly affected by the ocean.
    I always tell people that Chile is right between France and New Zealand both in style and (if you have a map of the world) location!

    cheers
    Daniel

    • Thanks for this suggestion, Daniel. And I would agree about the France/New Zealand placement.
      Yes, the first wine was from Colchagua and it was actually the wine with a bit more acidity than we wanted so perhaps it was a cellar adjustment issue.
      Cheers
      Mike

    • I was once told by a Casa Silva employee that the Casa Silva Cool Coast SB is from a vineyard very near the coast in Colchagua (on the West side of the Coastal Mountain range,) outside of the usual vineyard locations where red wine production has thrived. I haven’t been there myself, but if what I was informed is accurate, it is probably more akin to Leyda than to other areas of Colchagua.

      -CH

  2. Hi Mike,
    I liked your approach of showing the results of the Decanter tastings and the “unique” style in the way you wrote it (just to use a word very familiar to you in categorizing wines).
    Respect to the comparison of the relative performance of Chile and Argentine, I think it is very fair to say that the match (as it was a soccer game) was dead heat. I´d like to reinforce your arguments with the results I got from a recent econometric study which shows that beyond the substitution between origins (a positive cross price elasticity of demand for argentine wine exports), there is also a strong complementarity between them in terms of the final destinations of their respective exports (a clear substitution between new and old worlds wines). There is plenty of room for collaboration between both countries, specially when we talk about promotion and logistics.
    I am so convinced about this, that I am sharing our selected genetic material coming from our clonal selection of Malbec Program (which gave rise to a “unique” wine, the Tempus Alba VERO Malbec) with Chilean colleagues, on the basis of a win-win game which will only enrich the emblematic Argentine variety and will permit to express its highest oenological potential in different terroirs.
    Hope this comment if of interest to you.
    Cheers,

    Aldo

    • Thank you for this, Aldo. The on-going relationship of Argentina and Chile with respect to wine is very encouraging and your interest in collaboration is commendable. Also congratulations on the 4-star rating that VERO received from Decanter. Well deserved.!

  3. Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the review. The reason I read it was trivial: a bet with a friend. She said the best SB ever were from New Zealand, not allowing any doubt in het voice. I felt provoqued and I told her I would find a better one from a different country.

    Do you see any chance of an honourable outcome for me?
    Thank you,
    Steven

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